Inside Madagascar’s Battle for Belonging

Indian settlers arrived 150 years ago. Generations later, their local culture is thriving — but their descendants can’t secure citizenship.

Airbnb Magazine Editors
Nov 19 · 16 min read

By Karan Mahajan
Photographs by Nick Sethi
Illustrations by Marian Bantjes

In and around Nosy Be, an island that is the country’s prime tourist destination.

TThe western coast of the island nation of Madagascar is a nullity of scrub. Driving north in a 4x4, I passed acres of stunted bush, parched yellow grass, grazing cows, and tilting thatched huts. Then a curtain of orange fire, ten feet high, shimmered close to the car; other grass-guzzling dwarf fires blazed beyond. The countryside was burning. It had been burning for a hundred years. The dense lemur-filled forests of Madagascar — one of the poorest countries in the world — had been harvested for charcoal and slashed and burned for agriculture. Ahead, the two-lane “national highway” degraded into a mere tightrope of tar surrounded by long ditches of gravel and mud with potholes as deep as Jacuzzis.

To distract myself from my growing nausea, I decided to ask my driver about the more than 20,000-strong Indian population of ­Madagascar, whom I had come to write about.

The wild beauty of Madagascar’s untrammeled coastline.

Madagascar has a population of 26 million, the vast majority of whom are ethnically Malagasy — descendants of the Malayo-­Indonesian and African people who settled the uninhabited island approximately 2,000 years ago. Even today one can see the imprint of Indonesia in their language and their elaborate rituals for the dead. But Madagascar also has pockets of minorities, of whom the most visible and successful are the Indians, who came across the Indian Ocean as traders and settled here 150 years ago. Yet the Indians today are defined by a problem: Despite their deep ties to Madagascar, most of them are not — and cannot become — citizens. A 2017 UN High Commissioner for Refugees report on “stateless minorities” singled out the Indians of ­Madagascar — or Karanas, as they are known — alongside groups like the Roma in Macedonia and the Pemba and Makonde of Kenya.

My driver, Zimbo Ranarianaivomahefa Andrihanina Harivao, was an amiable, tall, big-bellied, sleepy-eyed Malagasy man in his 50s who seemed to live only for cigarette breaks. I had expected him to be ­gentle in his thoughts about the Karanas; after all, I am an Indian from India. But, speaking through my translator in Malagasy, he was direct. “Most of the time Karana people are very sly and very well organized in business,” he told me. “When they are looking for money, they go toward the Malagasy people, but when it concerns medical security and protection from bandits, they turn toward the French embassy” — the former colonial power. The Karanas kept to themselves and didn’t intermarry, he said. They took money out of the country. They spoke in their own language in the shops when locals were around, likely so they could conspire to jack up prices. I was reminded that the word Karana began almost as a slur — perhaps referring to the Holy Book of many of these Indians. It retains negative vibrations.

When I pressed Zimbo on their precarious citizenship, he fired back that those who complained about their statelessness did so only because they “want you to feel compassion. They don’t think Malagasy citizenship is a symbol of pride, so they might not be disclosing it.”

A sailor on a dhow in the port of Mahajanga.

The issue, I knew, was far more complicated. Historically, Madagascar has had one of the most restrictive citizenship regimes in the world. Only those with Malagasy blood could become citi­zens; today, naturalization is still almost nonexistent. But in a populist era, Madagascar is not an outlier but a trendsetter. In recent decades, countries like Australia, the UK, and India, which once offered citizenship to anyone born within their borders, have rolled back or tightened the practice. In October 2018, President Donald Trump suggested the United States follow suit — to prevent illegal immigration, but also, undoubtedly, to preserve the country’s current ethnic mix. The Karanas offer a troubling study of what happens when such an ideal comes to pass.

As we bumped along, I couldn’t bring myself to ask Zimbo whether his stinging indictment of the Karanas included me.

Indians began settling as small-time traders in Mada­gascar in the mid-1800s, arriving on rickety single-mast wooden boats called dhows from the western state of Gujarat, about 3,100 miles away. This was before our current perception of citizenship was ­widespread; borders were more porous. Over time, these Indians — most of whom were Shia Muslims — settled on the western coast of Madagascar and opened shops. When the French colonized Madagascar in the 1890s, they employed Karanas as middlemen in their businesses, partly, it is thought, to weaken the ruling Malagasy elite. The Karanas eventually took on a pivotal role in the economy as industrialists. (A recent Forbes list of ten Madagascar multimillionaires included three Karanas.) But in 1960, when colonial rule ended, these Karanas — who were now no longer French subjects — found themselves essentially orphaned. The newly independent country, the Malagasy Republic (which later became Madagascar), defined citizenship on ethnic lines, and this vision did not include Indians.

