Book Review: Scholarly Work of Gujarati Communities Across the Globe is Readable, and Also Deals with Ismaili Traditions

GUJARATI COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE GLOBE: Memory, Identity and Continuity, Edited by Sharmina Mawani and Anjoom Mukadam. Trentham Books, Stoke on Trent, U.K., Sterling, USA. 2012, 204 pages, £22.99. Available in USA/Canada from Amazon and other on-line stores at appx. $38.00, price may be lower (see links below).

Gujarati Communities Across the Globe

Reviewed by Nizar Motani, Ph.D

This latest addition to the expanding frontier of Gujarati studies offers eleven masterly chapters written by thirteen scholars representing several disciplines.

Though this is not a publication of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London (IIS), it has a disproportionate Ismaili presence: both the editors are lecturers at IIS and one of the contributors is a member of the board of governors of IIS.

Out of the eleven chapters three of them focus on the current Ismaili Imam’s leadership style and the geet and ginanic traditions of his followers of Gujarati origin.

Raymond Brady Williams, a prolific writer on South Asian, especially Gujarati, communities has a stimulating discussion of changing Gujarati identities, in the Foreword. Those studying this phenomenon are “always aiming at a moving target, moving in time and space.” (p.x) Moreover, the great diversity within the Gujarati communities and the probability of continued increase in Gujarati population in the West, “complicates and enlivens research” (p.xii).

Williams collectively commends the authors of this book for capturing Gujaratis “at an important juncture of their influence in India and abroad, and understanding their current local, national and transnational realities”. (p.x).

Next, these authors are individually introduced by the editors who also skillfully summarizes their contributions.

What is remarkable about these scholarly articles is their readability.

In the opening chapter, Ramnik Shah, commendably demystifies the importance of the nationality factor, in terms of passports, citizenship, and allegiance, among other things, in the spread of the Gujarati emigration out of India, first to East Africa and then to Britain and the West. His analyses are absolutely indispensable to understanding the composition of the Gujarati communities outside the original homeland.

Mohammed Keshavjee innovatively builds on Ramnik Shah’s solid groundwork. Kheshavjee interviewed 50 individuals re-settled in a dozen or more countries some 35 years after the fateful August 1972 mass expulsion from Uganda by the infamous Idi Amin.

His findings show that the expellees had successfully reconstituted themselves in different parts of the world, reaching new heights in their professions and vocations” (p.xxiii). Therefore only a negligible number of them have returned to Uganda”. This may explain why the Asians Museveni (the Ugandan President) has managed to attract are largely from Gujarat who have never been to Uganda, or any other part of Africa.” (p.23).

Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Uganda in 2008 to solidify ties between the two countries. “The new Gujaratis are making significant contributions to Uganda…… symbolizing once again the enduring Gujarati spirit of entrepreneurship”. (p.25).

John Mattausch, who has been researching and publishing on British-Gujarati history for sixteen years, argues that “chance” helped Gujaratis succeed in the diaspora.

Mattausch maintains that “chance” was a centuries-old factor in British-Gujarati relations which enabled Hindu-Gujaratis to elevate themselves while lack of ‘chance’ relegated other Asian communities such as the Muslim Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to the lower rungs of the British society. (pp 35-37).

He also offers interesting explanation about the origins of caste as “behavioural immune system…”. The durability of these health precautions, and caste segregation was so strong that even Mahatma Gandhi failed to eradicate “the evils of untouchability” as Gujarati Hindus steadfastly refused to welcome Untouchables as equals. (p.29).

In chapter 4, Anjoom Mukadam focuses on the wide-ranging and wide-reaching influence of the Aga Khan on the Ismailis of Gujarati ancestry residing in the West as well as his contribution globally. (p.43).

His Highness the Aga Khan, founder of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), has been described as a charismatic leader…..able to inspire others to see the bigger picture in civil society and “ a role model for our times” (pp 48-49).

