Indians and Hindustanis
How a three culture people, the Hindustanis of Holland, live next to their cultural cousins, direct Indians from the subcontinent
By Sam Coleman
I enter the hall of the Bijlmeer Sportcentrum, a rambling auditorium that hosts various events for the local community. The reputation of the Bijlmeer as a hard-edged area of Amsterdam, filled with disenfranchised ethnic minorities, is hardly present at this gathering. Almost a thousand guests fill the hall, families, youths and local leaders sit and enjoy the program, laugh and talk casually to themselves. I catch a young woman who is about to ascend the stage-Reshma-who is preparing to perform a modern Indian dance ?Hindu Modernî as her friend informs me. Dressed in a blue Indian dress, a bindi adorning her forehead, I ask her a telling question that cuts to the heart of the matter, that illuminates the very special cultural navigation that the people known as the Hindustani must ply. Asked what she considers herself categorically she giggles and answers with amusement. ?Well Iím a Hindustani, then Dutch and then Surinamer.î Her friend, a young man named Ranesh, declares a different nomenclature. ?Iím Dutch then Hindustani and then Surinamer,î he boldly interjects. A third respondent replies in the reverse, pointing to the perplexing cultural reality that these residents of Holland navigate. These are the Hindustanis, an odd mix of identities that trace their identity to history as much as geography. Emigrating from the North of India more than a hundred years ago, these Indians found their home in the South American country of Suriname, then a colony of the Dutch. Their journey started in 1873 aboard a ship called the Lala Rookh, a passage still commemorated on June 5th in Amsterdam for its significance. They became part of the multi-cultural mix of that surprisingly diverse nation, becoming farmers, merchants and artisans, contributing quietly to the history the jungle state. But with independence of Suriname, all Surinamers were offered the benevolent choice of immigrating to the Netherlands. The Hindustanis, like many of their brethren, schooled in Dutch, took up the challenge and flocked in numbers to the land of tolerance, swelling to tens of thousands in the early 1970s and comprising 30% of the Surinamese population in Holland. And-depending who you ask-their numbers have increased even more rapidly to 300,000 +, making one of the more visible ethnic footprints in the Netherlands. Mostly in ZuidOost and Den Haag, the Hindustanis make a curious tripartite of identity and tradition. ?The Hindustanis that are here are more traditional [than typical Indians], our traditions have progressed in the last 125 years [in India]. But the Hindustanis are adapting to Dutch culture although they are marrying Indians, maybe to keep a connection to the culture,î explained Amar Jyoti, a local ëdirect Indianí journalist & writer who has written books in Punjabi for an audience back home about the Dutch. Her reflection is another element to this saga: the way that direct Indians-Sub-continent nationals who came to the Netherlands like any expat group-views and is viewed by their historical cousins. The two communities interact, praying at the same temples, watching Hindi language broadcast TV in the Netherlands, but it is tantamount to a Frenchman in Quebec: the Quebec French, denied regular cultural contact, tend to be more traditional than even the Frenchman. Frank Schaar, an organizer of Indian events at the Tropen Insitute, concurs that the Hindustanis indeed feel a strong urge to connect with traditional Indian culture. ?In the last five years weíve been getting more Hindustanis who are starting to appreciate this traditional culture. Girls see the Bollywood films, see the dances and they want to learn them so theyíre seeking out gurus to teach them.î He explains further that such gravitation-anthropologically-is a fairly understood pattern. ?India is a very old culture and I think it gives a sense of place when you have so many divisions in your head. The Hindustanis, donít forget, were former farmers from the North and theyíre more traditional.î Soebhash B. Darsan, a 22 year old Hindustan politician Running on the VVD ticket in ZuidOost, put it more directly. ?The problem with our people is if we go to Surinam we are foreigners, if we go to India we are foreigners and here we are allochten.î Holding onto such a rich motif such as Indian arts, culture and language is understandable.