Of shifts and stitches, field-working among Hindustanis in Amsterdam
By Sara Bonfanti
The Post highlights some epiphanies of doing ethnography in the Dutch capital, searching for patterns of Indo-Pakistani migrations, and finding savoury exceptionalities.
Tags: Hindustanis, associations, migration visas, houses of worship, Netherlands.
April 2018. I shifted to the NL quite reluctantly, never believed that the country could give me a significant case for my study of the Indian and Pakistani minorities. Figures of these populations in the NL are quite limited, and immigration trends relatively recent. It took me a while to understand that sociocultural diversity there, in one of the smallest countries of the Old Continent, centrally positioned but flanked among the big sharks of the EU politics, was more complex and exquisitely challenging. Ethnography plays the trick, enabling me to see the unforeseen. I had visited Rotterdam last year, and became acquainted with both the Surinamese Dutch (transcontinental migrants ante litteram, descendants of XIX century bonded labourers from Eastern India, taken to Suriname plantations when the Dutch still ruled the country) and the most recent intakes of south Asian skilled migrants in the Netherlands (Bal 2012), overlapping with the conspicuous presence of Islamic communities in the port city (mostly of Turkish and Moroccan backgrounds). This time, Amsterdam unfolds a different story. Or rather, the informants I happen to meet there, tell me tales quite out of the forecast script. Although English as a foreign language is widespread all over the place, I try to pick up some native words, and it strikes me that, in Dutch, ‘Stichting’ has nothing to do with sewing (a faux ami if compared to the English ‘stitching’), but it means ‘association’, which after all is another way of threading (social) connections. I get started with searching for places to visit and possibly informants, rolling a list of stichtingen – associations, run by south Asian immigrants in the city.
Following the stitches, I end up in the Bijlmer. The borough, home to most Black minorities in the city, was developed in the late Seventies under modernist urban planning (visibly arranged on two transportation levels: top-up driving lanes and train-metro connections, bottom-down cycling and foot paths). After Suriname’s Independence (in 1975), many Dutch from overseas came to live in social housing residences in the area, which still looks eminently Black if one walks around, and is considered by locals as the ghettoized suburbia of the capital. Nonetheless, this is only one side of the story. As Dr. Priya Swamy (2016) analysed with minute ethnography, the efforts for building a Hindu temple right in Black multicultural Bijlmer over the past decade (amid mixed fortunes) recount of Hindu Brown actors who tried to reclaim their right to the city, establishing their own place of worship. Just off a bus, perfectly running on time (for whose Dutch precision my informants and I shared the same appreciation), I venture among storehouses in a newly built industrial area south-east of Amsterdam. Ikea is the only road sign which I can’t fail to spot, till I find in an alley an inconspicuous banner “Lord Shiva Temple”.
From the outside, the place wouldn’t resemble the architecture of a mandir, no domes nor flags. As ritual, I walk in, take off my shoes and line them up neatly on a rack with a few other lady’s pairs. Tiptoeing barefoot, I trespass the hall towards the main prayer room; despite lowering my head I slightly hit a tiny bell whose clinking must alert the caretaker of the premise. The head priest of the shrine comes softly down from the stairs, in a fluttering sallow linen robe. Pardeep peeps in and greets me with a benign Namaste, pressing his palms without muttering a word. (I had exchanged a few on-lines with him the day before, and he did not show any surprise at seeing me turn up at the temple.) Two middle aged women stood there, whispering gently and performing darsan (lit. beholding adoration of the holy figurines, wax sculpted statues, adorned with regal attires and flower collars, like most Hindu idols are); another young mother comes in, carrying her infant in a pram (and accompanied by an elder man… her husband or father, I wonder?). As the small room starts to fill up, Pardeep suggests we might move upstairs.
On the threshold of his personal realm –which unlikely combines a public common kitchen and a private single bedroom, he hands me over a pair of clog-like slippers: evidently larger than my shoe number, they belong to his “master”, the founder of the temple, and chairman of the Stichting which promoted its building. An Indian entrepreneur long naturalised Dutch citizen (OCI – Overseas Citizen of India), and stern BJP Hindu nationalist supporter, Mr. Vinod S. hired Pardeep from his homeland a year ago, requiring a skilled astrologer and passionate Vedic pundit (savant).
This young clergyman, just turned thirty, was born in a Himachal village (northeast India), of which he goes very proud for being “The Birthland of Lord Rama”. After travelling extensively as a pilgrim to the sacred city of Mathura (in U. P.) where he was trained into Vedic Scriptures and Sanskrit, he got married and immediately began to practise as a Hindu sage in Punjab. While his wife, young son and widow mother wait for him at home in Hoshiarpur, he seems fulfilled by his choice to be a global itinerant minister: in fact, he is a periodic circular migrant, travelling to the NL every three months on a tourist visa, and going back to India regularly. While Mr. Vinod dragged him to Amsterdam on an informal agreement, on the edge between sponsorship and exploitation, Pardeep wishes for a similar but formal recruitment from Canada. (North American countries have special arrangements for religious officiants, and issue up to 5-year renewable visas to Hindu priests, Hatcher 2016). I am bewildered by the honest satisfaction I read in his eyes for an intermittent life, considering that he also speculates on the value of time, a mantra he knows from ancient literatures and tries to apply in everyday life.
