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'I have yet to meet a person in India I didn't like'

By Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi
January 13, 2003 20:54 IST
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"What's the name of the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh?" asks Sinthal Ramiah, 65, who has just realized his lifelong dream of visiting India, his 'beloved country.'

When informed, he says he would like to solicit Chandrababu Naidu's help in tracing his ancestral roots in Andhra Pradesh.

He was born in South Africa and somehow could never visit India, his motherland. But all that was to change on January 3, when landed in Mumbai.

The city and its people have mesmerized him and he is overjoyed to breathe the Indian air. "I just can't get over the fact that women in India are walking alone on the streets at 11 in the night. Look around. No one is sulking here. Everybody is smiling, even the poor." He is impressed with the safety the average Indian enjoys.

Before going to Renugatta, his native place in Andhra Pradesh, he visited the three-day Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in New Delhi.

Speaking to in his heavy British accent, he said: "I am visiting India to find my roots. The organisers of this event said that the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh will help me in my quest."

Sinthal Ramiah's family moved from India a century ago. His grandfather Venkat Ramiah migrated to South Africa in 1900 from the Renugatta village near the Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh.

The British took him there, along with some 2,000 other indentured labourers, to work in the sugarcane fields near Durban.

Ramiah said: "My grandfather was actually a slave. The conditions under which he served were ghastly. Yet, even a century ago, the Indian community in Durban had two unwritten laws: to keep Indian traditions alive, and to educate their children. Needless to say, that foresight of our forefathers benefited us tremendously."

"My father had a retail shop in the town of Estcourt, where the population of Indian is about 10,000. Second-generation Indians in South Africa did not have much money. My father had a meager income, and thus even though he loved India, he could visit it only once."

Yet, the family has always carried India in its heart. Ramiah has preserved 100-year-old items which his grandfather had brought from his native village in Andhra Pradesh.

"I have few lovely brass items. I still have an old grinding stone which was brought to grind fresh garlic and chillies. And I have kept a table from India which is in an excellent condition."

He plans to take a few things from his native village in Andhra Pradesh back to South Africa. "That is, if I am able to locate my village and my ancestral home," he sighs.

Ramiah says his father had a very tough time in the South Africa of yore. He had to face apartheid and could trade only in areas demarcated for Indians.

"Indians were only allowed to become a lawyer, doctor or teacher. All other professions were closed for the Indians," says Ramiah.

"My grand father died a poor man. My father came up the hard way." Ramiah himself is a businessman.

So why did he not come to India earlier?

"People who educate their children well, do not have the luxury of saving too much money, or at least enough to travel across continents. I didn't have the money to come to my beloved India. India is an expensive country to travel in: hotels are very pricey, too."

"Every Indian in South Africa wants to visit India as many times he can afford. In fact, I was lucky to get a flight. During the winter flights are heavily booked between India and South Africa," he says.

Ramiah is obsessed with India. He has formed a beautiful image of the country in his mind, his heart. He reads a lot about India. "I think India is the spiritual fountain of the world."

When probed further, a besotted Ramiah says: "You go to any temple of India, look around, and see the people there. They are caring and smiling. People look so happy here. In our country (South Africa), a lady cannot walk around like this. Here people don't lock their cars from inside while driving. That doesn't happen in South Africa. Once the sun sets, hijackers and criminals emerge. . ."

"I want to experience the heart of India. When I traveled from Mumbai to Delhi I met so many good people. They were so affable. I have yet to meet a person in India I didn't like," he says, his eyes twinkling with joy and a child-like curiosity.

On his travel agenda are Tirupati, Haridwar and Kanyakumari. "I believe deeply in Swami Vivekananda's teachings."

"Child abuse and molestation of women are a very serious problem. There's a lot of that in South Africa. Mumbai is unbelievable. Women are safe here," says Ramiah, who speaks only English and a minimal smattering of Hindi and Telugu.

"I was told that there are a lot of beggars in India. I don't see all that many. I thought Indian roads are full of bullock-carts, but that too isn't entirely true," he says.

"Since I was a child, I have asked myself where would I like to live after retirement. I am a third generation Indian in South Africa, but given an opportunity I would love to retire in India."

You try to bring him back to reality, and ask him: "Don't you think people are greedy or materialistic here too?"

"Such people are all over the world. Who is not greedy? Indians have a charm and love in their life. Indian metros are having good roads and so many bridges," he says, his eyes misting over.

But where is the beauty in India's metropolises, you ask him.

"Why, in the people! Beauty lies in talking to you," he says simply.

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Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

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