In the State of Gujarat, AKDN is engaged in cultural revitalization, quality education, health care and the development of rural areas. Ismailis of Gujarati ancestry living in the West follow their spiritual leader’s example and generously support AKDN projects in Gujarat. Of the numerous such volunteers and donors, Dr.Shafique Pirani, a Uganda-born Gujarati Ismaili orthopedic surgeon stands out (p.22). After launching the club foot project in his native Uganda he has taken his curative project to Gujarat. (p.22).

Sharmina Mawani examines the role that language plays in the maintenance of an individual’s ethno-religious identity. She reviews geets (songs of praise) and ginans (devotional songs) used by the Ismailis of South Asian ancestry to express love for their Imam (spiritual leader). Geets originated from the Hindu Navratri festival and generally are composed to mark special occasions such as the Imam’s visit or anniversary of the Imam’s accession to the throne of Ismaili Imamat. Ginans on the other hand were composed between the thirteen and nineteenth centuries in the Indian sub-continent by pirs (Ismaili preachers) for the purpose of conversion as well as for devotion. (pp. 70-71).

Location of Gujarat (shaded red) in India. Map credit: Wikipedia.

Location of Gujarat (shaded red) in India. Map credit: Wikipedia.

Zawahir Moir, provides an intriguing look into the works of the prolific Pir Sayyid Muhammad Shah and other charismatic pirs who founded sathpanthi (followers of the true path) Shia Ismaili communities in Punjab and Gujarat.

Since the eleventh century, Ismaili imams based in Iran had sent pirs to Gujarat to propagate their religion. This chapter relates the trials, tribulations, tragedies and triumph of these foreign missionaries in a predominantly Hindu society with large areas under Sunni Muslim rulers.

Riho Isaka, a Japanese scholar of Gujarati history scrutinizes the writings and speeches on language problems of India by Kanaiyalal Maneklal Munshi (1887-1971) whose views differed sharply from Gandhi’s championship of Hindi and non-violence in order to discourage the idea of Pakistan and partition  (p.93).

Her fascinating in-depth research leads to the conclusion that: “The marginalization of non-Hindus and lower castes can often be observed in his (Munshi’s) writings on Indian and Gujarati history and culture, and this marginalization was to have significant political implications both in his own time and during subsequent periods. (p.104).

This is essential reading to better understand how two Gujarati lawyers shaped the future of national and official languages of modern India.

Katherine Twamley, Anthony Pryce and Karina Kielmann devote their chapter to investigating the impact of popular Western media and Bollywood stories about romantic, spontaneous love affairs in spouse selection against the long-established practice of arranged marriages (xxv). Their case studies are from one of Baroda’s wealthier new neighborhoods where high incomes, new money and western education constitute a separate caste. (p.114.) “Time pass relationship” and kissing in public except at Western style cafes was disdained as “cheap” so was marrying a spouse not on his or her “level”.

Sheena Raja takes us into the wonderful world of modified Hindu arranged marriages: “parent assisted marriages” which have become more apparent in the Gujarati American and diasporic communities. She has centered her research on “linguistic forms in matrimonial profiles commonly known as bio-datas;” (xxv) kept by the formidable matchmaker -– and bio-data queen — Smitaben Patel of Edison, N.J.

Interestingly “men hoped for tall, thin and pretty future wives…” but women did not specify any physical preferences. However both equated beauty with “lightness of complexion”. An overwhelming majority of men expected their wives to be fair, slender and, needless to say, chaste, future wives “to get along with” and “respect” their mothers suggesting living in extended households.

BAPS, a Hindu charitable organization and devotional community, comes under Hanna Kim’s intense scrutiny in the chapter entitled: “A Fine Balance: Adaptation and Accommodation in the Swaminarayan Sanstha.”

Symbolized by their magnificent, majestic temples and marvelous leadership of the swami (guru, teacher), BAPS has displayed remarkable motivational and management skills and Swaminarayan followers have flourished in non-Gujarati, non-Hindu and non-Swaminarayan areas. (xxvi).

One stain, however, has scarred this otherwise wonderful organization: the Godhra tragedy of February 2002, which has made “Gujaratis themselves and non-Gujarati scholars….to search for answers to the worst Hindu-Muslim violence since partition.” (p.141).

