More than 100 years ago, the West India Company in the Caribbean hired thousands of indentured labourers from India to work in the sugar plantations in Jamaica, Trinidad and Surinam. There were steamers with the subcontinent's huddled masses leaving Calcutta every other day. It was a harrowing tale of desperation, home sickness and sea sickness. Many died on the trip, or when they got to the Americas.
Among the tens of thousands of labourers from the north Indian plains were a sprinkling of Nepalis and their descendants.Today they live across the Caribbean-nearly assimilated in the migrant Indian sub-culture there. In many of them, there is only a feeble hint of a Nepali past.
Glenn Krishna Mitrasingh is the descendent of one such Nepali family who migrated to Suriname in the early 1900s. Glenn has pursued that feeble hint of Nepaliness, and as a medical doctor has been visiting Nepal since 1996. "It was not a coincidence, nor was it an emotional attraction that pulled me here. I do a lot of humanitarian work in many countries and Nepal also happened to be one," says the soft-spoken Glenn, adding: "But I do feel very at home here." Glenn is also General Secretary of the International Council for Friends of Nepal in the Netherlands, an organisation that helps fundraise for development projects in Nepal.
"My great grandfather and grandmother were supposed to be from Taplejung," says Glenn who was born in Surinam and his Nepali bahun blood has now been diluted over four generations. Everybody in Glenn's patriarchal line had married into a different community. The name Krishna came through Glenn's father whose middle name was Balkisun. The surname Mitrasingh comes from a disguised name that his great grandfather used while boarding the ship in Calcutta.
"We are told that our great grandfather used to threaten to cut off the feet if anyone of his family ever married black Christians. However, except one, everyone got married to people of different races, ethnicities and religions," says Glenn.
According to Glenn's reckoning, there were about 50 Nepali communities living in Surinam when it got independence from the Dutch in 1975. But after the 1980 military coup many Indonesian and Indian families were killed. Intellectuals were targeted and eliminated, universities closed.
That was the time the young Glenn left Surinam for Holland. "There were two options: Brazil to be still near my parents, or to Holland." Most of the Nepali diaspora opted for Holland. One thing Glenn is impatient with is the patronising tone some Nepalis use when they find out he is one-eighth Nepali. "I find my ancestor's history interesting, but please don't put the monkey on my back," he says. "I don't like to preach. Every individual, every nation has to find its own way forward." He also has a word of warning for those wanting to blindly imitate the west: "Don't copy us. You will copy all our problems."