Though Mumbai is unarguably one of the most culturally diverse cities in India, there is one community that claims its roots in the city long before any others. The East Indian community trace their roots back to the 15th and 16th century, when Portuguese colonisers landed on Mumbai shores and converted the local fishing communities to Catholicism. Today, the East Indian Catholics are prominent members of the Bombay, Thane and Salsette islands but are facing an ongoing struggle to maintain their unique cultural identity. The origins of the name ‘East Indian’ have been a point of contention for some time, being that they’re essentially a community from the Western shores. Many believe that it may be a throwback to descendants from the East India Company, but it’s more commonly accepted that the unique nomenclature arose to distinguish them from the Goan Catholics who migrated to Mumbai later.
For Reena Pereira-Almeida, a member of the community and former resident of Mumbai, this disappearance of history is what spurred the creation of the East Indian Memory Co. (EIMC), a multidisciplinary project that aims to record, research and share the stories and traditions of Mumbai’s indigenous East Indian community. “The seed for the East Indian Memory Co. was planted in my mind when I was planning my big fat East Indian wedding in 2008, although I didn’t know it then. I was to shift to Brisbane, Australia immediately after marriage as my fiancé was working there.” Since they were the first to get married in both their families, they decided to go all out and include as many cultural traditions as they could muster, this began her exploration into the depths of the East Indian diaspora.
She started to explore the possibilities in the burgeoning blog-o-sphere, first as a personal blog and later as a bridal blog for the community, and received tremendous positive feedback for both. Both of these are now in statis but they set the foundation for EIMC. Even though she’s been an Australian resident for 8 years, she never really left her community behind “Over the years, I have had the chance to observe the East Indians who also live here and it’s fascinating to note the way in which they have assimilated with the dominant Australian culture but have also retained some remnants of our heritage – especially during weddings and religious celebrations.” While these occasions piqued her curiousity, she wanted more, to know more intimately the past and history of the culture, to have something substantial to pass on to her daughter in terms of cultural heritage.
Though they have for so long been a part of the city’s fabric, the Mumbai East Indians have faced innumerable challenges “Speak with any East Indian – especially the ones in Mumbai and you will hear many heartbreaking stories about the loss of their lands and properties to builders, the government, encroachers and even to their own family members.” There’s a serious lack of representation both in the media and in the visibility of the community itself, “But isn’t this true for any other minority community in Mumbai? We so rarely figure in the larger socio-political narrative of the country, and we so rarely figure even in Mumbai’s narrative.” says Reena, but every facet of her organisation is making huge inroads into rectifying the problem.
Aside from the documentation and research EIMC does, they also have a vertical which supports traditional East Indian crafts like clothes, art and masalas. Aside from providing valuable economic opportunities, it also allows unique access to forgotten customs. “I got a dress made by EIMC that I love wearing it whenever possible. For girls like me who belong to the current generation, it is not feasible to wear the East Indian lugra on a daily basis. Even on occasions you need to find someone who can drape it well. I think what she’s doing is a great way of ensuring that the younger generation will still be able to connect with their roots.” says Charlotte Rodricks, a Mumbai resident.
The reach of EIMC is endless, Reena has also connected her parents with the online home-food portal Aunthenticook, and through their offerings they’re preserving the culinary traditions that before were almost impossible to sample for outsiders. “I want all this information and knowledge to be out in the world – available for anyone to access and consult.” Reena explains “It pleases me no end and gives me immense pride to state that EIMC has grown and developed in an organic and completely indie way and that I have been able to accomplish everything so far on my own terms - with help from just my family and mates.” She has no current plans for expansion, simply because taking on such a vast project single-handedly would be impossible, but even in its current avatar the East Indian Memory Co. is bringing people face-to-face with one of Mumbai’s most invisible and interesting communities.
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