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From traders to settlers How the Gujaratis found home in Goa

Janice Savina Rodrigues |NT Network 

The Gujarati speaking community has had a long tryst with Goa traversing through the times of the Adil Shah, the Portuguese and post colonialism. NT Network gives its readers a glimpse into the life of the community

Goa time and again has seen an influx of migration from within the country as well as across its frontiers. And this often tends to happen in a relatively organised manner – one single member of the community, adventurous enough, goes out into the world and tests the waters, if favourable, he then gets the other members of his clan along. This is probably what happened with the Gujarati community that has settled far and wide, over the past decades, centuries, among other places, in Goa.

The demographics

Goa is currently home to over 6000 Gujarati speaking people; these include the Vaishnavis (Hindu) and Jains in larger numbers (0.08 per cent of Goa’s population), followed by the Khoja and the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims and a miniscule number of Parsis. The census of 2011 states that in total, 6846 people in Goa speak Gujarati and its dialects or related languages, including Gujrao/Gujrau, Saurashtri, Kutchi and four others.

“The Gujarati community is spread across the state, in pockets, with major concentration in Margao and Panaji, followed by Vasco and Mapusa. We are a trading and business community and you will rarely find a Gujarati seeking employment in the government or private sectors, we’d rather set up a business, however small; and hence you will find us in and around the commercial hubs of the state,” says Mukesh Desai, past president of the Gujarati Yuvak Mandal.

The census states that although the highest concentration is in Margao, there is a higher population in North Goa district.


How they came here

When 20 year old, Babulal Mansukhlal Zaveri chanced upon Goa on an adventurous trip in the early 1920s, he fell in love. Setting up a fruit stall in Margao he began his life here, serving the Goan people and mingling with them socially. He even married a Goan Saraswat Brahmin girl, who adopted the Gujarati culture so well that she could easily be mistaken for a pure bred Gujarati. “In fact I only realised my grandmother was a Goan in 1997, she was very Gujarati in her ways, she would even use the Gujarati ‘muhavre’ (adages); we took it for granted that she was from Gujarat,” says Abhijeet Zaveri, a third generation Gujarati whose family owns Gujarat Lodge in the heart of the capital city.

But Babulal was not the first Gujarati to set foot on Goan soil. He probably followed suit of other older families, like the Damodar Mangaljee, or the Tapsi family. In fact the latter has been in Goa since the rule of Adil Shah. “They came here as traders and during the Portuguese rule and found a connection with Goa because of Daman and Diu. Our relationship with Goa has been a very good one from the start. We even have a temple in Narva – the Saptakoteshwar Temple, one of the oldest in Goa. In the documents it is mentioned that in 1615 the land and the finances was donated by a Gujarati businessman; it is still maintained and all the mahajans here are Gujarati. Gujaratis are close to the 22nd generation now,” says Mukesh whose family settled here about 60 years ago.

“The Gujarati community arrived here mainly in the 20th century though there were some families residing here before that,” says historian Prajal Sakhardande. He further states that initially, the community was associated with the trading of spices and textiles, but later a few acquired mining licences. “They set up shops in Panaji, Vasco and Margao. Many Gujarati people were favoured by the Portuguese government because of their trading skills and thus they came to Goa from Daman and Diu. Some prominent families that came here during that era include Mangaljis, Maganlals, Parekhs, Mehtas, Rajanis amongst others. Some acquired mining leases from the Portuguese government in the 1950s,” he says.

Many Gujarati families followed suit. “I can’t be very certain, but there must have been some issue in Gujarat during the early 1900’s and since most of the land was agricultural back then, they had moved away from there. My grandfather would tell us that some of his friends moved to the UK and Belgium from Surat, as they were diamond dealers. And people from Bhuj-Kutch area, moved to Africa and people from South Gujarat moved to Daman, Diu and then Goa; he told us that there was some kind of passport required to come to Goa, hence it was a little difficult to migrate here,” says Beena Gangani, an artist.

It’s all about business

As it generally happens, when a few of a community settles in a place, others hope for similar fortunes, thus once the mining houses were set up a few other Gujaratis came too. “My father-in-law came to Goa from Kutch in the 1920s and worked on the barge for Damodar Mangalji. He later started a business with another Gujarati, and got his family members to Goa. He branched out and started the material business that is still in operation, for over 39 years now. After the brothers separated their businesses, we now have the readymade garment business that my husband took over about 20 years ago,” says Veena Prabodh Sethia, from Vasco. Like the Sethias, Shantilal Cholera too initially worked for the Damodar Mangalji in Sanquelim, now the family owns a real estate business under the patriarch’s name.

The Gujaratis who came initially here, would work as masons and skilled workers and gradually they needed more people and thus called upon relatives, “it was a difficult life, there were not many facilities here, and people couldn’t afford anything extra, they would travel by buses and ships. My family moved from Rajkot to Bombay and then to Goa by sea, the trains came in much later,” says Beena. The community began taking contract jobs and would get material like ceramics from Gujarat, they’d have outlets and labourers under them.

Nilesh Shah, proprietor of Raj Travels whose great grandfather was one of the early settlers in the 1880’s, tells us that trade brought his family here, but winning a lottery of `1000 led to their first enterprise. “My great grandfather won a lottery in 1890 and because he associated with the Arabs back then dealing in dry fruits and spices, he started a business of food-grains and spices, and 1920 he was one of the leading importers in Goa,” says Nilesh.

Everything went well till the 1950s when the threat of war loomed large, hampering trade and forcing the family to step into the wholesale business, which continued to thrive after liberation till the 1970s when the tourism boom began, “and then my father decided to branch out into tourism related work and in 1996 when I graduated, I saw the opportunity and started the tours and travels business,” he adds.

