Kutchi, Migration, and East African Asian Identity in the Indian Diaspora
The author explores the historical origins of her family language, Kutchi, and its enduring legacy through years of migration and settlement across continents.
By Omme-Salma Rahemtullah
Kutchi as a Religious Signifier in East Africa
While the changes to the Kutchi language as it traveled from India to East Africa came as no surprise, I was shocked to learn that it is now a language spoken only by Muslims in East Africa. While I am well aware that the divisions between different Asian groups in East Africa are clearly demarcated by religion – as evidenced, for example, in the different places of worship in different Asian neighborhoods in the cities of East Africa, and given that marriages across religious lines in these communities are rare – it was interesting to learn how language was also religiously coded.
Ronikali, another of the interviewees, grew up in Uganda and visited his mother’s village in India in the Kutch region during his childhood. He was confused at hearing Hindus speaking Kutchi, he told me “all these Indians there, they were Hindus but they were talking Kutchi. I’m confused…In Uganda Biju Bhai or Dhyar Bhai [Hindu names] is not talking Kutchi, they’re talking Gujarati. When I went up there [to India] all these Champabhain [Hindu name] everybody talking Kutchi. I thought they were Muslims like us, but they’re not; it was kind of confusing, they were all talking Kutchi.” Similarly, in a 1972 study of Asians in East Africa, Agehananda Bharati divides Hindu Gujaratis (i.e., those from the state of Gujarat) between Gujarati-speaking Patels and Kutchi-speaking Lohanas (two Hindu castes), but points out that the younger generations of Lohanas in East Africa no longer speak Kutchi; they find it embarrassing and switched to Gujarati, which is seen as being more prestigious. A similar sentiment was felt by Gujarati Indian poet Manisha Joshi who in a 2016 interview said “I like Kutchi, as it represents the culture and simplicity of people speaking it and also the unpolished, rough intimacy that the language consists” and that, because as a writer thought of “Kutchi as a ‘regional language’ and Gujarati as a more outward, refined one.”
However, this doesn’t fully explain the religious differences among Kutchi speakers in East Africa. Muslims in the region are not unsophisticated, and Ismaili and Ithna-Asheri Muslims are very well settled and relatively wealthy. A more convincing argument is made by Bharati about language being used in East Africa to cement religious and ethnic divisions. Ismailis and Ithna-Asheri are historically Muslim converts from Lohana Hindus in the 14th century, and Bharati highlights this well-known part of the history of these groups in order to emphasize Kutchi’s role as a point of contention: “The fact that the Ismaili Muslims have been speaking Cutchi with no embarrassment or diffidence might have prompted the Lohanas not to perpetuate it.” Kutchi and Gujarati are not, however, the only language indicators of religion in East Africa. In Tanzania, for example, Sunni Asians increasingly use Swahili as their religious language, and Balochis, having lost the Balochi language, now only speak Swahili (and English). Additionally, Ithna-Asheri Muslims speak Swahili as their home language more than Ismaili Muslims, likely owing to the fact that, until the 1970s, Ithna-Asheris tended to be from Zanzibar, and were more likely to intermarry with Africans and Arabs because of their closer theological affinity to Sunni Islam. As I continue my oral history interviews with non-Ismaili Muslim Ugandan Asian refugees in South Carolina, I am curious to explore this aspect of Kutchi use.
What of Kutchi in South Carolina?
The five interviews I have conducted so far were with Ismaili Muslims from Uganda currently living in South Carolina. All identified Kutchi as their home language and mother tongue. In this way I relate to them very much: I grew up speaking Kutchi at home, and, as I grew older, spoke a mix of Kutchi and English. As long as I can remember, Swahili was the language my parents spoke to each other when they did not want us kids to understand. And in turn my sister and I spoke to each other in French which, being Canadian, we learnt in school, when we didn’t want our parents to understand. My nephews, currently ranging in age from 3 to 10, do not speak Kutchi at all, but understand a few Gujarati words as well as a few Tamil words, as their father is Tamil. The Kutchi language, it seems, is dying with subsequent generations, but growing in its place is a unique mixture of all the languages that have defined our migrations. The Kutchi language, it seems, is dying with subsequent generations, but growing in its place is a unique mixture of all the languages that have defined our migrations. Like my family in Toronto, the families in South Carolina that I interviewed can fall in and out of several languages in one sentence, taking words from one, syntax from another and conjugation from yet another.
There is, though, something incredibly distinctive about Kutchi for me: the way it tells the history of the migration of my family, and the way it conjures a strong sense of African Asian identity. This identity is one of mixed migrations and imperial dislocations: from West India to East Africa to North America, from Kutchi to Swahili to English, each piece adding to the roadmaps of our lives, never fully leaving any one place or language behind.
