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Thursday, Jan 27, 2022
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Book Extract

Naipaul And The Sikhs Of Argentina

Notes from a trip in 1976 through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

Naipaul And The Sikhs Of Argentina
| Courtesy - The Spectator
Naipaul And The Sikhs Of Argentina
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53
Hoof and Wheel: Travels in the Global South
By Prabhu Ghate
Bloomsbury | Pages: 144 | Rs. 299

As we approached Salta, several people told us about a small community of Sikhs settled in Jujuy (pronounced hoohooey), a small town further north, up in the mountains on the way to the Bolivian border. The name most often mentioned was that of one Juan Singh. So when we got off the bus, we started asking for him. Uncharacteristically (for a Sikh), he was an assistant in a shop, which took us some time to find. Just as we found it, and were about to enter, an unmarked black car pulled up with some uniformed policemen with guns. They jumped out and asked us to get in. People on the street looked on, but seemed to know what was going on.

We spent the next three hours in the police station being questioned, fingerprinted, and photographed. Amid growing chaos and armed opposition to military rule, Peron had returned from exile in 1971. However, he was ill and proved ineffective, and died in 1974. He was succeeded by his third wife Isabelita (not to be confused with Evita), under who matters only got worse, and she in turn had just been overthrown by a military coup a few months earlier, in March.

Thus our arrival coincided with the "dirty war" which the junta was beginning to wage on armed revolutionaries and radical opponents, including students and café intellectuals and anyone else who was suspected to be sympathetic. By 1983, about 10,000 people are said to have "disappeared" without trace (some of them were dropped out of planes into the sea). Our passports and lack of Spanish could easily have been faked, and the police had to check with Buenos Aires and the national police information network, which took some time.

As it became clear that we were the tourists we claimed to be, the young policeman who was taking us through the procedures felt emboldened to introduce himself, and said he was a Singh too — his father was a Sikh. Victor Hector Singh knew Juan Singh very well and had asked him to come and take us home. Juan Singh, whose real name was Chanchal Singh, was friendly enough, and invited us home for tea (he was still a bachelor) but had no idea who we were and was none the clearer when we left, as he spoke neither English nor Hindi, and his Punjabi was as weak as our Spanish.

We understood his father had brought him to Argentina as a youngster, had gone back to India on some work, and had died while he was there. He was brought up by relatives. Just as a rather empty drawing room in a small Indian district town in those days would have a few old issues of Filmfare and other magazines lying around, here on his side tables were strewn some yellowing and frayed issues of Ghadar, the magazine brought out every week by Indian immigrants in California in Urdu and Punjabi as the mouthpiece of the Ghadar movement in the 1920s. It is known that office-bearers of the movement had visited the Argentinian Sikhs in the 1930s, and had probably left some issues and other pamphlets behind. The Ghadar masthead proclaimed "Angrezi Raj ka Dushman". Stuck in this time warp, it is not clear if Juan Singh knew that that battle at least had been won.

But how and when did the Sikhs come to this remote, underdeveloped part of northern Argentina in the first place? Some of them came to work on the railway line to Bolivia which we were about to use. Others were contracted by local sugar plantations, especially those run by Anglo-Argentines who knew what good workers the Sikhs were. Immigration of Indian workers to the western seaboard of North America had been restricted by the Canadians in 1908 and by the US six years later, partly at the behest of the British who were getting concerned about the activities of the Ghadar movement.
 
Argentina was the only other developed country in the Americas in those days, having grown faster than America in the previous four decades, and with a per capita GDP higher than Germany's or France's (although it reverted later to the ranks of the developing) and it offered prospects. However, given the difficulties of getting there, it is not surprising that the community never numbered more than a few hundred. One group boarded a ship from Calcutta to Fiji, confusing Fiji with "Tina", the name by which they knew Argentina. Once there, they fought (and lost) a case to recover the deposits they had given to a ship owner to get his craft seaworthy for the rest of the journey across the Pacific (although they got there eventually, through New Zealand). When groups of Sikhs did reach the shores of South America it was not always at Buenos Aires. Some had to travel further, overland through Chile or Brazil.
 
Today, of course Singh is a respected name in Argentina. The Sikhs own ranches, transport companies, supermarkets, and retail shops with names like Tienda Singh and Almacen Khalsa. They were visited by President Zail Singh, and long after we were there, built a gurudwara in Rosario, a little south of Salta. Victor Hector Singh we heard had become a police general. I hope Juan Singh got married.

And now for the Naipaul connection. Less than a year later, according to a piece Naipaul did for the New York Review of Books in 1992 (Argentina: Living with Guilt), he too had a brush with the "dirtiness of the dirty war". Like us he was trying to make contact with the Sikhs. Just north of Salta, the bus he was on was stopped by the police. He was the only one without papers and was asked to get off. He was then taken to an isolated hut in the middle of nowhere (a police outpost), where he took out his meerschaum pipe and sat on a bench and lost track of time while the cops made their phone calls. He could see torture in the "smiling eyes of the junior policeman".

Eventually, after the lapse of a period of time he says he cannot determine, the policemen heard from their superiors to say it was okay, he could leave. They told him it was his pipe that saved him and persuaded them that he was indeed the person he claimed to be. So like us, Naipaul did not "disappear", and lived to write about it. When I saw the article many years later I contacted him through the editors to recount the amazing coincidence. He sent me a short note in reply saying he supposed that for an Argentinian country policeman up in the north, an Indian could be an Argentinian from some other part of the 'country.

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