Suriname, a tiny country along the equator on the coast line of the Caribbean Sea, is located in the north of South America. Not very widely known outside its neighbourhood, it is a country of great racial, cultural and linguistic diversity.
Out of a total population of about four lakhs, thirty seven percent are people from the Hindustani background. They were brought to Suriname as farm labourers by the Dutch colonizers some hundred and twenty years ago. Today, after the country's freedom in 1975, the Indians play a prominent role in almost all fields of life.
Since February 1980, the country has been for all practical purposes under a Military dictatorship following a coup. Though the Military has been in full control, it has adopted a policy of appointing civilian cabinets to run the country. The Indian leaders continue to dominate the political scene. One of the recently elected Presidents of the country, Mr Ram Sawak Shankar, was, in fact, from the Indian community.
"Would you like to go back to India one day?" I ask the nineteen year old pretty Jagrani. "O yes, surely", she replies instantly. "But do you consider yourself an Indian?" I probe further. "No", she hesitates, "I am a Surinamer."
Apart from the Indian community in Suriname, there are the Africans, the Creoles or mixed-race blacks, the Javenese, the Amer-Indians, some Chinese and a few Dutch. The Africans were first brought in as slaves. Some ran away to the jungles in the interior or the `bush' as the popular expression is. These Africans are known as the Bush Negroes and their culture is indeed fascinating because they have preserved to date many of the traditions and customs which they brough from Africa a few hundred years ago.
The Africans got freedom from slavery in 1863 and they celebrate 1st July as their Emancipation Day every year when big rallies with much fanfare are organized in Churches. The Bush Negroes too are getting up-to-date in their life styles with the growth of modern means of transport and communication.
The Amer-Indians were the actual inhabitants of the country and they resemble the Javanese a lot in their features. In general, there is great affinity among the different races in Suriname despite the separatist undercurrents and the recent Civil War between the Bush Negroes and the Amer-Indians.
Being a visitor from India is a big advantage in Suriname. The Hindustani people, most of whom are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, look up to you because you come from the land of their forefathers. They love to speak to you in Avadhi or Maithli which they call Sarnami and when you answer in Hindi, it is pure nectar to their ears. Spontaneously, you get invited to their homes and introduced to their friends.
A large percentage of the Hindustanis practise Hinduism, although there are a considerable number of Muslims among them. The capital city of Suriname, Paramaribo, is thus adorned with beautiful temples and mosques. All communities -- the Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jews and Baha'is -- continue to practise their religious beliefs in harmony with each other. The outstanding example is that of an Ahmadiyya mosque and a synagogue which stand side by side without even a boundary wall separating them.
There are three main groups among the Hindus -- namely, the Arya Diwakar (Samaj), Sanatan Dharma and Gayatri Samaj. Till recently, the divisions were quite strong, but these days the demarcations are breaking down.
Pandits play a prominent role in the Hindu society in Suriname. They are centers of power, too, besides being the spiritual heads. It is they who speak almost contemporary Hindustani and even read the holy scriptures in Sanskrit.
The Arya Diwakar temples are generally decorated with sketches depicting Swami Dayanand. The Sanatan and Gayatri Samaj temples have the idols of gods and goddesses like that of Lord Rama or Lord Krishna, goddess Laxmi or goddess Kali. Alongside the rivers, there are a few temples dedicated to Ganga Mata.
The prayer services are held in all temples every Sunday morning . The rituals are more elaborate in the Sanatan and Gayatri temples but all the sects practise `yajna'. There is an attempt on the part of the elders and Pandits to attract more believers to these prayer services and so these services are at times followed by well laid out lunches in which the Indian cuisine dominates. Roti, rice, dal and halwa, all are there, and are indeed very delicious.
The largest concentration of the Hindustani people is in Nickerie which is the second biggest town in the country after its Capital. In the past, the Hindustani people worked here as labourers in rice farms but now they own these very farms. The people live in what is known as polders, that is , there is a row of houses on both sides of the street and each house has a big farm land at the back where vegetables and rice are grown and some pet animals like cows, hens, pigs and goats are kept.
The living style of the people is typically Indian but the American and Dutch influences are rather strong, the U.S.A. being very near to the country and Holland having ruled them till recently. Though Sarnami is widely spoken at homes and among the Indians, Dutch is the official language and every Surinamer knows it well. All the newspapers are in Dutch. However, the television programmes have a large dose of English. The rural people also speak hybrid English which is popularly known as Talki Talki.
The Western and Dutch influences have invaded the Hindustani homes in more than one way. The women are generally clad in skirts, though some times they use saris and at times even Punjabi suits. It is primarily the younger generation that faces the delimma of being caught up between the two worlds.
"How can you marry without love or knowing the other person?" A Hindustani teen-ager asks me in surprise when I inform her that most marriages in India are still arranged by parents. The younger generation in Suriname are more independent and in most cases choose their own life partners. However, when they marry, it is generally according to the Indian traditions. But living together without marriage is quite common and of course the divorce rate is very high. People often drink to their hearts' content and frequently have a fling with the so-called "other woman".
Suriname is extremely rich in natural flora and fauna and is one of the few countries in the world where nature is at its wildest best. There are some beautiful spots to see like the Mata Pita Beach, Tibeti waterfall and Stoelmaneiland island, but these days it is difficult to reach these spots in the interior because of the recent civil war between the Bush Negroes and the Amer-Indians and other communal tensions. The favourite pastime of the people, therefore, is to take a trip down the Saramacca or Nickerie rivers in their personal boats for fishing. Going to night clubs, bars and dancing is also quite common.
Given the rich natural habitat and very hospitable people the only sore point is the political instability and the resultant socio-economic deterioration. The things move more or less like in the Indian offices. The natives describe the situation by quoting the Dutch saying `Why do a thing in an easy manner when you can do it in a more difficult way?'
All in all, being in suriname is an exciting experience. You are in South America, but it is more like being in India what with the Hindustani people all around you and the radio stations playing Hindi songs the whole day long. The Hindu temples that spot the whole country indeed make Suriname the land of "Sri Ram", as the early settlers there fondly called it.