So Karanas had to look elsewhere — to France, to India — for citizenship. It made them more cosmopolitan. It also meant they belonged nowhere — and everywhere.

One man whose life had been formed by the question of citizenship was Rames Abhukara, 70, a retired diplomat. I met him last August at an enclosed poolside bar in Madagascar’s choked and formless capital, Antananarivo — or Tana, as it is known. A sociable, short man with droopy eyes and a foaming gray beard, Abhukara wore a black Nehru jacket to keep warm. Over drinks, he continued a story he had started telling me on the phone.

A vendor selling koba akondro, a popular steamed peanut cake dessert.

“When I was 17,” Abhukara said, “a few of my friends and I decided to hitchhike and go to Africa.” A Buddhist Karana, he was born in the port town of Mahajanga in 1949 and grew up thinking of himself as a native of Madagascar. But when he went to the passport office, in 1966, the official there asked, “Since when are you Malagasy?” Then the man “literally came out of his office and kicked me in the butt,” Abhukara told me. It was at that moment that Abhukara realized he was “paperless,” or apatride — the French word used in Madagascar. His dreams of hitchhiking crumbled.

For the next few years, he desperately toured the various embassies in Tana, petitioning them for papers. The Indian embassy told him he wasn’t eligible for citizenship because his father had left India when it was still a British colony, and he was labeled a British subject. The British embassy proved equally unhelpful. “They said, ‘No, no, India is independent now,’” Abhukara remembered. The French had offered some Karanas citizenship when French rule ended in 1960, “but you had to know how to apply,” Abhukara told me — and his father, a poor farmer, did not. Abhukara was also unable to enroll in university — his lack of citizenship made him ineligible for government scholarships. But eventually, after five years of lobbying the Indian embassy and proving he could speak and write Gujarati, he finally received Indian citizenship — partly, he thinks, because “the ambassador was so tired of seeing me.” Then, as soon as he could, he used his Commonwealth status to follow his Canadian girlfriend, an NGO worker in Madagascar, to Canada, where, after getting married and attending college, he successfully swapped his Indian passport for a Canadian one. After years of rejection, he was grateful to be accepted as a full citizen in Canada. “I had a sense of belonging,” he told me. He didn’t return to Madagascar for more than a decade. “Because I’d been rejected, I said, ‘Why should I?’ At that time, I didn’t give a damn about the country.”

But life takes unexpected turns. His work gradually brought him to Africa, and he began to visit Madagascar to see friends in the ’80s and ’90s. Then, in 2005, when a temporary UN job opened up in Tana, he took it — he felt he could make a difference there. “Canada helped me and made me what I am, so for me, my country is Canada,” he explained. “But here I have an empathy with the population of Madagascar.” What drew him back, in other words, was something ineffable — something that couldn’t be etched into a passport or supplied by citizenship alone: a sense of meaning and purpose, of home.

For other Karanas I met, their tie to the country was more pragmatic: It was about business.I visited Riaz Barday, a hotelier and factory owner, in Nosy Be, an island off the west coast and Madagascar’s premier tourist destination — an emerald redoubt with powdery beaches, tranquil turquoise water, and direct flights to Milan.

Barday had asked me to meet him at his distillery in a place called ­Lemuria Land, which turned out to be a paradisaical 1,900-acre plantation of stunted ylang-ylang trees, whose yellow flowers are used to produce perfume. My tuk-tuk navigated a reddish road sumptuously landscaped on both sides with mangroves, vanilla vines, cinnamon trees, palms, and papaya trees. Beyond lay a lemur zoo, where one could go to see the creatures swinging from bamboo rods in their enclosures.

A youthful, big-featured man in his 60s, dressed in a gray henley and shorts, Barday met me in his second-floor office overlooking the distillery floor, where flowers have been boiled in enormous copper cylinders to produce essential oils for almost 140 years. As we talked, I learned that Barday’s life — glamorous though it seemed — encapsulated the terrible uncertainty that Karanas face in the country.

In 1971, when Barday was 11, Madagascar was about to embark on a quixotic spree to nationalize the economy. Barday’s father, a rich businessman, feared that Karanas would be targeted, so he relocated his family to the Cote d’Azur, which is where Barday grew up as a French citizen. “I understand Gujarati, but I don’t speak it,” he told me, adding that, as a result, he didn’t really identify with the Karanas. But business kept pulling the family back to the country. After things calmed down, in the 1980s, Barday’s father returned to Madagascar to oversee his soap manufacturing empire. At the age of 30, a year before his father died, Barday joined the family business, at which point the story of his father’s exile oddly repeated itself in his own life.

