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The East Indians

Posted on Jan 26 2014 | IBNS

They do not live in the eastern part of India, they never had. Yet, they are called East Indians. Their way of life is now under threat due to various pressures as documentary filmmaker Vaidehi Chitre portrays in 'Bottle Masala in Moile'. Shoma A. Chatterji reports.

The East Indians, a misnomer as they live in western part of India, are a small ethnic group whose very existence is threatened today by power brokers, real estate dealers, promoters. Vaidehi Chitre's Bottle Masala in Moile is an insightful ethnological documentary that questions these thorny issues affecting the community.

Bottle Masala in Moile has won the Best Short Documentary Award, 10th Jeevika Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival, 2013, Bronze Remi Award, Houston International Film Festival, 2013, to name a few.

Descendants of the indigenous people of Mumbai, the East Indian community originated from diverse local groups such as farmers, fishermen, toddy tappers, salt pan workers, etc. Several of them are also land-owners cum farmers.

Today, the community finds itself rapidly losing land to government and real estate developers. For the community as a whole, this has meant losing a valuable connection with the soil to which their culture is tied to- the 'story of us'. For those in the rural areas it means a threat to their livelihood.

Recalls Chitre, "In 2009 I was researching for a land and community film concerning Mumbai suburbs- Bandra specifically. That's when I came across a report on Gaothan hamlet and the Dharavi island movement. The East Indian community emerged as the common thread." As someone who spent long years in Mumbai in the past, she could 'see' the absences and disappearances quite clearly. "Moreover, oral history and the ways in which it addresses absence and memory have interested me for some time," she says.

Chitre met Prem Moraes who founded a community website in 2004. "You will find no mention of the East Indian Catholics in any history or geography book but they do exist. So, I decided to start this website to inform, educate and enlighten everyone that we are alive and struggling to sustain our ethnic culture, our home and our existence," he told her.

There are many versions of the history of East Indians original inhabitants of Mumbai, Salsette and Thane. Whether they are converts from the Sixth century or 15th Century is hotly debated. However, there is no dispute about two apostles of Jesus, St. Bartholomew and St. Thomas having come to India and both having preached near Kalyan. While the world recognises South India to be converts of St. Thomas, hardly anyone recognises and accepts the existence of East Indians. There is a perpetual doubt if they "carried on" being Christians till the arrival of the Portuguese.

Father Larry Pereira, a church historian, says, "The word East Indian was officially adopted by the community elders way back in 1887 during the Golden Jubilee is Queen Victoria. Interestingly, though their origins are traced back to the Portuguese, they decided to throw their lot with the British rather than the Portuguese whose importance was fading by that time." He adds that the original inhabitants were from north Mumbai, Vasai and the Mumbai region, but later others of the Catholic faith who had embraced it from the Portuguese came from north Konkan and Goa.

Their common language varies between English, Marathi or Konkani. Their cuisine is dominated by fish dishes as they live in the coastal areas, dotted with small churches and their spices. In fact, Chitre's film borrows its title from the famous bottle masala mandatory in many East Indian recipes. It is a home-made mixture of 22 grains and spices that works like magic for them. It is now used across Mumbai. Moile is a unique fish curry that cannot be made without this masala.

A big slice of the East Indian community has migrated to other places and abroad because of the forced decline in fishing activities, a major source of income. The sea-face has changed due to wrong implementation of reclamation of land and multi-storeyed constructions coming up in violation of environment laws.

Lourdes D'Souza, secretary, Dharavi Bet Bachao Samiti, says that ten villages, all in Dharavi Island, were taken away to build the Esselworld Amusement Park. The total population was around 1,50, 000. In March 2006, the Government of India granted "In Principle Approval" 2471 acres of land in Dharavi Island to the owners of Esselworld for the development of a Special Economic Zone(SEZ). Later the same year, the state government agreed to a total of 14,183 acres for eventual acquisition.

In 2009, the existence of the East Indians stood threatened when bids were invited for a Rs200-crore bridge at Manori Creek. Villagers strongly opposed the sea-link plan on grounds that this would damage the marine ecology and impact their livelihood. A group of fishermen complained to the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority and also filed a RTI query demanding an explanation about the need for the project. As a result of this, the Marve-Manori Bridge plans were put on hold in 2011. But the people of Dharavi continue to struggle against land acquisition attempts. Among them is Cecillia Gonsalves who uses songs composed as a voice of protest. The main theme draws parallels with the British who were sent back by Indians and claims that 'we are the king of our land.'

Bottle Masala in Moile is a low-key film and the civil rights movement runs as an undercurrent of the main theme - exploration of the lives of this small but united community .

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