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“Language and Masala of your Cuisine binds you – Religious bonds cause divide”.

September 18, 2020

From footnotes to the header

The two-part Dorabji Tata piece to commemorate his 161st birth anniversary is beginning to yield a dividend. From the footnotes, Dr. R.D. Samarth (RDS) moves to the centre-stage! He literally represents the third generation of the Company, after Dorabji. The beginning of an end of the golden era of a unique institution, as it transitioned from nationalism to nationalisation.

It is a thrilling story which brings at times tears and at times a feeling of pride. I had this experience during my assignments in Lagos, Lusaka, Mauritius, and Port of Spain.

One of its many ‘maverickian’ elements also contributed to its greatness – by following its people rather than the flag! They were quite an assortment. Indentured – who began moving up the social ladder, traders – of whom some took to manufacturing, and fresh settlers. RDS spent much of his working life in New India’s foreign service. To capture his sense of nostalgia, It is a thrilling story which brings at times tears and at times a feeling of pride. I had this experience during my assignments in Lagos, Lusaka, Mauritius, and Port of Spain.

Unpeeling the institutional memory

Coming from the frontlines of this dynamic theatre, he is a repository of stories – in the classic oral tradition. As a protagonist, he is the company’s voice from its glorious past – regrettably many known and unknown have been long lost in the mists of time. They, like him, were a part of the Dorabji dream touching the lives of ordinary people putting in extraordinary effort to make their mark in the distant lands.

The dividend came in the form of the nonagenarian’s response to the Dorabji story. In unpeeling the institutional memory, RDS allows us glimpses into the building blocks of greatness. The mind is sharp, it is the fingers that occasionally hit the other key – as he valiantly ‘narrates’ it all to the keyboard!

Overseas Indian enterprise in Mauritius and the West Indies emerged from the capacity of survival of Indian labour. Enterprises in East Africa emerged from the commercial DNA of Gujarati community to survive patiently in times of financial strain. While those in West Africa were a sheer by-product of commercial adventure – seen in the spirit of Sindhi community.

Overseas Indian enterprise in Mauritius and the West Indies emerged from the capacity of survival of Indian labour. Enterprises in East Africa emerged from the commercial DNA of Gujarati community to survive patiently in times of financial strain. While those in West Africa were a sheer by-product of commercial adventure – seen in the spirit of Sindhi community. It is now the anthropologist in him that takes over!

What was brewing in the melting pot?

“There was no mix up cultures amongst the Indo-Mauritians. Biharis, Tamils and Marathees retained their identity. In the West Indies – Biharis were dominant and retained their culture but lost their language. In Suriname majority was from Uttar Pradesh. They retained their language and culture including wearing the dhoti”.

“It was an interesting experience for us that Marathi language was retained by Marathi Muslims who settled in South & North Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). There was a school to teach Marathi in Bulawayo. When news spread of our arrival in Central Africa – we got bottles of pickles and masala. Issues of Kirloskar came from the Konkani Muslim families. We were pleasantly surprised when a young Muslim commercial traveller from Durban told us about his grandfather being an agent for Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Kesari. Our Marathi Muslim friends looked after us like members of family during our stay in Zambia”.

When news spread of our arrival in Central Africa – we got bottles of pickles and masala. Issues of Kirloskar came from the Konkani Muslim families. We were pleasantly surprised when a young Muslim commercial traveller from Durban told us about his grandfather being an agent for Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Kesari.

“Then there was this Tejpal, our agent from Mangalore. He made exceptionally good success as employee of the Tea estate. Many members of his family came for work to Nyasaland (Malawi today). They were particularly good sportsmen. The Blantyre Club of Indian community was reputed for Cricket. In spite of the racial problems in Central Africa, Blantyre Indian Cricket team was participating in the tournaments in Salisbury and were supported by Indian Rhodesians”.

The Truths We Hold: Senator Kamala Harris’s African connection is longer than generally believed!

“Your communication on NIA’s global operation motivates me to share with you and all dear friends some interesting news about our relationship with the likely Vice President of USA”. And he lets out to me yet another truth he holds!

“Her Grandfather for whom she has affection – Mr. Gopalan was posted in Lusaka as a UNDP advisor for newly formed Government of Zambia. Since I had been resident of Lusaka from 1962 to start our operation in then Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland, I had the role of assisting Indians coming to Zambia. Gopalan’s family thus developed intimate relations with us. Kamala’s mother was then in the USA. Her aunt Sarala was in Lusaka. Gopalan was an exceptionally fine gentle person and we had a very enjoyable association for 4 years when we left for Mauritius. He was a very good bridge player and his weakness or pleasure was tobacco. My special duty was to supply him tobacco from Malawi”.

Her Grandfather for whom she has affection – Mr. Gopalan – was posted in Lusaka as a UNDP advisor for newly formed Government of Zambia... Gopalan’s family thus developed intimate relations with us. Kamala’s mother was then in the USA.

And how can I give Hong Kong a miss, where I followed him after a decade and half. This was RDS’s last foreign stint. Walking past 50 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon for the first time – my colleague WY Lee pointed at the Holiday Inn and informed it had an Indian owner by name Harilela. Hari Harilela (now late) best known as HK’s richest Indian started as a young tailor. Stitching suits for the American GIs during the Vietnam war. Two privileges came as the country head in HK – an annual invitation to a Diwali party at his lavish Kowloon Tong mansion and a share of business in all his annual insurances. “How is my friend Mr. Samarth?”, is how our first conversation commenced! I need to confirm with RDS whether it was bridge that bonded him with Harilela, as well. His fan following did not stop there.

My friendship with JRD and Russi Lala was the outcome of my article on Dorab TataRussi phoned to tell me that not only did he like it but JRD too is very pleased... My response to him was that if JRD liked it then I have a request – that he should accept our invitation for lunch.

And what bridged him to the Bombay House? “I  would like to tell you that my friendship with JRD and Russi Lala was the outcome of my article on  Dorab Tata in the NIA house journal ‘The Vision’. I described him as the pioneer  of Scientific Humanism in India. Russi phoned to tell me that not only did he like it but JRD too is very pleased. My response to him was that if JRD liked it then I have a request – that he should accept our invitation for lunch. The one and only memorable visit, since the nationalisation in 1972, emerged from this dialogue”.

First, my name is pronounced “comma-la,” like the punctuation mark. It means “lotus flower,” which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom”. How poetic! This is the closest she gets to her Indian origin, in the best selling biography. Should we read too much in her Indianness? Perhaps not, sound experts!

Whether the company would wish to leverage this and attempt an entry into the US is not the moot point. RDS has deep dived into forgotten waters and presented an invaluable pearl straight from the depths of its institutional memory. Such magical moments can make any vision happen. Any takers for the unfulfilled Dorabji legacy?

Thank you, Dr. Samarth! Yeh Dil Maange More!!!

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2 Comments
  1. V Raghunathan permalink

    Most informative, absorbing and topical! Keep op the good work Praveen!

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