Babulal instead, ventured into the food business, from the fruit stall he graduated to selling pakodas and tea and then in 1935 set up the restaurant that still stands strong. “By the time I was old enough to comprehend things, he was not keeping too well, but he still knew how to expand his businesses, he would always say ‘sell what you are eating’ and thus, we eat our food first to see if it is fine and then sell it, in other words, we know what we are selling,” says Abhijeet.

Abhijeet himself has branched out and now runs an ice cream parlour in Porvoirm, a dream he harboured since his days as a child.

The community has definitely helped the Goan economy, providing job opportunities to the locals. Mukesh says that 99.9 per cent of Gujaratis are businessmen who create jobs, “If Gujarat is our ‘matrbhumi’ (motherland), Goa is our ‘karmabhumi’ (place of work), that gives us our daily bread, both hold equal importance and thus we always aim at giving back to the land that let us thrive,” he adds. One will see several Goan employees manning the various businesses including that of the Maganlals (Magsons stores) or the Gosalias (Big G). “In our main office at Patto, we have a team of 18 people who are a mixed crowd from Goa,” says Nilesh.

Though earlier there were many more Goan locals employed in the various businesses, Zaveri points out that of late it has become difficult to find youngsters who are willing to work their way up, “Frankly, only one employee is native Goan, our main cook. Of late we’ve faced a problem that no one wants to work hard, everyone wants instant money. Even when I started, I didn’t just sit at the counter at the first go, I started with pouring lassi into glasses. None of the younger Goan staff want to do that now. Today boys want 10,000 salary without any experience, and even when they are asked to learn something, they don’t show up the next day. Another very surprising fact that I notice is that girls are willing to work even till late, but the boys are not,” he says.

Food and lifestyle

The Gujaratis are predominantly a vegetarian community, even some of the Muslims follow a strict vegetarian diet. They are also very culturally oriented and strive to keep their traditions alive. Though some of them have integrated themselves so well into the Goan society that they can be passed off as Goans, the only give away of their ethnic roots is their surnames. “We barely have anything Gujarati about our family, we came here three generations back and in fact even my grandfather was born in Goa, and married a Goan, maybe that’s why we were brought up in the Goan culture ” says freelance journalist Arati Das.

There are others who have adhered to their identity, becoming part of the various cultural groups in the state. There are eight ‘Samaj’ of the community, each town forming its own, under the parent Atal Goa Gujrati Samaj. “We continue with our festivals and traditions through these. We have introduced garba and dandiya to the Navratri celebrations here; we do social work, and help people. The Gujarati Samaj School has a lot of Goan students; we have the Matruchaya trust, old age homes, gaushalas. We help anyone in need,” says Mukesh.

The Samaj also promotes learning of the Gujarati language. “There are a few similarities in pure Konkani and Gujarati and if you can read Marathi, you may find it easier to read Gujarati. The scripts are different but some alphabets are similar. I feel we should not forget our traditions, and should learn our regional languages, though English is essential. If the youngsters don’t take a liking for it now, what will they do later in life, and how would we preserve culture?” he asks.

Speaking about the food and different lifestyles in Goa, Veena says that when she came to Goa in the mid 80’s it was tough to adjust. “Being pure vegetarians, it was difficult to go to other places as we couldn’t eat there. The strict Jains will not eat food where there has been non vegetarian food cooked. The vegetables were also limited to the seasonal local vegetables, so it was difficult, especially when we were invited to other people’s houses,” she says. And thus to save themselves from hunger, most families began to take food made at home along with them wherever they went, be it theplas, puri or sev.

The Gujarat Lodge gives Goans a taste of their land in the Gujarati thali, though it is a toned down version of it. “Initially Goans found it very spicy, but later they got used to it. In Gujarat itself there are variations in taste, though food is oily everywhere, in Rajkot the food is spicier, while in Surat it is sweeter and jaggary-based,” says Zakhana Zaveri, Abhijeet’s wife. She says that earlier it was difficult to make Gujarati food for the lack of the ingredients. In fact she mentions one dish ‘undhiyo’ that they can make only when someone comes back from Gujarat. “The dish uses about 50 different vegetables, and we don’t get almost 80 per cent here in Goa, including small green brinjals, purple yams, and others. You could say it is the Gujarati counterpart for the Goan khatkhate, but tastes very different,” she adds.

The Gujarati Goan

Many families do consider themselves to be of Gujarati origins, but that doesn’t make them any less Goan than the locals here. In fact, many of them speak Konkani even at home, reserving Gujarati only for religious ceremonies. “The Gujaratis are generally very culture conscious people; they will make it too obvious at times. They are hard working folk, but now that they are in Goa, they have become a clan of fairly ‘susegad gujjus’, but business is always in their blood,” says Beena.

Like Goans, Gujaratis traditionally also live in joint families, in large homes. “We all tend to keep in touch with our cousins and far off relatives, so even when we have a gathering our family itself will fill up a hall,” she laughs.

Though they have made Goa their home and feel a part of the Goan milieu, and most say that no one has ever discriminated against them, there are still stray cases of racial remarks being made, especially on social media. “I’ve never been made to feel an outsider in person, but online I have been told so, on a Goa group on social networks. All my close friends are those who I made in the pre-primary school, and they are a mixed crowd, we have never let our differences affect our friendship. So it came as a shock to me when I was called an outsider. Moreover, almost 70 to 80 per cent of Goans are outside Goa; what would you tell them?” asks Abhijeet.

















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