Genealogical searches help Indian diaspora connect across time

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This article appeared in The Times of India. Follow the link below for the original report.

FARIDABAD: Once a week young Satish, who lives in this industrial town close to New Delhi, has a video chat with a woman in New York whom he calls Radha ‘bua’ (father’s sister). Neither Satish nor his father, Shyam Yadav, have ever met his ‘bua’ and their only connection to her is through an ancestor, Mahesh, who left for British Guiana (Guyana) about 110 years ago.

Mahesh and Shyam’s great grandfathers were brothers. The two sides of the family came to know of each after Radha, a New York-based accountant, had a genealogical search to locate her ancestral origins in India. Radha had always been keen to know more about her grandfather, Mahesh’s life and her own link with India. That connection has been revived and Radha is happy to find relatives in India and chats regularly with Satish, who is the only one in the family able to speak fluent English.

Mahesh was among over half a million Indians who were taken to work on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean during colonial times. Though the Indian workers were on contract to work for 5 to 10 years, circumstances forced most of them to stay back and they lost contact with their families in India.

Radha knew very little else about her ancestor’s journey to Guyana except that he came from a small village in northern India. The search for her ancestor’s origins was like a detective story with careful sifting through clues and bits of information gleaned through talking to elderly relatives.

Radha turned to a family friend, Ashwini Kumar, who carried out the search. Kumar explained that “it was a difficult task since we did not have any information to start with. It took more than two years to complete the search”.

Radha’s own immediate family had migrated from Guyana to the United States and Canada, but one of her aunts recalled the name of the ship that Mahesh had travelled on. Mahesh was not an uncommon name and in those days the Indian migrants used only one name, so it was a difficult task to identify the right person. Fortunately, another aunt recalled that Mahesh had gone to Fiji before reaching British Guiana. That was an important clue which narrowed down the search.

Kumar searched through passenger lists of ships, picking out the passengers named Mahesh. He then looked for the notation ‘r/f’ on the manifest – it stood from ‘returnee from Fiji’. It meant that Mahesh had gone to Fiji as an indentured worker, returned home after his term was over and then re-indentured himself to go to British Guiana. The passenger list for 1902 showed one Mahesh with the link to Fiji. Records in the National Archives in Georgetown, Guyana, gave other details such as father’s name, village address in India and next of kin.

Armed with this information, a local researcher in India reached Bibipur village under the jurisdiction of Karimdinpur police station in Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh. The village sarpanch claimed that one of his ancestors had gone abroad, but could give no other information. While talking to the village elders, one of them recalled that a person named Mahesh from Shyam Yadav’s family had gone abroad. Shyam’s brother was able to give undisclosed details such as the name of Mahesh’s father and next of kin to prove the connection.

Radha’s niece Rohini came out to India in October 2012. She spent a week at Shyam Yadav’s home in Faridabad and travelled to Bibipur village. Radha intends to visit soon but till then, she keeps in touch with newly-discovered relatives through video chat with young Satish translating the queries and comments of his family members.

Satish says: “We stay in touch. We talk of different things about the family, about our lives. Bua says how keen she is to come and visit us and go and see the village where her ‘purvaj’ (ancestor) came from. But she has to take care of her mother, who is ill. She will however visit us soon.” For Radha it is a deeply emotional connection.

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