MOOMTAZ EMRITH

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

“It is everyone’s dream for those whose parents or grandparents migrated from faraway countries to go and see with their own eyes the shores from where their ancestors left for a better, or worse, future.”– Anwar Youssouf Cara

ANWAR YOUSSOUF CARA is a Mauritian, born in Beau Bassin in 1949. He now lives in Leicester, England, but grew up in Mauritius. His father, Youssouf Mohammed Kara, came to Mauritius at the age of twenty with his father, Ahmad Mohammed Kara, from Surat, Gujerat, India, in 1909. When Anwar was five, his parents settled in Port Louis and carried on their business, which consisted of selling clothes and ready-made outfits. Actually, in those days the Surtee-migrants were generally hawkers, peddling clothes in the sugar-estates camps to the indentured labourers. Unlike the indentured workers, the Surtees, who were all Gujerati-speaking immigrants from India, were not bound by any contract or indenture. They came on their own and brought with them some capital to do business. Ahmad’s son, Youssouf, would follow his father in the trade as a hawker. He too began by peddling goods on the estate camps to the Indian labourers, who were mostly from Bihar, India, and spoke the Indian Bhojpuri dialect.

In every batch of indentured workers, who landed in Mauritius, there was a small group of Muslims among them. However, the bulk of their fellow migrants were Hindus by faith. Hindus and Muslims, they both ‘shared’ the same dialect and even the same ‘culture’, so to say and got along well together. Many of these Muslim workers were, like their fellow Hindus, mostly illiterate. One striking attribute of the Surtee merchants, was that they were ‘literate’ in their own language (Gujerati) and in Urdu, and also knew their religion Islam and were ever eager to share same with their fellow Muslim workers on the sugar estates.  So much so, the Surtees not only taught their Muslim brethren the practice of their faith, Islam and their Islamic culture, but also helped establish many of the first mosques and madrassas in many villages, which would go a long way to keep Islam and the Urdu language alive among the (Muslim) workers and foster among them a sense of community.

Anwar Youssouf Cara in Cape Town, South Africa, signing “The Book of Condolences for Nelson Mandela”

Mauritius did not have any native population.  Many of the Indian workers had enrolled to come to Mauritius hoping to make a ‘fortune’ in the ‘new land’ and building for themselves and their families a bright economic future. But they would be harshly mistaken!

Mauritius was, initially, a French colony but was taken over by the British in 1810. However, during the French period, that lasted roughly a hundred years, France was in direct conflict with Britain for supremacy in India and the conquest of “Mauritius” thus became a priority with the British government. Britain viewed France’s interference in their operations in India, as a real hindrance and a threat. France which, in those days, also held territories of its own in southern India – namely in Madras (now Chennai), Pondicherry and Mahé – was also keen to get a stronger foothold there.

When Britain’s first attempt, in 1810, to take over Mauritius (Isle de France, as it was then called) failed, they came back a few months later, with a huge force that left the French Governor of Isle de France no option but to seek an honorable surrender, which he did get. Isle de France became a British colony under the new name of “Mauritius”.

However, when slavery was officially abolished in Mauritius in February, 1835, the freed African slaves refused to go back to the cane fields to work. Faced with a dramatic shortage of labour, the British turned to India and began importing workers from rural India to work on the plantations. The workers, mostly unskilled, came on a contract of three years. They were housed in estate camps, were paid a monthly stipend and given food and clothing. The indenture system would save Mauritius economy from disaster.

The house of Anwar Cara’s grandfather, Ahmad Muhammad Kara, in Lajpore, Surat, India. It is around two hundred years old and still standing

At about the same time, groups of Surati or Surtee merchants from Surat, Gujerat, India, came to Mauritius to trade in the colony. The bulk of these Gujerati migrants were Muslim by faith and generally educated in their religion and the Urdu language. While most of them were from Surat, a few were from the Kutch districts also in Gujerat. They were known as the Meimons. The Gujerati Indians were known in history for their temerity and trade acumen. They would venture anywhere to do business – ever hoping to make, for themselves and their families, a better future. Thus they would come to form a Diaspora and are now found all over the world – hence the Gujerati-Diaspora or, as Anwar Cara has called it: the Sunee-Surtee Muslim Diaspora.  The Gujeratis are found in Mauritius, South Africa, England, the Americas, the Middle East, Fiji, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana etc.  In Mauritius, these merchants set up shops in the towns and villages while some took their wares straight to the countryside on the Sugar Estate Camps, where the Indian workers lived.