Barday told me that in 2005 the president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana, began to eye a famous island hotel Barday was involved with, a favorite of French celebrities. The president, he said, asked him to cede his stake to a company favored by the government — for nothing. When Barday balked, the government revoked his tourist license. Then, in 2006, he recalls two cars full of armed policemen showing up at his lakeside mansion in Tana at 6 a.m. Barday, who was in the middle of breakfast, was told he had to leave for Paris that day. Within a few hours, he was gone.

His French wife, Natacha, then 33, stayed behind with his kids and continued to fight for their companies. One day she was summoned to a local police station. There, fantastically, she was charged with orchestrating the attempted murder of a former business partner of Barday’s. The man’s car had been shot at by an individual on a scooter; Natacha was accused of the crime, though she had been nowhere near the scene. Natacha was remanded to Tana’s notorious Antanimora prison, where she spent almost two months in a cell with 50 other inmates, the walls and floors seething with cockroaches and the space so cramped that inmates had to take turns sleeping. Broken by this attack on his family, Barday divested from all but three of his companies. Natacha was released only after intense lobbying by Barday, who got French president Nicolas Sarkozy involved.

But after Ravalomanana was ejected from office in a coup in 2009, Barday returned to Madagascar to oversee the remainder of his businesses. The hotel, in which he remains a shareholder, is still under ­dispute — it has been closed for ten years — but after his tourist license was renewed, he began to reinvest in Madagascar and now runs eco-lodges and restaurants. His wife and children, however, have vowed to never come back, so he commutes between Paris and Nosy Be. Why hadn’t he cut ties with the country completely? “Frankly,” he said, “I don’t know. I just love the country. Paradise is close from Nosy Be.”

Citizenship, as philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, is “the right to have rights” — the right to protection and services. A man like Barday has all the wealth in the world but can be driven out at a moment’s notice. Worse, others see Karanas as targets. Since 2000, more than 100 Karanas have been kidnapped by gangs and held for days until ransoms of up to $400,000 are paid. This has become such an epidemic in Tana that many rich Karanas have settled their families overseas or now drive around in armored cars with bodyguards. For poorer Karanas, the problems are existential: Without citizenship, they can’t access government services or scholarships, easily travel abroad, practice professions like law, buy land, or enter politics. They remain siloed in the business world.

In 2016, the country’s National Assembly passed an amendment that would allow Malagasy women to pass on citizenship to their ­children (a right formerly limited to men) and, the next year, attempted to pass a bill to give Karanas citizenship. But the bill was shot down. Toto Raharimalala Lydia, a former member of the National Assembly who was one of the sponsors of the bill, told me frankly on the phone that it was because Karanas are “not well considered.” She went on, “Some parliamentarians said, ‘How come they don’t marry Malagasy girls? — they just play with them — and Karana women never go with Malagasy boys. Chinese people mingle more.’”

Zimbo’s views, it turns out, are widespread. On my trip to Mada­gascar, I heard a great deal about the insularity of the Karanas and was not surprised: The Gujaratis — Barday and Abhukara notwithstanding — have always been clannish, holding tight to their culture even as they set up businesses in far-flung outposts. Even after generations abroad, the women wear saris and ridas, and the men return to Gujarat to find wives. But for the Karanas, the insularity is exaggerated by the lack of citizenship: They have been forced to retreat into themselves, or to other countries. Many head to France for their education and never return; others nurture ties with India or France, the countries of their citizenship, in a way that Indians in South Africa or Kenya have long ceased to do. This state of suspension has meant no true composite culture has developed. The Malagasy and Karanas remain apart.

Apartness does not mean, however, that Karanas and Malagasy cannot get along. To go to the town of Mahajanga on the western coast, south of Nosy Be — one of the first places where Indians arrived — is to see a different vision of Karana life in the country. The town today is a balmy outpost of 200,000 that looks like 1920s modernist France gone gorgeously to seed. Dozens of small wooden sailboats cluster in the old port, with shirtless men pacing their rocking hulls; a building nearby boasts an ornate, heavy, carved door that was brought over by an Indian trader in the late 1800s from Zanzibar. Beyond, blocky but elegant French colonial–era buildings rear up on high columns, their undersides forming a common corridor of cool. The Karanas sell jewels, groceries, and stationery from these commercial grottoes. There is no obvious enmity with the locals, no armored cars.

