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Asean and the children of Gowri

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The Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore has a section on ancient Asia's trade routes that reminds us that the continent was once dominated by two great powers, China under the Tang dynasty, and the Abbasid Caliphate with its capital at Baghdad.

Srivijaya, established in Sumatra, Java and the Malay peninsula, lay at the critical connection between East and West Asia, or in the parlance currently popular in South-east Asia, enjoyed "centrality".

India's influence spread in both directions. In the mid-19th century, the Indian rupee was legal tender in the Straits Settlements and, until the 1950s, in large parts of the Gulf states. The pull of "Malaya" remained strong for them throughout as the settlement that lay at the crossroads of Asia. The early travellers from the subcontinent brought with them not just goods to exchange but also religion, culture and patterns of governance, all of which have become enmeshed in the region's magnificent tapestry.

Two disparate experiences these past two weeks set me musing on how old Malaya's rump states continue to be a magnet for Indians.

The first was to read Gowri, a book passed to me by the distinguished Singapore diplomat and pillar of the Indian community, Mr K. Kesavapany. The other was the spectacular convention of overseas Indians held in Singapore over the weekend.

Penned by the noted Malaysian academic V.G. Kumar Das, Gowri is the deeply moving story of his late mother's life - from her July 1934 arrival in Singapore's Keppel Harbour as a young bride aboard the British passenger vessel SS Rajula, to how she raised seven children in the new land despite being widowed early, and how her thriving progeny up and down the Malay peninsula today extend to three generations. It also recounts how facets of Malay and Chinese culture touched Gowri's life, experiences that she relished relating to her kin in India.

There are thousands of Gowris and their descendants across South-east Asia - by some counts as many as a fifth of the 31 million Indian diaspora are in the region, increasingly prosperous, patriotic to their adopted lands and enthusiastic participants in the march of their respective nations even as most of them maintain connections to the land of their origin.

Over the weekend, a few thousand of this diaspora resident in........

© The Straits Times