What does it mean to be Kiwi-Indian? If we delve into New Zealand’s history there is surprisingly more diversity than the familiar images of the Indian shopkeeper. Indians were recorded as early as 1809 in the very north in the Bay of Islands and in 1814 in the south at Otago. They became part of the little known whakapapa of Maori-Indians. The contributions Indians made to epochal moments in New Zealand’s history have also been hidden. Few know of Edward Peters from Goa whose find initiated the 1860s Otago gold-rush. Or that Parbhubhai Kasanji was honoured by the union for aiding strikers’ families in the 1951 waterfront lockout.
Kiwi-Indian roots lay in late nineteenth century Punjab and Gujarat. Brothers Phuman and Bir Singh Gill came to New Zealand in 1890, settled and married there. Phuman operated a confectionery business, while Bir later joined the army as a cook. Keshaw Daji from Gujarat arrived in New Zealand in 1902, worked in forestry and later at the Ponsonby Police Station.
A Kiwi-Indian identity began on the long voyage from India to New Zealand when shipmates from different backgrounds were thrown together. Migrants continued to rely upon one another in the new land but were not isolated from other New Zealanders. Interaction was essential for livelihoods but also for friendship and support. Indian women, who settled in New Zealand mainly after World War Two, found living conditions highly challenging. The kindness of neighbours could make a huge difference to how they coped and felt accepted as Kiwis.
Today Kiwi-Indians are at the fore of the country’s economic development and nation building. After the liberalisation of immigration policies in the 1980s new waves of migrants from all over India and the reaches of the Indian diaspora, including Fiji, changed the demographics of Kiwi-Indians. Many new immigrants were business-people and professionals but so too, were more locally-born Kiwi-Indians.
Yet for decades Kiwi-Indians were working class — whether breaking scrub in the King Country, or on the assembly line in a Petone factory, or working as bottle collectors or hawkers. This labour enabled several Kiwi-Indians to establish small businesses and farms — such as the potato farmers at Pukekohe and the Punjabis who ran dairy farms. Some Kiwi-Indian enterprises had exotic names such as the Indian Lolly Factory, Eureka, La Boheme
and The Oriental Fur Co
. Small, labour intensive and family-run fruit and vegetable businesses were crucial in servicing consumers in rural North Island and in urban centres.
It’s impossible for me to say what it means to be a Kiwi-Indian. It has been my privilege to share in the lives of some Kiwi-Indians. I see a very different Indian presence in New Zealand to when I began my research in 1976. Most Kiwi- Indians then were descended from the early Gujarati and Punjabi settlers. They worked very hard and went to extraordinary lengths to reconstruct their culture. Indian foods, spices and movies were difficult to find. Diwali was not publicly celebrated. Mandir, masjid
were visibly absent in New Zealand. This would slowly change; by 1977 the Te Rapa gurdwara
had opened. Around then I attended the opening of probably New Zealand’s first Indian restaurant in Khyber Pass Road in Auckland. Over thirty years later Indian cultures are vibrantly visible in many parts of New Zealand but they have a unique Kiwi and Pacific character. People make that happen — whether the former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand, or Rocky Khan, the first Indo-Fijian to play for New Zealand in the rugby sevens — or the thousands of Kiwi-Indians who are not in the media spotlight but are the future of Aotearoa New Zealand.
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