“Since you leave me
I am alone
I am like a dog
Without a bone,
And I don’t want to be alone
So Radica why you leave and go?”
This song blasts all hours of day and night in stores, street corners, and radio stations of Dutch Guyana, the country now officially known as Suriname. Suriname is sandwiched between French Guiana and Guyana on the coast of South America. During our visit last year, I couldn’t ascertain if the girl referred to in the song was of Indian origin or of some other ethnicity who may have adopted a version of the name Radhika in this culturally united region of the world. Interestingly, Radhika is a fairly common name for girls of Indian heritage in Suriname, but it is routinely spelt Radika or Radica and pronounced with a hard “c”because of the heavy Dutch influence.
The original influx of Indians, or Hindustanis, as they refer to themselves in Suriname today, was back in the 19th century when indentured contract laborers were imported largely from Northern India, the region which today constitutes the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It was a way for colonial governments to get around the labor shortage due to the abolition of slavery. Their modern day descendents speak Dutch fluently, along with a dialect of Hindi very close to a bhaiya-style Bhojpuri that has been stuck in time for a century and a half. The spellings and pronunciations of names follow the nuances and limitations of the Dutch language, where Bhagat becomes Bagat and Rajan becomes Radjan.
Landing at Paramaribo Airport past midnight, as we walked out after clearing customs, we spotted a chubby Indian man sporting a Rajnikant moustache and holding a placard that read Mitani. I thought the missing “h” was an error, until I heard the Radica song. The Rajnikant-wannabe shouted “Saab ka baig le lo,” and a decidedly undernourished youth of Indian origin, similar to what you might expect at Mumbai airport, wheeled our stuff to a Javanese taxi driver. The Javanese in Suriname are, again, descendents of indentured laborers from Indonesia. During our 30-mile ride into downtown Paramaribo, this Javanese youth listened to an Indian radio station that announced songs in Dutch but played songs like “I just fall in love with you” and “Jeevan saathi, saath nibha”with equal ease.
Our hotel was owned and managed by a Javanese couple. On the wall behind the front desk, religious icons of Sai Baba, a cross, and the Buddha resided harmoniously and were revered equally. Similarly, as you walked the streets of Paramaribo, mosques, temples, and churches blended into each other and the colonial architecture, giving evidence of a culture that thrives on secularism and tolerance. However, we did notice that the tolerance did not apparently extend to the guy who carried our luggage to and from the hotel room. He was referred to simply as the “black man” by the Hindustani night manager who, after four generations, considered himself native Surinamese. But when we went on a sunset boat tour to spot dolphins in the Suriname River, it was our holier-than-thou boat captain, one who claimed heritage from Hardwar, who left us stranded in the dark without calling for a taxi; and it was a kind lady of African descent who came to our rescue and waited for us in the deserted marina until a taxi picked us up.
Walking the streets of Paramaribo is an experience in itself. I would categorically say that our hotel, although a gem in terms of cleanliness, facilities, and service, was decidedly on the wrong side of downtown. We were southeast of the Central Market, where
a melting pot of intercultural residents, some trying to make a living and others a killing, appeared to live harmoniously with each other. Our concerns for our safety turned into alarm when we spotted a hoodlum break the glass of a parked minivan in broad daylight and abscond swiftly with its contents.
The tourist action is northwest of the Central Market as you amble lazily on the Waterkant along the Suriname River. It feels safer here, and you no longer worry when you hear footsteps behind you. Little florist shops selling tulips transport you to Amsterdam for the few minutes you are away from the smelly, sweaty, and busy marketplace. Walking past classy Italian and French restaurants, you will find yourself in Independence Square right in front of the white Presidential Palace which has a colonial look and is surrounded by lush greenery. Behind the Presidential Palace is the Palmentuin, the palm garden where people sit, relax, and watch birds. On the water side of the Independence Square is Fort Zeelandia, built in the 17th century.
At some point you might tire of sipping pricey drinks and partaking of equally expensive finger foods in the vicinity of the five star Royal Torarica Hotel, which is a landmark in itself. Then you can take part in the multiple water activities that are available through travel agents that abound in the same environs; some you would not dare undertake in your own home country, but the euphoria of being in a foreign environment lulls you into a false sense of security and safety. If you ask me what else one can do in Paramaribo, I would suggest a tour of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul which is a pretty wooden church, the tallest of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Unfortunately, when we went, it was boarded for construction. What I would advise you to avoid is the pitiable mosquito-infested Paramaribo Zoo.
But I digress. Anyone want to guess what the lazy looking dog that slept in our hotel lobby was called? If you guessed “Moti,” you were right on the money. From the point of view of modern Indian influences, Suriname appears stuck in the 1970s. There was a second influx of people of Indian origin to Surinam in the 70s; these Indians found that, once they established Surinamese residency they became eligible for Dutch passports, making it easier for their children to obtain a European education and residency. I surmise that this group of immigrants relinquished their Indian citizenship and did not travel back to India for decades; this could explain why television channels keep playing old movies starring the likes of Shammi Kapoor, Rajesh Khanna, and Dev Anand. On New Year’s Day, when every store and restaurant is closed, I was thrilled to catch one of my all-time-favorite films—Anand.
Anyway, with Moti lurking in the background, my daughter reached for the day’s newspaper in the lobby and we all got a chuckle out of seeing full-color photographs of Shahid Kapoor and Scarlet Johannsen next to each other in the gossip section.
Although the government devalued the Dutch guilder a 1,000-fold to the Suriname dollar, the average vendor in Central Market still thinks in terms of the rupee. “Ek rupalli de do”(give me a rupee) was declared by the fruit seller when we bought half-a-dozen bananas, and “Pandrah rupiyah”(15 rupees) by the taxi driver who dropped us off to one of Paramaribo’s several exquisite Javanese restaurants; in both cases they meant the Suriname dollar of course.
One final note: when Radika or Radica and her friends, whether of Indian, African or Javanese descent, want a fast food fix, they do not head to McDonalds, but to Roopram, that serves equally unhealthy chicken curry and roti. But you will communicate a lot easier with the wait staff at the Roopram counter if you speak Dutch rather than try to understand their accented Hindustani!
Riz Mithani lives in Cupertino, California, and satisfies his wanderlust for travel whenever he can get away from his day job directing the presales team for a decision management company.