The East Indian Community

Original Inhabitants of Bombay, Salsette & Thana.


A Brief Outlook on the East Indians of Bassein

By Michael M. Colaco B.A LL.B (Manikpur, Bassein)


Now that there is a greater association of the East Indians of Bombay and Salsette with those of Bassein and that they are linked together for political purposes through the one seat for the Legislative Assemble given by Government to the Indian Christians of Bombay and Suburban and Thana Districts, it will be interesting to gain some knowledge of the East Indians of Bassein, numbering about 23,000 who were otherwise neglected as a backward community.


Many people are under the erroneous impression that the first Catholics of Bassein were those converted by the Portuguese. There were Catholics at Bassein even before that and in the fourteenth century there was a Catholic Church at Supara. The Portuguese no doubt, did important work for conversion. Francis Antonio do Porto, a Franciscan missionary, did a large part of this work, by persuading numbers of men to change their religion and by providing orphanages and filling them with deserted children in times of war and famine, he prepared a class of native priests. The Jesuits, were established in strength in Bassein and Bandra after 1548 by the help of St. Francis Xavier. About the end of the 16th century there were houses of all great religious orders at Bassein and at that time was established the College of the Purification, a Seminary for noble children, natives of Bassein, who were brought up as missionaries. The Catholics of Bassein held good positions and were an independent respectable class.


The Catholics of Bassein today are mostly farmers and their perseverance has carved the whole surface of the plain country into embanked rice fields. Many cultivators are small holders of a few acres of land. The price of their produce has fallen considerably and even then they have very little to sell. They do not make use of scientific appliances but use cheap tools for agricultural purposes, as the wooden plough, the large hoe, and the rake. To induce them to do farming on co-operative basis by co-ordination of land for extensive farming is rather difficult. Nature plays an important part in the life of these cultivators. In regular monsoons the crop thrive and the cultivator expects to realize the worth of his hard toil, but irregular monsoons devastate the crops and all his trouble is fruitless.


Amoung these farmers the Catholics around Bassein know as gardeners, are the most skilled husbandmen, They grow sugarcane, plantains, betel vines and other vegetables and have turned the light sandy country around Bassein into an evergreen garden. Unfortunately, on account of the pest that is set on he betel vines for the last many years, these farmers have been totally ruined, They go on spending after plantation of beetle vines, each time with the sanguine hope that they may succeed, but many a time they are disappointed to note that the leaves begin to wither before they have realized anything out of it, thus they are put to unnecessary expense and irredeemable debt. Government have been pleased to appoint an agricultural expert to investigate into the causes of this malady, but it appears that he has not succeeded materially so far.


These agriculturists follow the traditional customs of their ancestors regarding birth, marriage and death ceremonies. Parents till now play the dominant part. They secure a good match for their daughters. The girl’s parents make a proposal to the boy’s parents and the boy and the girl know their parents wishes. The weddings are performed in a grand ceremonial style and the festivities last for two or three days. The wedding expenses, the illness expenses, the Court expenses and the expenses incurred as the result of the habit to drink, perhaps due to the hard toil to which these cultivators are subjected have led many an agriculturist into the clutches of the sowcars. They take loans from the sowcars either by pledging their ornaments or by mortagaging their lands at the rate of 12%-18%, and when they are unable to pay the loan, the ornaments are sold by the sowcars and the property taken over by them.


Thus the property is tending to consolidate at the hands of these sowcars who originally came as grocers and are today the landed proprietors, while these poor agriculturists are depending on them and cultivate the property, which was once theirs, on lease from them and being unable to fulfill the terms of the lease due to the epidemic which has swept on the plantation, these gardeners are buried under the weight of heavy debt and are pulling on at the tender mercy of the sowcars.


Very few agriculturists have recovered higher education. Trade in the former days was flourishing and probably the sons of the rich parents did not care to acquire higher academic qualifications. The sons of the poor parents could not afford to proceed for higher education, as there were no higher schools at Bassein and to receive higher education in Bombay was inconvenient, since there were very few trains running as far as Virar in those days, and besides it was expensive. Further there was no temptation to suffer all these inconveniences and expenses. To get employment in those days was not so very difficult as at present and some persons of that time have studied upto the primary IV standard or even less than that are seen serving in Government offices, commercial firms and local bodies, while others are employed as carpenters and in other similar jobs. The one A. V. high School at Bassein, now know as R. P. High School was established in 190.6 and at present there are two more A. V. high School viz. the Thomas Baptista High School run by the Archdiocese of Bombay and one at Agashi the Ghellobhai High School. But alas it was too late in the day and the educational system requires over hauling to suit the present needs not knows what will be the outcome of the products  of these schools.


