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Nilanjana Sengupta
Friday, Oct 3, 2014

Singapore

New book offers comprehensive study of Indian diaspora in colonial Singapore

tabla! | Nilanjana Sengupta | Friday, Oct 3, 2014

"In the stillness of the night, sometime before World War I, young Kanta - barely 15 - quietly left his home in Raini village, now in contemporary eastern Uttar Pradesh.

He had been married only the day before... His mind, however, was set on another journey, to a land he had heard of only in whispers and rumours,..." Dr Rajesh Rai's book, Indians In Singapore, 1819-1945: Diaspora In The Colonial Port-City, begins with these lines in acknowledgement of the author's grandfather.

From a family of early migrants to Singapore himself, it is the result of a decade of research on a subject he is passionate about - the Indian diaspora in Singapore.

Indians In Singapore, 1819-1945 was launched on Sept 26 at the National Museum, a venue suitably layered in history for a book of this import.

As the guest of honour, Ambassador K. Kesavapany, president, Singapore Indian Association and Distinguished Affiliated Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS), mentioned in his opening address that the book makes a timely appearance with the resurgence of interest in all things Indian because of the Narendra Modi government.

Dr Rai, assistant director and senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies and assistant professor at the South Asian Studies Programme, NUS, is a notable historian and has been associated with several prestigious projects, including the acclaimed Encyclopaedia Of The Indian Diaspora (2006).

The book, published by the Oxford University Press, is a comprehensive study of the Indian diaspora in colonial Singapore and is remarkable for a number of reasons.

Not only does it draw from a range of rich reference sources including administrative archives, intelligence reports, newspapers and oral testimonies, it also remains focused on the Singapore story, carefully rooting it out from the conjoined histories of Singapore and Malay(si)a.

As the author mentions, his endeavour has been to look beyond the exploitative experience of Indians on far-flung rubber plantations or sugar colonies which has dominated much of the literature on the Indian diaspora.

Instead, the book focuses on Singapore as an urban space and, more importantly, a thriving port caught in the cross-currents of culture and impacted by distant waves of socio-political-economic change.

This is not to say that Indian plantation labour is absent from this study but the book looks at the histories of a more heterogeneous group of immigrants including merchants, traders, imperial auxiliaries, petty service-providers and the English-educated elite who, over time, came to be a part of this community.

It is a deeply-layered diaspora with a multi-tiered occupational profile and Dr Rai seeks to highlight the various inter and intra group tensions which gave the community in Singapore its unique identity.

It was an identity shaped as much by the socio-cultural nostalgia for a remembered "homeland" as it was by the currents of change in the subcontinent or the South-east Asian region; by the Indian community's response to the British as much as to its relationship with the other two major Asian groups - the Chinese and Malays - by the constant process of fashioning and re-fashioning of identity which took place across the spectrum of religious and linguistic groups within the community as well as the dynamic relationship between old and new migrants.

The book, along with the wide panoply of influences, also takes a closer look at the specific roles of some of the long-standing Indian residents of the port-city like S.C. Goho, K.P.K. Menon, Devan Nair or Rajabali Jumabhoy.

Of particular interest to me were the two extended chapters in the final section on the Japanese Occupation and the Indian National Army.

Indians in Singapore, 1819-1945 is a noteworthy contribution and will prove to be of not only scholarly interest but will draw a wider readership because of its lucidity and engaging literary style.


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