Of love and longing for India: a French woman’s journey

January 20th, 2011 - 11:12 am ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Singh
New Delhi, Jan 20 (IANS) Christelle Gourdine, a French national of Guadeloupean and Indian origin, has been fascinated by her Indian roots for many years. But she is surprised and saddened that not many know about the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe’s Indian connection.Christelle was born in France.

“People (in France) are surprised when I reply that I am from Guadeloupe. They have never heard about those Indian workers who came to save the colonies after slavery was abolished. How could they know if we don’t know from where we are and don’t tell them proudly our story? How could they know if, even in India, people don’t know about us?” Christelle says.

Guadeloupe is a group of islands in the Caribbean and is an overseas territory of France. Christelle’s parents were part of the 55,000-strong Indian community in Guadeloupe - just over 10 percent of the population - till they moved to mainland France.

Christelle, who works with a major French bank, is currently writing a book to explain the Indian presence in Guadeloupe and to relate their links with India.

For her, it was the sound of the drums - the dholaks and nagaras - being played during festivities in Guadeloupe that triggered her interest and made her aware of her Indian origins.

She visited India for the first time six years ago and has been back 14 times since then. Her last trip took her to places like Mumbai, Mysore, cities in Gujarat, Varanasi and Delhi to try and find out more about her ancestors.

Christelle travelled for five months in India to find emigration documents and her village of origin. She had done research in Guadeloupe on her family tree but could not find the immigration documents of her ancestors. Much of the archival material of that period was lost or destroyed by the authorities.

“I was deeply disappointed when I could not find any links to my ancestors in India despite travelling to so many places. Finally, I went to Varanasi to do a last ritual for my ancestors. But when I took a dip in the Ganga, I had an intensely emotional moment - it changed the way I felt.

“I decided to write a book about my ancestry, my search and the story about Indians in Guadeloupe. It is a story that deserves to be written so that we know about our heritage,” Christelle explains.

After slavery was abolished in French territories in 1848, the French planters in Guadeloupe decided to import workers from India after the good results they had seen in Reunion Island, the French territory in the Indian Ocean. From 1854 to 1889, 42,326 Indian workers were taken in 93 ships to Guadeloupe.

Return from Guadeloupe was practically impossible. The French authorities felt it was too expensive to ship the workers back and so used various means to prevent their return.

Indians were forced to give up their culture, tradition, language as well as their religion. Many resisted and tried to maintain their rituals and traditions in secret. The Indian workers were not well accepted by the rest of the population and could become French citizens only in 1923 after a long political struggle.

“It is only in 2004 that France heard a little bit about us when Guadeloupe organised a series of events to commemorate 150 years of Indian presence. But more than that, it was an opportunity for Guadeloupean people to know more about this community, also for Indians to know more about their culture.

“In the past, there was a kind of shame, a feeling of inferiority among the Indian people. What they could see about India on TV could not make them feel proud. But after a few great Bollywood movies, the success of Lakshmi Mittal with Arcelor (Mittal Steel’s acquisition of French steel giant Acelor), it has changed. There is a pride, there is a feel of belonging,” explains Christelle.

“From visiting my family in Guadeloupe regularly since childhood, I am aware of the connection to India. I felt French, Guadeloupean and Indian. I am proud to have Indian origins.”

But now Christelle feels an urgent need to be officially recognised as a Person of Indian Origin (PIO). She has made a special request to the Indian government to accept other documents like marriage and death certificates to prove her ancestors’ Indian origins.

Christelle is hopeful of a positive response as she is keen on “recognition of my Indian origins”.

(Shubha Singh can be contacted at shubhasingh101@gmail.com)

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