Kim quotes Nussbaum who has condemned Gujaratis for “uncritical thinking” and accused Hindu-Americans of fostering “a climate of religious hatred in Gujarat” by funding extremists (140-144). But no convincing proof has been provided.

BAPS broke away from the original Swaminarayan community in 1907 and its founder a sant named Shastriji Maharaj, creating an order of santo (male ascetics) and embarked on building of Mandirs (temples) as an expression of his interpretation of the Swaminarayan teaching.

Through migration to East Africa and subsequent expulsion and voluntary migration to the U.K., North America and elsewhere, BAPS became a global devotional and charitable organization or sanstha under the leadership of the Guru – highest leader – and the order of santo who oversee mandirs and satsangis (devotees) activities, and undertakes vicharan (visiting tours).

BAPS has some 1 million followers (with 40 thousand in North America and 30 thousand in the U.K.) of whom 55 thousand volunteer regularly. Many of these aspects of BAPS are quite similar to the Ismaili community especially the love, respect and yearning for their Guru and Imam respectively. Kim has done a superb job of describing every aspect of BAPS.

The closing chapter is about the farthest frontier of the Gujarati diaspora: Wellington, New Zealand. Amanda Gilbertson’s interviews with selected local Gujaratis who make up a majority of the 11,000 plus Indians in that city, led her to the conclusion that they conveniently have dual identities: “Hindu Gujaratiness” and New Zealanders. Though they consider New Zealand their permanent home, they felt that only native-born whites who dominated the country could enjoy the latter identity with all its inherent advantages. (p.160)

This collection of scholarly essays nevertheless should also be of interest to the non-scholarly readers both Gujaratis and non-Gujaratis. Students interested in narrowing down their field of future research on South Asia would find many “subfields” as Williams has called them. Obviously no single volume can possibly cover even the main Gujarati settlements across the globe. To help fill some of these geographic and communal gaps, future research could consider the commercially vibrant Gujarati entrenchments in the sheikhdoms and kingdoms of the Middle East. The relatively recent rural and urban Gujarati-origin adventurers and entrepreneurs in east and central africa whom Mohammed Keshavjee has mentioned in passing should offer a study in contrast with the expelled Asian who had been there for almost a century.

Another area of inquiry would be the endogamous merchant communities with surnames Momin and Ajmeri who emigrated from Ahmedabad to America and fell in love with the Dairy Queen franchise. Though not as ubiquitous as Patel motels, Momin owned and operated free-standing fast food locations can be found in most major and minor American cities.

Book clubs searching for stimulating material may want to add this volume to their list. It should keep them busy for a many months!

Date posted: Monday, April 22, 2013.
Date updated: April 22, 2013 (book cost update – see amazon link below).

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review by Nizar Motani appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Journal of Third World Studies. Dr. Motani has since made revisions to the original review, and submitted the above piece especially for Simerg.

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Nizar MotaniAbout the author: Nizar Motani was born in Kampala, Uganda, where he attended Aga Khan Primary and Secondary schools. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the then the University of Nairobi, Kenya, he went on to obtain a doctorate in African history from the University of London (SOAS).

His dream of lecturing at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, was shattered by Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Asians. Instead, he accepted a visiting lectureship at Bowdoin College (Brunswick, Maine, USA), and later taught at Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan).

After serving as the first Publications Officer at the newly established Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, he returned to America starting a new, non-academic chapter in his life. Since 1989 he has been residing in Atlanta, Georgia, mainly engaged in real estate and financial fields. He periodically writes essays and book reviews on the Mortgage industry and on Ismaili and East African subjects.

Please also read Motani’s A Review of His Highness the Aga Khan’s “Where Hope Takes Root”

The book can be purchased from the Institute of Education Press in the UK. Please click www.ioe.ac.uk/ioepress, or write to s.sigmund@ioe.ac.uk.

The book is also available through Amazon for $38.00, or for as little as $22.00 from various retailers Amazon partner sellers. Click www.amazon.ca.

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