Looking At India
Through African Eyes
By Runoko Rashidi
11 January, 2004
I am now in the process of completing the finishing touches on a French
language collection of my essays on the African presence in Asia I find
myself reviewing and evaluating the body of work that I have been compiling
on the subject over the past quarter century. During this process I
realize that I am now able to trace to some extent my own evolution
as a thinker and doer.
In 1987 I began
to physically travel to Asia in search of the African presence. By this
time in my I had concluded that it was not enough for me simply to haunt
the libraries in the United States for data. I thought that it was important
for me to actually go to Asia and see it for myself.
My first travel
experience to Asia, appropriately enough, was to India. I say appropriate
because India has been at the core of my Asian researches from the very
beginning. So in October 1987 I journeyed to India for the first time.
It was the farthest I had ever traveled from the United States and it
was a trip that became a foundation stone for all of my subsequent travels
On this 1987 journey
I visited Mumbai (it was still Bombay at the time) including her slums
and red light district, Bangalore (capital of the state of Karnataka),
and Tamil Nadu (particularly Madras, now Chennai). The highlight of
the trip, however, was the First All-India Dalit Writers' Conference
in Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh. This was my first visit to South India
and I was honored to not only speak at the conference but to formally
open the gathering by placing a garland of flowers around a photograph
of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar--Dalit hero and the author of India's constitution.
In 1998 I returned
to India on possibly the most momentous travel experience of my life.
This journey took me first to the historic city of Delhi in the northern
center of India One of the highlights of the 1998 trip was a visit to
the state of Bihar. Indeed, my arrival in Patna, the capital of Bihar,
seemed to me to herald that I was finally in the "real India."
Even getting there was exciting. I could look out of my window on my
flight from Delhi and see the Himalayas.
The urban poverty
in Patna and the rural despair in outlying villages I will never forget.
It was also in Bihar that I journeyed to the ancient Buddhist university
of Nalanda and one of the holiest sites in Buddhism, Bodhgaya, where
the Buddha is supposed to have received enlightenment. It was also in
Bihar, under the guidance of M. Ejaz Ali, M.D., that I encountered Indian
Tribals for the first time.
>From Patna I
traveled with a second class train ticket and then by bus and taxi to
the Ajanta Caves in the state of Maharastra, and then by private car
to the city of Nagpur in the very center of India. Here I gave a speech
on African-Dalit unity, interacted with more Tribals, and met for the
first time representatives of the Kerala Dalit Panthers.
I flew to Kerala where I was hosted by the Kerala Dalit Panthers. Not
only was I surrounded by Black people but the climate made me feel like
I was actually somewhere in the Caribbean. The Panthers were incredible
hosts and escorted me throughout much of Kerala state where I was taken
to villages and shrines. In Trivandrum, Kerala with the Panthers I marched
through the city streets and gave what I thought was a rousing speech.
>From the city
of Cochin in northern Kerala I ventured into the rainforests where I
met more of these Tribals. When I say Tribals I am referring to the
aboriginal occupants of the land. Like the ones that I met in Bihar
these were extremely small people but perhaps not as dark-skinned. And
some of the Kerala Tribals had platinum blond hair. I had never seen
anybody like them even in the anthropological texts that I had been
examining and this experience, dramatically and forcefully, reconfirmed
for me the importance of international travel and first hand research.
These forest dwellers
told me that strangers rarely visited them and if they did they chased
them away with their machetes! I assured them that I came in peace and
what phenomenal care takers they turned out to be! They walked me through
the dense foliage of what seemed like half a mountainside. They took
me into their homes and fed me. I drank tea and honey with them and
politely asked them all of the questions that I could muster. The highlight
and crowning memory of the visit though came when I was politely confronted
by one of the community elders. This lady had been following me all
day up and down the mountainside. She was small and serene and projected
great dignity. What I remember her telling me through the translators
was roughly this:
"I know that
you are not from here and must be from somewhere far, far away. But
I feel that you are a part of me and I will never forget you."
Of all of the trips
that I have taken it is very hard to surpass the emotions that I experienced
On April 13, 1999
I returned to the United States from my third journey to India, a highly
successful tour entitled "Looking at India through African Eyes."
It was a sixteen day educational go round accompanied by numerous local
people and sixteen Africans from the United States and the Caribbean.
We visited many of the significant temples, tombs, castles, palaces,
museums, and monuments in India including the Taj Majal in Agra (stated
to have been built out of grief for an Ethiopian woman) and described
as "poetry in marble," Amber Fort and the Palace of the Winds
in Jaipur, the National Museum in New Delhi, the massive Konarak temple
in Orissa, the Buddhist temple caves at Ajanta, the magnificent colossal
rock cut temples at Ellora, the abandoned city of Fatehpur Sikri, and,
back in Bihar, we waded along the banks of the Ganges River.
Overall the Black
people of India were extremely gracious to us and embraced us as family.
We visited them in their homes, offices and villages. In the course
of our travels we encountered a religious mosaic of Christians, Hindus,
Muslims, Buddhists, Parsis, Sikhs, and Animists. Sometimes the sense
of oneness and community seemed almost mystical and everywhere we went
we developed deep bonds of familyhood. The members of our group were
treated like visiting dignitaries and I was treated like a prince. At
times it seemed overwhelming.
We were guests of
honor at numerous receptions, cultural programs and educational forums,
many of them sponsored or initiated by Dalit Voice editor V.T. Rajshekar.
It seemed to us that African unity was in the air. At a major reception
in New Delhi the keynote speaker, Union Health Minister Dalit Ezhilmalai,
focused on the life of Malcolm X. At a program in Bhubaneswar the moderator,
Dr. Radhakant Nayak (who reminded us of John Henrik Clarke) closed the
afternoon session with a stirring recital of Claude McKay's glorious
poem of resistance "If We Must Die!" In Trivandrum I was presented
with three ceremonial ankhs (the ancient African symbol representing
male and female union and sometimes referred to as "the key of
life") made of coconut shell and adorned with red, black and green
beads. At an airport reception in Calcutta we were greeted with shouts
of "Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!"
We were hosted by
Black youth groups who told their life stories and detailed their village
origins, their hopes, their dreams and aspirations. We were entertained
by scores of singers and drummers and dancers. We met with Black women's
groups who performed skits portraying family life and a vibrant new
spirit of resistance to domestic violence and centuries-old oppression.
We visited some of the most downtrodden communities on earth, witnessed
the miseries of the Dalits--the Black Untouchables of India and were
guests on university campuses. In a program in Chennai we were hosted
by Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India where I was
the guest speaker with Dr. K. Ponmudy, a major Dravidian scholar, in
a program designed to address the Black and Dravidian movements.
In Orissa I saw
and photographed the blackest human beings I had seen up to that time.
In fact, it was my impression that the blackest people were here the
most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who were
not so dark! In one community, at an elaborate and emotional public
ceremony, we presented school supplies to the entire student body of
an aspiring educational institution followed by cash contributions for
the continuation of the work. We saw ourselves not so much as tourists
but as family members come to try to make things better.
India through African Eyes" was family reunion, a resounding success
and the culmination of my early travels to South Asia. I came away from
India convinced that African people around the world were on the rise
and that there is a revolution going on in the hearts, souls and minds
of Black people everywhere.
is an African-American historian madly in love with Africa. He is currently
organizing educational tours to Vietnam/Cambodia for April 2005 and
Brazil for November 2005. For further information contact Runoko at
[email protected]. Visit Runoko's award winning Global African Presence
Web Site at http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/runoko.html