The Surtees dealt mostly in textiles unlike the Meimons who traded in foodstuffs. Pretty soon, these Gujeratis became a very successful and an important economic group. Their area of business in Port Louis was popularly known as the Surtee Bazaar and Meiman Bazaar respectively.  The merchants braved the odds and prospered. And, as things got better for them, they slowly moved to the towns and out of the villages and set up their own dukaans/shops. Some would come to establish a name for themselves in the business community that have survived to this day.

Cover of Mr. Anwar Youssouf Cara’s book, which is “a labour of love!”

Anwar Youssouf Cara’s family history was no different. His grandfather, Ahmad Muhammad Kara, was the first to arrive with his family from the district of Lajpore, in Surat, Gujerat.  He was then twenty years old and travelled with his father aboard a ship called Britannia. Kara was not rich. He began his ‘Mauritius adventure,’ like many others, as a hawker of clothes to the Indians workers on the sugar estates. It was hard work but he managed all right and succeeded. Then he moved to Port Louis and opened his own dukaan/shop, where his family and grand-children would grow up – among them  Anwar Youssouf Cara himself – the third generation of the Caras in Mauritius. Anwar Cara, who has lived through it all, vouches for it with much emotion in his book titled: “The Sunee Surtee Muslim Diaspora: In search of my Roots, from Mauritius and Beyond (*)”.

He took deep interest in his roots and began a long sentimental journey that ended in Lajpore, Surat, Gujerat, India. The search would take him fifty years – but it was all well worth it!

The search began in England, where he is settled now, then in Mauritius, where he was born and grew up, and then in South Africa, where some members of his father’s close relations had moved, and finally to India, where he concentrated on the search of his ancestor’s gaon/village in Lajpore in Gujerat. He made more than one trip to India in that connection before he got to Lajpore.

Every stage of the journey was a memorable experience. In the book, Anwar Cara details, with candid sincerity, his long search of his roots. He talks with much emotion of his locating finally, in Lajpore, Gujerat, the ancestral home of his grand-father, Ahmad Mohammad Kara, from where he had immigrated to Mauritius in 1909. The emotion and joy overwhelmed him when he finally saw the house, which had been his grand-father’s home. It is still standing although nobody lived in it. To Anwar Youssouf Cara, locating his grand-father’s old house at Lajpore was like coming ‘home’ a second time — after a very, very long, journey!

Sure, during the course of his search, Anwar Cara talks of the struggles of the small Sunee Surtee Muslim community of Mauritius and of the role they came to play, despite themselves, in the growth of the Muslim indentured migrant community in the countryside — particularly in their religious and cultural growth. Nowadays, Mauritius and its diverse population – including the Muslims — have come a long way. An independent country, diverse and multicultural with a colourful rainbow nation, Mauritius is the pride of the Indian Ocean and a model of a democratic state, with an ‘affluent’ society, which is the envy of its many continental neighbours next door.

Although, Anwar Youssouf Cara does not delve much in the “Sunee Surtee Muslim Diaspora” per se,  yet his book, is definitely well researched and makes interesting reading. It tells the saga of the Sunee Surtee Kara/Cara family that originated in the modest gaon/village of Lajpore in Surat, India, and which, in a little more than a hundred years, has spread across the world: from Gujerat to Mauritius, South Africa, England and all the way across the Atlantic, to Barbados, in the Caribbean, in the West Indies – a true diaspora by themselves. While we miss some insights into the history of Mauritius as a colony, yet we know that Anwar Youssouf Cara’s main concern is to talk about the Sunee Surtees forming a colourful diaspora by themselves and who, as a group, have always been applauded for their gutsy nature to take risks and forge ahead despite the odds. He definitely deserves to be lauded for his initiative and congratulated for his sustained effort in tracing his Surtee-roots all the way from Mauritius to Leicester, England, Reunion, to South Africa and to … Lajpore, Surat, in Gujerat.

Anwar Youssouf Cara’s book is a fascinating and an emotionally fulfilling account of a personal journey into the search of a chapter of his personal ancestral history. And, gifted as he is as a storyteller, he tells his family history, in his own simple, smooth-flowing style and keeps the reader hooked.  Moreover, his book is further enhanced with some beautiful old family photos and also a beautiful ‘Introduction’ written by Pr. (Dr.) Goolam Vahed. I take pleasure in recommending the book to all my (Mauritian) friends.

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(*) Published by HWL (Human Welfare League)

21 Meldrum Street,

Beau Bassin,

Mauritius