Tracing one’s roots across the ocean

“My key takeaway from Viriah is the author’s grit and perseverance to trace back to his roots,” writes Anantha.

“Non-Violence is the weapon of the strong”, is a very famous quote by the father of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. We all are well versed about Satyagraha, a civil resistance movement adopted by Gandhi which was instrumental in Indian Independence. Most of us are also aware that he devised and implemented this method first in South Africa to stand up against the racial discrimination faced by the Indian immigrants there. But little did we know that he had led a campaign against another brutal system, prevalent in the 19th century, which claimed the lives of many Indians who had migrated to South Africa in search of employment. These were one of the first civil resistance campaigns led by Gandhi, which later formed the basis of Satyagraha.

In the mid-19th century, after slavery was abolished by the British Government, the trading companies started a new system where men and women signed a contract by which they agreed to work in exchange for food, shelter and clothing. These laborers were shipped to different countries and were made to toil in inhumane conditions, not very different from slavery. The poor sanitary conditions, rationed food and meager medical services talk a lot about the life which these laborers led. Due to the lack of proper medical treatment, the mortality rates of these labourers were high. Many of them died even before the contract ended. This system was called Indentured Servitude. 

During the 1800s, because of growing demand for sugar commodities, vast numbers of Indian labourers were transported across different parts of the world to work on Sugarcane plantations by the British government. About 1.3 million labourers were shipped to South Africa alone. One such laborer, Viriah, hailed from Andhra Pradesh. He left his family one fine day, without uttering a word to his parents and disappeared for many years. He came back and died under tragic circumstances in his home town in India. His descendants were clueless about what he did in South Africa and the family he had left behind.

Viriah, a debut venture by Krishna Gubili, is an autobiographical account of the author’s quest to track down his great grand-father’s journey and his stay in South-Africa.  

As a child, Krishna heard stories from his grandmother about his hard-working great grandfather who went to South Africa, came back and died poor. She also showed him a letter she had received from one of her extended family members in South Africa.

The stamp on the letter sparked an interest in the young boy, who slowly started getting fascinated with the country. A vague curiosity gripped his mind about what had prompted his ancestor to visit this distant land in the first place, and what had made him come back. As Krishna grew into his teens, he started following the news about South Africa in the newspapers and television. He followed Nelson Mandela and the country’s freedom from apartheid, a dark blotch in the pages of history. He was exhilarated when South Africa lifted the ban on playing world cricket and rooted for the South African team. In short, unknowingly, South Africa became his obsession, and one day, his destiny. 

After earning his master’s degree, Krishna relocated to the United States for a job. He got married and has a beautiful daughter. But the childhood obsession to trace back his roots did not leave him. He dug up the letter he had found in his childhood, looked for clues and hints which could give him some idea to begin his search for his extended family in South Africa. He started searching for the records of his great-grandfather among all the immigrants to South Africa in a rough time span, deduced from the dates given to him by his grandmother. He explored all possible options right from the historians to embassies to the social platforms to reach out to his kin.

Success smiles on those who never give up. He finally got connected to one of his distant relatives. He booked his ticket and traveled to South Africa to gather more information about his great grandfather. He explored the archives in Dublin and spent long hours talking to the natives about their ancestors. Slowly and steadily, he finally connected the pieces of the puzzle together. And out comes the story of his great-grandfather, an indentured laborer who set sail from Madras, dreamy-eyed and full of hopes, only to face hardships and disappointment in South Africa.

Through the story of his great grandfather, Gubili explores the indenture system and the harsh conditions the labourers lived in. He also digs deep into Mahatma Gandhi’s stay in South Africa, and the campaigns he led for the betterment of the lives of these indentured labourers. Gandhi was not a pioneer of these movements; the associations and trading communities had already formed by then. One of his clients introduced Gandhi to these associations and it is here that he first formed the notion of the passive resistance campaign, which later evolved into the famous Satyagraha. 

The book also sheds light on the Kafala System, which is still prevalent in the countries of the middle-east, where more than million workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Philippines form a majority of the labor force. They work under conditions similar to the indentured labor and though several laws have been relaxed over a period of time, live under harsh humane conditions. 

But the book falters in its central plot to narrate the fictional account of Viriah’s life. Devoid of twists and turns, it is uneventful and flows more like a documentary, an insight into a day-to-day life of an indentured laborer. As a reader, I did feel at times that the book could have been more informative if it was a work of nonfiction. The addendum in the end does provide a lot of information about the protests made against the practice of indentured servitude, the bills passed, the laws formed in South Africa and the beginning of Gandhian non-violence movement in South Africa. But it could have been a lot more informative if this was all described a lot more in detail in the flow of the book itself. 

But my key takeaway from Viriah is the author’s grit and perseverance to trace back to his roots. We all take pride in our lineage, and talk at length about our ancestors. But it takes courage and determination to make such tremendous efforts to dig into the past and track the life of an ancestor. It is also a very informative book which educates the reader about the different types of the migrant-worker systems prevalent in the world till-date. Another book to refer to on the Indenture System is the renowned Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. The maestro weaves a beautiful narration and captures the sufferings of these labourers in vivid detail. The story is centered around the ship Ibis, which carries Indentured labourers from India to Mauritius and the brutal treatment these labourers face in the ship and after they reach the island. 

In this era, where the Indian diaspora is spread across the world, these books come as a revelation as to why the immigration started in the first place and the reason we find many native Indian descendants in some of the remotest places in this world, far away from our motherland.

The book has been steadily gaining recognition and accolades across the country. Do read it and educate yourself on one of the tainted forgotten episodes in the Indian history, the indentured servitude.

Viriah, by Krishna Gubili, Notion Press (2018)

Anantha is an IT Professional. Writing is her passion. She writes short stories, book reviews, movie reviews, small stories for children and play scripts for the theater. She regularly conducts storytelling workshops for children.

Read more reviews on Bengaluru Review:

The coloniser’s language

A virtual journey to the Mughal era

Storytelling is a rebellion against being silenced



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