A few years ago, I was sitting in the living room of a family of sugar cane cutters on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu. We were outside the mill town of Labasa, deep in the cane fields, which swayed in the afternoon breeze. Sitting on the floor, we had finished our bowls of kava, the traditional (and very strange) drink made of a dried and crushed root, when someone said to me, “What is your relationship to Arvendra?”
I had met Arvendra through friends in Suva, Fiji’s capital. He was working for an insurance company when I told him about my interest in photographing Indians working in the sugar cane industry. He grew up in this village, where his father and everyone else cut cane and grew crops to sustain the extended family. He had phoned them from his office, told them of my interest, and now I was their guest sharing a bowl of kava.
I thought about the question for a second and said, “Arvendra and I are friends.”
They responded: “Friend—dost—bhai. Ah, bhai, bhai!”
Based on my relationship to Arvendra, they were trying to figure out where to slot me in the family framework. I am more than ten years older than he, so I could be his uncle. But my answer of “friend” made me his peer, his brother.
Now that we had settled the matter, I was drinking kava with my kakas and kakis, mausas and mausis. They spoke English and Fiji Hindi, an adapted variant of Bhojpuri and other North Indian dialects their ancestors spoke when they came from India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as indentured laborers to cut sugar cane. Fiji Hindi is very informal, especially when compared to the Delhi Hindi that my wife speaks.
I called one of my “aunts,” who is my age, chachi-ji, using the excessive Delhi Hindi formal. She laughed with delight and said to keep calling her that.
For centuries people from the subcontinent have spread all over the globe, making accommodations and fitting in, creating new cultures by blending transplanted Indian traditions with local ones. Indians in the diaspora feel the strong pull of an Indian identity, but those ties do not prevent them from creating a culture of their own.
As a photographer, I have been drawn to those situations where traditions and innovations collide, blend, shift, and re-form—where diaspora stories are uniquely Indian and wholly new.
Preston Merchant lives in Union City, California. He teaches photography as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York and was a featured artist in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit, “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation.” He has contributed pictures to the Wall Street Journal, NPR, CNBC, India West, India Abroad, The Caravan, The Hindu, and Scroll.in.
His solo photography show Indiaworld: Images of the Global Indian Diaspora will be on view at the Olive Hyde Gallery in Fremont, California from May 17-June 15, 2019.
The Artist’s Reception will be held on Saturday, June 8th, from 2:30-5:30 PM at the Olive Hyde Gallery (123 Washington Boulevard, Fremont, California). Indiaspora members are cordially invited to attend.