Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rootless Indians and clueless officials

Snippets from the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held at Kochi 

Photo: Dr. Danielle Moutoucomarapoule

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the registration tent of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas at the Le Meridien, Kochi, there are all sorts of people milling around. One of them is perhaps the oldest. He is the 87-year old S. Mohinder Singh Bhullar. “I emigrated from Punjab 62 years ago,” he says. Bhullar is a citizen of Brunei and has a booming business in carpets. He is also the President of the Lion's Club of Brunei, and has received the Pingat Indah Kerja Baik or Meritorious Service Medal from Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah

"I have come to the event to meet other Indians and to get a feel of what is happening in the country,” he says. “I already have made some investments in Delhi and Chandigarh.” Interestingly, Bhullar carries a portable chair, so that he can rest as and when he feels tired.

Another person who has come to meet other Indians is Dr. Danielle Moutoucomarapoule. She has come from the French-controlled island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. “You have heard of it?” she says, looking amazed at a guest. “My forefathers migrated from Tamil Nadu or Kerala or Kolkata. A cousin of mine is trying to trace our roots.” 

Danielle speaks in French and a smattering of English and shows a maroon-coloured passport. “I am a citizen of France,” she says. “I came to the Divas meet so that I can meet others who look like me. There are so few Indians in Reunion.”

Jestin Raj Savarimuthu is another whose ancestors migrated to Malaysia more than hundred years ago. Today, he is a government official who has come to see the possibilities of investments and cultural interactions between the two countries. “Kochi is a busy city with a high density of population,” he says. “But I only see Indians here. In Malaysia, there are Malays, Chinese, and Indians in large numbers.”

At the registration tent, there are different types of stalls: Paid/Unpaid Delegates/On the Spot Registration/Pre PBD Seminar Registration/Govt. Officials/Sponsors and GOPIO. The man manning this stall does not know what it stands for. The members at the Media Registration Centre are equally clueless. Assistant Executive Sunil S. Pai at the help desk of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry pleads helplessness. But he runs to an official who says he does not know. Another one gives the same answer.

Finally, a tall, patrician-looking gentleman says, “GOPIO? Well, the first 'O' definitely stands for Organisation.” He frowns and suddenly it comes out in a rush: Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin. It is a New-York based outfit whose stated objective is to enhance cooperation and communication between Indians living in different countries. No surprises therefore about their presence in Kochi. 
In a crowd of formally dressed businessmen, in suits and polished leather shoes, one man stands out in his saffron juba top and dhoti, with a beaded necklace around his neck and sandal paste on his forehead. He is Swamiji Thampuran who has come from Sathyamangalam in Erode district. He wants to make a structure for universal harmony. “This will contain a church, a mosque and a temple,” he says. “I have come to Pravasi Bharatiya Devas to obtain funds.”
As he talks, a woman rushed up and embraces the Swamiji. “You have a wonderful aura,” she says. Swamiji, can you bless me?”
The monk places his palm on her head and says a prayer. Thereafter, she looks up, and says, with a bright smile, “Now I am cured. Now will my enemies stay away from me?”
The Swamiji smiles and says, “Don’t worry.”
This is Rini Johar, who has a doctorate in health science, and lives in California. “I have come to sensitise the NRI’s about the abuse that South Asian women face in America and all over the world.” On her website,, she writes, “We teach victims of domestic violence and all women of color to live with respect and dignity.”  
Meanwhile, in a rare instance, the sweltering heat of Kochi receives a thumbs-up. One businessman tells another, “The moment I landed in Kochi and saw that the temperate was 26 degrees [Celsius], I was so happy,” he says. “Can you believe that it is 2 degrees in Delhi now. We are shivering there. Now I understand why foreigners come to India and throw themselves into the sunlight.”
The other businessman, all smiles, reaches out for a tried and tested cliché. “My dear friend, the grass is greener on the other side,” he says. “Ask the local people and I am sure they will say the weather is too hot.”
The stall of the National Institute of Fashion Technology at the exhibition centre wants to convince prospective students that the grass is greener. “We have a quota of 325 seats for NRIs,” says Dr. Sibichan K. Mathew, Head (Industry and Alumni Affairs). “We are targeting the children of Indians who lare iving in the Gulf. In those countries, there are no advanced courses.” The NIFT has courses in fashion, leather, accessory, textile and knitwear design. “You can get a masters in design, or fashion technology or fashion management,” says Mathews Abraham, Associate Professor, at NIFT, Chennai. “Quite a few people have shown interest.”
A stall of a well known national television channel is also receiving a lot of interest because of a clever marketing strategy. Sit on a sofa and get a photograph taken. This will be put on a 2013 calendar which you can take home. “All sorts of people have taken pictures,” says a channel employee. “They include doctors, CEOs, foreign delegates and a state minister.” It is interesting to look at the calendars placed on the table. Some have glum faces. Some radiate power and confidence. Some look sheepish and quite a few look happy: to be alive and maybe to be in God’s Own Country.

Captain Mike Patel stands out, clad in black shirt and trousers, and there is a glittering ‘Airbus’ logo just above the pocket. “Yes, I am a test delivery pilot of the Toulouse-based Airbus Industrie,” he says. “This means, I deliver the planes when it is ready to be given to the buyer.” His latest delivery is the A-380, which costs a whopping $250 million. “I took a plane to Dubai because the Emirates had placed an order for 50 and we were giving them the 12th plane.”

Of course, the latest planes have the ‘fly-by-wire’, system. “This means that everything is computerised and the plane flies by itself,” says Mike. “I only intervene when a problem arises.”

Based in London, Mike has been with Airbus for the past ten years. But the reason he has come to the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is because he is a proponent of tantric sex. “When you have sex, you experience a second of bliss,” he says. “I can enable you to prolong that state. The mind and body has to be in tune with nature. You have to awaken the chakras, and you need to do yoga and meditation.” Unusually, he has three thousand followers in the Ukraine. “I trained one man and they came one after the other,” he says with a wide smile.   

Saroja Raja Gopal is at the opposite end of the spectrum. She is flipping through a photo book on Mahatma Gandhi at the Timeless Mahatma Trust stall. “For me, Gandhiji means ahimsa,” she says. “The way he fought for the Independence of India was unique.”

She says that as a party member of the Malaysian Indian Congress, they follow his principles. “Our party represents the Indian community but we are all very happy in Malaysia,” says the Kuala Lumpur-based activist. “Although there will be people who will tell you that we are having a bad time, but I don’t agree.”

At the Pravasi, Saroja, whose grandparents migrated from Thanjavur decades ago, says she is very happy to meet Indians from all over the world. “It has been a great experience,” she says.  

The portly Ram Chander is wearing a khaki uniform but with an unusual tag: ‘United Fire Services’.  He is a supervisor of a private organisation who has come all the way from Delhi with a team of six. The aim: to ensure that the 28,000 sq. ft. exhibition centre at the Pravasi Bharatiya Devas is fire-safe. “My men are wandering around all over keeping a sharp watch,” he says. “If a spark can be immediately extinguished, it will avert a major fire.”

So they have fire extinguishers, a white powder which can be thrown onto the spark, and carbon dioxide foam.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

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