Female education is the problem even of today. The girls of former times have neither received education in their mother tongue (Marathi) nor in English. The parents were too conservative to send their girls to schools – perhaps due to their illiteracy. They believed that the girls were meant for domestic work and all they need to know was the art of cooking and field work. Going to schools to learn to read and write did not come within their sphere. Such education was meant for boys and that too with view to earn a living. The sons of the poor parents who desired to seek service thus took advantage of the school education. The proverb being, “ Uttam sheti, madhiam dhanda and kanishta naukri i.e cultivation first, trade second and service last. Service was then looked upon with contempt. Some of the well-to-do parents even neglected the education of their sons. Girls were given domestic training from the very early age of seven when they are required to help their mothers to look after the young babies while they were cooking or doing domestic work. When grown up, these girls were required to help in the fields. No doubt, this is to some extent due to the poverty of the agriculturist, as they cannot afford to keep servants to look after the young children. At present there is a slight change in the outlook of the parents towards the education of their daughters and at some places girls are seen receiving education in Marathi upto the IV standard.


The East Indian of Bassein follow various pursuits. Some of them are working in Bombay as said above. Some Christian cartmen chiefly of Chulna, Manikpur, Barampur and Gokhivera start in batches of five to ten carts and traveling by night and the cool of the day reach the place of destination in Jawar, Wada and other places. There they go in different directions to look far and fell suitable trees which they buy from the Government. These they drag in open spaces, where they are shaped with considerable skill. No doubt these cartmen are he best axeman. The wood is then loaded and brought home and laid close o the village in fields or salt water mud and here the customers come to buy. Each trip takes over 15 to 20 days. A handful of these agriculturists are jungle contractors. They buy contracts of the marked wood from the government. The wood is then removed to a particular place where it is sold as firewood, wood for house construction and for other requirements.


The gardeners of Bassein plant betel vines, plantain trees ad other vegetables. Betel leaves plantains and other vegetables they take individually to the nearest market. Generally considerable trade in betel leaves and plantains is effected at Holi Bazaar and in vegetables at the Bassein Market. The producers sell their goods to the middlemen, who are mostly Punjabis, Gujaratis, Deccanis, Mohamedans and a few Christians. The plantains and betel leaves are exported to the Punjab, Gujarat and Kathiawar. On account of the recent exportation of betel vines from Madras and of plantains from Jalgaon and Poona to the above markets and chiefly due to the trunk line and inexpensive freight of the G.I.P railway, it appears that this trade is not faring well at present. Besides the trade being entirely controlled by the middlemen, the producers do not realize anything substantial from their hard toil, as the major part of the profit is enjoyed by the middlemen.


A few East Indians of Bassein are skilled carpenters. They build houses, small boats, machwas, balav, etc. and undertake other fine works of art. They do not receive any special raining and follow this industry to imitation and apprenticeship with their own men.


A handful of East Indians of Bassein are fishermen. They do with their balav or bagla -fishing boats - into the deep sea all the year round, except in the roughest monsoon weather and sell the fish brought by them to contractors who are usually Mahamedans. These contractors advance them money on condition that all available fish will be sold to them. The contractors being middle men between the illiterate fishermen (as a rule fond of drinks) and the Bombay Market, enjoy the cream of this trade, while the poor fishermen undertake considerable risk for a meager income.


The East Indian members of two villages – Kumbharwada at Manikpur and Kumbharwada at Agashi – do fine pottery work. The earthen utensils made by them are used for cooking and other domestic purposes by Basseinites, including non-Catholics.


The dry plantains of Agashi, Bassein, is a special variety. Some of the East Indian deal in this trade. They are gardeners and do plantain drying work themselves without any help from other craftsmen. They are engaged in this trade from October to January.


We have made a brief but comprehensive study of the East Indians of Bassein, and the facts revealed show that Basseinites are doing the whole work by natural intelligence and serve the needs of one another. They lack in education which has kept them behind, otherwise they are skilled craftsmen. Should the trade be properly organized, Co-operative Societies for purchasing and marketing the produce of these agriculturists started ., they are made to understand the value of co-operation, capital advanced to these agriculturists at nominal interest, through the co-operative society, they are given agricultural and industrial education, their social customs are reformed, and they are made to understand the value of thrift and reduction of expenses for wedding and other times, we feel assured that the East Indians of Bassein, who at present neglected as a back-ward community or thei progeny will make a mark on history of the East Indian Community. Workers of the welfare of these neglected East Indians of Bassein are needed and when such better times will dawn over Bassein, their intrinsic value will be proved.


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