My father almost never speaks Gujarati. In my family, my mother’s side speaks Gujarati, my maternal grandparents having migrated to East Africa from Rajkot, Gujarat, whereas my father’s side has been in East Africa for at least four generations, and speak Kutchi. (Though we have been able to trace one of my great-great grandparents to Kanalus, Gujarat, a Gujarati speaking part of the state, we know less about the others; we’ve decided, though, that we must have some family down the line from the Rann of Kutch – our only indication being the endurance of spoken Kutchi.) Rarely, my father will speak with my masi (mohter’s sister) in Gujarati, jumping in on a conversation already having started in Gujarati. When my dad says even one sentence in Gujarati, I am caught off guard, and, for a second it throws me off, I even kind of laugh at the strangeness of it. Speaking Gujarati makes him seem so Indian to me; when he switches back to Kutchi, I feel settled again, once more in the comfort of my Tanzanian Asian father. Maybe that’s the box I’m always looking for whenever I need to fill out a form: my father tongue.
– Historically, Ismailis used the now extinct Khojki script for the language; today, if Kutchi needs to be written, it’s done in the Gujarati or Hindi scripts, and, in the diaspora, it’s transliterated into Roman/English script.
– Kutchhi, Kachchi, Kachchhi, Kacci, and Cutchi, to name a few. There is no particular reason I use Kutchi, except that it was the first way I learnt how to spell it as a child and have used it ever since.
– By “Asian” I mean what in American parlance is “South Asian,” but in East Africa Indians whose ancestors migrated to East Africa in the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s are simply known, after 1947, as “Asian.”
– While historical trade links between the west coast of India and the east coast of Africa go back centuries, permanent settlement of Indians in East Africa commenced in the mid to late 1800’s to the mid-1900s, starting with the colonial construction of the railway from Uganda to the coast of Kenya in the 1890s. The Uganda Railway used Indian indentured labour – over 35,000 “coolies” – of which only 1/5 remained in the region after their contract; this was followed by a more sizable and substantial migration of voluntary economic migrants to the coast and interiors of East Africa encouraged and facilitated by the structure of the British colonial empire. By the independence era of the 1960s there were 360,000 Asians living in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, many of whom were second or third generation East Africans.
– Up until independence, most East African education was segregated along racial lines, with Gujarati (because it was a written language) and English being a mode of instruction in Asian schools. Post-independence, Swahili became a mandatory language of instruction alongside English, and Gujarati faded away.
– Swahili is the lingua franca of East Africa.
– There was heated debate in my family’s WhatsApp group chat about whether the word tapelo is actually Kutchi or Gujarati, and we finally figured out (through Google translate and a friend from Gujarat) that the Gujarati word is tapeli.
– There is no extensive documentation of Swahili loan words in East African Kutchi, but there is some documentation and linguistic research into the opposite, that is, Kutchi loan words in Swahili. Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, in his 2008 presentation at the Workshop on Language Planning and Language Politics at the Central Institute of Indian Language in Mysore, India, shows that Indic loanwords in Swahili, often thought to have come from Gujarati, are more probably in fact Kutchi loan words. He proposes that this is due to early Indian settlers and traders in East Africa being from the Kutch coastal areas, whereas later settlements were Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi speakers: “the influence of these later Indians on the Swahili language and culture is thus not as strong nor deeply rooted as those of the earlier settlers.” For example, in Swahili a bangle is called a bangili, in Kutchi bangli, and in Gujarati bangadi.
– Translated to: “In the home we spoke Kutchi, our Kutchi was different, it wasn’t mixed with khathawari [meaning Kutchi from the region of Kutch/Kathiawar]. Now Kutchi has changed a bit, but my daddy was speaking lots of [pure] Kutchi. It’s like you know, like if you say excuse me or move a little further, my dad would say ‘paria hhat’, it means move forward. Ya we don’t say that now. So some of the words my dad used to use, he always used to say bhalah, which mean ‘that’s a good thing that happened’. So my brother in Romania when he sends me a message, he’ll say ‘bhalah that’s good news’ and I would say to him, when did you start saying ‘bhalah bhala’ you are younger than me even. When he remembers our father, he says ‘bhala’. The Kutchi that we speak has a lot of Swahili words in it.” Note that there is no standardized transliteration of Kutchi into English script, so I have used as much phonetic transliteration as I could hear. There is only one Kutchi language ‘dictionary’ that I was able to find, but it is a very informal project of the author and he provides the following ‘Accuracy Disclaimer’, which should also apply to any Kutchi I used here within: “Due to the cultural diversity of the Kutchi-speaking community, and the lack of formal information about the Kutchi language, the documentation posted on KLO is imperfect and should not be deemed 100% accurate. Instead, it should be used to aid the general understanding of the Kutchi language, enabling individuals to pair their backgrounds in the language with the documentation provided in order to synthesize theories that will be understood in their own respective communities.”
– In East Africa the following tightly held religious divisions are maintained: Sunni Muslims, Shia Ismailis Muslims, Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslims, Shia Bohora Muslims, Hindu Batia, Hindu Wania, Hindu Patel, Jains, Sikhs, Goan Catholics and a small Parsee community from Zanzibar.
– Different home languages is not a deciding factor in marriages within the same religion, and for Ismailis it is very common to have one parent’s family speak Gujarati at home and the other Kutchi; regardless of individual home languages, most family members speak both Kutchi and Gujarati fluently. Greg Thomson also found this to be the case in his study in Albuquerque, NM of Kutchi as a distinctively Ismaili ‘in-language’.
Click here for Part I
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