It’s almost midday, and my host invites me to share lunch with him with some hesitancy: he apologises that there’s not much food available today, since the lady who used to be in charge of cooking the daily langar (free common kitchen) has been hospitalized for breast cancer. We both murmur a blessing for her, and he goes on to explain that now he cooks what he can for Sundays luncheon (plain rice and a veg thali, provisions sponsored by local Hindu patrons): then, the temple gets crowded for befriending over food (a tradition established by Sikh gurdware, but adopted ever since in other -esp. diasporic- Hindustani communities of cult), while weekdays he generally eats alone. He opens the fridge, gloomily empty, and takes out some sliced bread and homespun ghee spread; he can’t afford today to offer me any better. He takes the chance anyway to invite me over next Sunday, for a ‘pure vegetarian fine meal’ – respectful of his religious prescriptions- to enjoy with all regular attendees.
While he takes time to prepare his meagre sandwich, and serves me a mug of plain green tea, I let my sight gaze around the room. Hollow white-washed timber and benches, seating half a hundred people, are surrounded with male garments drying on the line. Pardeep blushes at seeing my prying, and begs pardon for displaying his underwear in the midst of the canteen. That part of the building, not so much a house of worship rather a home for his leading worshipper, has never been meant to host unintended guests at awry times. I feel grateful and riveted that he let me in with little discomfort. In the kitchen, right over a three-fire pewter cook, a small mezzanine painted with a somnolent Lord Shiva accommodates the priest’s restroom. Pardeep’s makeshift bedroom is no more than a mattress-wide floor bed, covered with a rabble of bright coloured cushions and textiles. He swiftly shows me the place, refusing to turn on the light which would disclose its untidiness. I can glimpse a Chinois pottery incense holder effuses a piercing whiff of patchouli. His wardrobe is just a folding closet, with clothes dangling down on hangers. There’s a mix of shabbiness and cosiness in this little dorm-box, which Mr. Vinod arranged expressly for his appointed cleric coming from India, after having hosted him at his place for a while.
After a couple of hours talking, I ask my interlocutor permission to use his toilet, and Pardeep kindly draws me to a small cabinet almost unseen: a freshly cleaned WC with washbasin and shower. I spy two toothbrushes on a shelf, but refrain from asking nosy questions. He stated that he lives alone, but never said he wouldn’t put up someone for the night on occasion.
It’s high time for my interlocutor to dutifully resume his “shift”: after lunch, many come for a private puja (supplication), waiting for the collective one scheduled daily at 7 pm, when a day’s work is over. Dwelling upstairs the formal worship place, Pardeep is on duty 7 days a week, from dawn to dusk. He lives between quick-lived transnational shifts, and one constant work shift in the temple. We go back downstairs, and take some pics together, smiling with the divine icons beaming behind us. Unwrapped his tablas, he treats me to an improvised performance of a liturgical chant, humming and rattling on the drums. I am baffled by how deep his voice suddenly turns: playing his role as a chanting priest endows him with the authority he seemed to fake while discussing of lay matters. As I try to farewell from the temple, after plunking in their safety-box all the (little) cash I had in my pursue (but he suggests I can donate online, alms are always a blessing for sender and recipients), he offers me Prasad (a devotional fare presented to gods and then shared among devotees). A selection of nuts, berries, and candies, which Pardeep assures he has hand-confectioned himself, come already sealed in cello packs. I leave the dim-light of the temple, and I walk out in the sun, with this little bonbon souvenir, mouth-watering and thinking of the sweet and sour senses that this sui generis home-visit, to a public place of worship and private place of dwelling, left in my mind. Contrary to expectations, Sanathana Dharma, the eternal truth, tunes up with the makeshift home of a pious man in a self-appointed circular diaspora.
That night, I return home, to a rented room in Nieuw Sloten, a horticulture village conglomerated in the city after middle class residential developments in the ‘90s. My Dutch host, a charming lady in her fifties dressed in a crimson apron, intercepts me at the door and invites me for a Cassia tea on the patio. Born in Suriname (and taken to Amsterdam in early infancy by her mother), Cheema is a professional chef, married to a Brit-Pakistani entrepreneur, with two adult daughters moved out to the US. Though she still professes Hinduism like all from her household of origin, her fine family home displays a precious copy of the Qur’an in the middle of the dining room, opened daily at random for inspirational readings. This week, her husband is abroad for business in the Gulf, and she seems to have wriggled out of the habit: a sewing needle case casually lies on the closed tome. Still excited after the day’s fieldwork, I relate my visit to the Lord Shiva Temple, but Cheema shakes her head with light reprimand: that’s not a good house of cult for Hindus, at least not for Hindustani people born in Suriname. Her lot attends another mandir in Indischen Buurt, east of Amsterdam, the most ethnically diverse borough, overrun by Surinamese locals and named after the former colony of Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), known for reiterated urban renewals (Engel et al. 2013). When I take out my still sealed Prasad-box for her to see, she looks horrified, and blurts: ‘you wouldn’t dare eating that stuff, would you?’ There’s a mix of indulgence and dismay in her sneer: such a myriad divisions are being reproduced among the Hindustani compounds in the Netherlands, that no ‘Stichting’ can stitch them all together.
Bal, E. W. 2012. Country Report: Indian migration to the Netherlands. San Domenico di Fiesole, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, CARIM-India; no. RR2012/7.
Engel H., E. van Veltzen, O. Van de Wal. 2013. Renewing City Renewal. A call for strong design. Trancity Valiz.
Hatcher, B. A. 2016. Hinduism in the Modern World. London – New York: Routledge.
Swamy, P. 2016. Temple Building and the Myth of the Multicultural City among Hindus in the Bijlmer. Etnofoor, 28(2), 55-75.