One morning, I left downtown and drove to meet Navnitlal Maldekara at his farm on the town’s outskirts. Maldekara, 71, is Abhukara’s first cousin, but unlike Abhukara, he has lived in Mahajanga all his life, growing mangoes, chikoos, cashew nuts, and custard apples for sale. A voluble, forthright man with large hand gestures and the youthful skin of so many Karanas (Indians without the environmental stresses of India), he met me outside his simple one-story rural house, in the shade of a broad red-and-green-leaved almond tree. The home’s corrugated metal roof was held down in places by large rocks, buttresses against the region’s winching cyclonic winds. Only the crude shed abutting the house, its metal roof held up on long tree branches and sheltering four spotless cars, suggested Maldekara was well-off.

Inside the house, he introduced me to his Indian-born wife, Sudha, 69, and his two adult sons, who were lounging around in shorts and T-shirts. The older one, Jaymine, 46, was visiting from Dubai with his Malagasy wife — their two children were back home; the other, 38, lived in Tana and was there with his two young children. We sat down in the living room, which looked like it was straight out of Gujarat: ­spartan white tiles and floral lace-covered sofas. Sudha, her sari hitched high in the Gujarati way, her side teeth endearingly wiped out by paan (chewing betel leaf), gave us almost poisonously sweet chai.

Maldekara told me that he holds an Indian passport, passed down from his father, who came to Madagascar in 1928. Like his cousin, he, too, applied for Malagasy citizenship in the late 1960s, when the laws were uncertain. He finally got a reply in 1975 and was asked: Did he still want nationality? But when he was about to receive his citizenship, “the administrator called me to the office and said you need to pay to get nationality” — $140,000 for the papers. Insulted, Maldekara turned it down. But he had a different take on the problem than Abhukara. “What does nationality matter to me?” Maldekara asked as we sipped our tea. “It’s just a form of paper. I like Madagascar, and this is my land,” he said, drawing an imaginary circle to denote his property. “This is my country.” He occasionally travels to India to visit his in-laws, but he told me, “My heart is Malagasy. I was born here, and I am going to die here.”

Literally. Forty years ago, the city of Mahajanga asked the 200-strong Hindu community to move its crematorium out of the city; Maldekara had volunteered a plot of his own land for the structure. After tea, we drove five minutes from his house on a red dirt road and got off on a sandy patch of earth with trees spaced widely apart and concrete benches installed for mourners. The crematorium was a high open-air shed with a rust-perforated corrugated iron roof. The brick pyre at the center of the shed was covered in white ash. All the Hindus of Mahajanga, including Maldekara, would turn to ash here.

Maldekara had inherited this land from his father. Though retired, he still grew rice for the family and mangoes for sale in the bazaars. Local Malagasy retailers came with their baskets to pick the mangoes from the trees. Occasionally, he said, there were problems. In 2009, after a visit to India, he returned to find hundreds of Malagasy squatters on his land, shouting, “The land is for Malagasy, return it to Malagasy!” But it was not Madagascar but India that disappointed him. “The Indian embassy is just for delivery of passports,” he told me. It hadn’t helped him at all during his crisis. For that, he relied on the local police.

Back in the house, Jaymine’s wife, Liva, was laying plates on a table for dinner. Sudha confided, proudly, “Our Malagasy daughter-in-law makes all types of Indian food — bajra roti, rice, and so on.” Things had changed from the last century, she added, when Karana men like Maldekara couldn’t even marry outside their castes, let alone the community.

However, though Jaymine had been married to Liva for 20 years, and his children held citizenship in Madagascar, he remained a foreigner in his own country. The happy family I was witnessing today was in fact one riven by exile. Maldekara recalled conversations he and his son had had years earlier, before he left for Dubai.

“He said to me, ‘Papa, it’s possible there’ll be big problems in Madagascar,’” Maldekara remembered. “For ten years, he said, ‘I want to go.’ I told him to stay, especially since his wife was Malagasy.” The Maldekaras were a close family. They were tied to the land. There were so many reasons to stay.

In the end, Jaymine left anyway. And in Madagascar, another Karana family came slowly apart.


About the author: Karan Mahajan is the author of Family Planning, a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and The Association of Small Bombs, which was shortlisted for the 2016 National Book Award, won the 2017 NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, and was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2016.” In 2017, he was selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. His reporting and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The New Yorker Online, and other venues.

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Airbnb Magazine Editors

Written by

Airbnb Magazine

Airbnb Magazine celebrates humanity wherever it exists: across borders, time zones, languages, and skin tones.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade