“I am rootless, but my wine has roots all over the world.” This is how Aziz Abdul, the proprietor of El Paraiso (Paradise), a vineyard in Mendoza, Argentina, describes himself and the Malbec wine he bottles and markets globally under the label of Chateau Hana. HANA is an acronym created from four initials – those of Aziz, his wife Nazma Asgarally and their daughters Hema and Anjuli.

Aziz was born in Nhatrang, Vietnam, to a Tamil father and a Tamil-Vietnamese mother. Nazma was born into the Gujarati-speaking Bohra community of Mahajanga, Madagascar. They met in Paris as students. Their daughters were born and live here.

The family is based across Paris and San Rafael, Mendoza, in Argentina. I have caught Aziz on his last day in Europe before he returns to Argentina for a hectic season of bottling his wine and he has generously invited me for lunch at his apartment in the genteel Parisian suburb of Rueil-Malmaison.

Courtesy Aziz Abdul.

I sit on a barstool at a counter separating the kitchen from the living and dining space, drinking wine – sparkling white, not Chateau Hana, though I have a bottle to take back with me – scoffing Bombay mix my hosts purchased from a Gare du Nord Tamil store and listening to Aziz and Nazma talk while they cook.

Aziz is making prawn linguine with shellfish bisque and chopped basil, though I over hear Nazma mention parathas and curry in the fridge. They speak to each other in French, with me in English and Aziz and I also exchange some sentences in Spanish.

When lunch is served, we move to the expansive dining table. Pasta is followed by three delicious, perfectly balanced cheeses and baguette, all washed down with chilled bubbly. The view from outside is of West Parisian suburban rooftops; inside, our words sail the Indian Ocean.

The grand spectacle of mobility

“France’s Coromandel ports, which form part of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, and the modern state of Vietnam, are two parts of the former French Empire which became dissociated from one another with the falling away of imperial frameworks and the construction of new national ones,” observes Natasha Pairaudeau in Mobile Citizens: French Indians in IndoChina, 1858-1954.

Hers is the only English-language academic book on a dense cross-cultural encounter that has no place in mainstream Indian memory and Anglophone postcoloniality. One searches in vain for novels or films about the Pondicherry-Vietnam connection. We do have a wine, however. Through it, do we not taste this history of which Abdul is an embodiment?

For the Financial Times, Aziz’s wine packs “a multicultural punch” worthy of Argentina, where demography and grapes were equally shaped by immigration from the Old World. Into this mix stepped Aziz, “a Vietnamese-born Muslim who fled to Southern India when Saigon fell in 1975, who learnt to appreciate wine while studying mathematics in Paris,” and whose wines blend “an eastern entrepreneurial energy, French savoir-faire, and New World opportunity”.

But the Atlantic blend highlighted by the Financial Times is a consequence of the gigantic theatre of entrepreneurship that was the Indian Ocean world between the early 19th to the mid-20th centuries, when, according to historian Tim Harper, “everywhere, people were on the move” and mobility itself “was one of the great spectacles of life”.

Courtesy Aziz Abdul.

In his gripping tome Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, Harper details how precolonial Asia’s maritime trading communities capitalised on the opportunities offered by different European powers that established themselves across the Indian Ocean.

“The Chinese, Indian Muslims, Sindhis, Arabs, Jews, and others… followed the logic of the new steamship routes, settled in colonial port cities, exploited the new business opportunities, and claimed the protection of colonial law to ‘put down roots all across Asia’.”

As part of this larger drama of modernisation unfolding in the interstices of competing empires, different kinds of people – bureaucrats, soldiers, merchants, artisans, various service providers – all sailed from the old French colonial enclave of Pondicherry to try their fortunes in a new French colony, “l’Indochine” (French Indochina, which corresponds, roughly, to present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos).

These opportunities were grabbed by not just France’s citizens and subjects in Pondicherry and the smaller Coromandel coast enclave of Karikal; others, like Aziz’s father, slipped through the porous boundary between British and French India to augment the new Indian diaspora in Indochina.

From the predominantly Muslim settlement of Periyar Kutoor, near Ayapadi town between Karikal and the erstwhile Danish enclave of Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi), Mohamed Abdul Rahim moved to Saigon as a young lad to test the entrepreneurial waters.

He ran a bar before opening two general stores. Like many a maritime Muslim who “integrated themselves through strategic alliances with local women”, he married Amina, whose father had also come from Karikal to Saigon and married a Vietnamese woman.

Aziz and his sister with their father. Courtesy Aziz Abdul.

For MA Rahim, the ladder for upward mobility was never English and Britishness, but French language and culture. He sent his son to the French boarding school at Da Lat, a Vietnamese hill station equivalent in the province of Annam.

There Aziz, who remains fluent in Vietnamese, absorbed Frenchness. He recalls it as a happy experience, living and studying with classmates of different backgrounds, holidaying in the seaside resort of Nhatrang.

Although the Vietnamese strongly resented Indians on account of their incorporation within the colonial infrastructure, school life was a peaceful version of the multi-ethnic, creolised cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean littoral world.

But the clock was ticking towards 1975, when this world would shatter.

Aziz Abdul with his sister in front of their father's bar. Courtesy Aziz Abdul.

Splinters of a shattered world

“The fall of the Saigon regime proved as traumatic to the Indian community as to the Vietnamese themselves,” observes journalist Nayan Chanda in his essay, “Indians in Indochina”, because it meant the loss of “business, professions, and adopted homeland”.

Overnight, residents were scrambling to be repatriated, in an echo of what had happened with the departure of the French from Vietnam in 1954. Those who had left Saigon then had mostly been the Indo-French citizens, with precisely defined roles in the French imperial machine; the mercantile communities, largely from Sindh and Tamil Nadu, had felt able to continue their inter-oceanic trade in the newly-independent nation. Now, however, it was different. As Chanda notes, the “professions they practiced would have no place in Socialist Vietnam”.

Aziz, who was 15 at that time, understood clearly the magnitude of this loss. With his siblings and parents, he moved to his paternal grandmother’s home in Ayapadi and completed his education at Pondicherry’s famous French Lycée. Empire’s persistent structures provided continuity.

With French language and education as his passport, Aziz left to study mathematics at the University Paris XI. Vietnam receded, leaving a bittersweet but inescapable trace, in the genes and on the tongue. The language of his maternal lineage fell silent, though he never forgot it, and Vietnamese dishes never left his culinary repertoire. Moreover, that repertoire got enlarged: from “posh French classmates” with homes in Versailles, he furthered his understanding of classic French gastronomy and wine.

At school in Pondicherry. Courtesy Aziz Abdul.

But the Indian Ocean was never far from Paris. Imperial history’s transoceanic undertow brought Aziz, a product of mobility across the Eastern Indian Ocean, in contact with Nazma, a student of Oriental Languages. Her family had crossed the Western Indian Ocean between Kutch and northern Madagascar as part of a maritime mercantile diaspora as little known within mainstream India as the Indo-Vietnamese connection.

Since the 19th century, the towns of Nosibe and Majunga (now Mahajanga) had housed communities of Gujarati merchants from different Islamic dominations (Bohras, Khojas, Sunnis), with some Hindu presence too, as Tasha Rijke-Epstein recounts in her evocative article, “Neglect as Effacement: The Multiple Lives of the Jardin Ralaimongo, Mahajanga, Madagascar”. Pejoratively called “karana” by locals, they were held in as much suspicion as Indians had been in Vietnam.

One diaspora was from Gujarat and settled in East Africa, the other was from Tamil Nadu and settled in South East Asia. Naturally, there were divergences in how each remade their homes and how these patterns affected Aziz and Nazma respectively.

Unlike Aziz, Nazma attended a community school once a week where she learnt Gujarati, Urdu, Quranic Studies, and maths. Yet, what is striking is how much they share. Aziz and Nazma come from littoral Indian Muslim communities essential to the colonial-capitalist machine that formed through Indian Ocean sea-routes. While neither family was officially French, their ancestors used the opportunities which the French Empire opened up to occupy interstitial but necessary spaces within its oceanic networks.

In postcolonial polities run on nativist agendas, those spaces abruptly shrivelled. “Don’t look behind,” advised Nazma’s mother when she left for Paris in 1974, soon after what she calls a “Uganda situation in Madagascar”. Nazma’s recollection of the events of 1972 in Madagascar called “Rotaka” – protests that radically restructured the new postcolonial republic – draws a parallel with the infamous expulsions of Indians from Uganda under dictator Idi Amin in early 1970s.

Whether East Africa or South East Asia, it was the same: transoceanic Indians everywhere were now undesirable remnants of former empires, trapped in seismic shifts of the Cold War and decolonisation. Yet, out of long histories of mobility was born a certain pragmatism, an infinite adaptability to keep on moving.

Indias: transoceanic, embodied, creolised

Nazma’s family travelled the Indian Ocean with laissez-passer documents, not passports. Aziz’s father was (in Aziz’s words) an “Indian Indian” in Vietnam, so Aziz began life shaped by Frenchness on an Indian passport.

Linguistic agility was key to successful navigation. Citizenship appears a matter of contingency: both Nazma and Aziz feel Indian, “more Indian than Malagasy or Vietnamese”. But the source of this feeling remains elusive. “I don’t feel I am any one thing,” Aziz says.

Quoting the writer Amin Maalouf’s declaration “I am Lebanese by cooking”, Nazma asserts that they are gastronomically Indian. Their wedding reception in Paris included the Pondicherry combination of idlis and talicha (sambar with mutton ribs). Wiping her pasta bowl with the side of her right thumb, she declared, “now that is Indian.”

An imprecise embodied Indian-ness is preferable to difficult memories of expulsion and life as perpetual minority. Between idyllic Indian Ocean childhoods and adult life in France, lies India, experienced in fragments. Nazma has been back to Kutch to trace her family’s history while Aziz has spent time in Ayapadi, and together with their daughters they have travelled back – not only to India, but also to Vietnam, and Madagascar.

Aziz tried to purchase land in India to start a vineyard there, but it proved impossible. Holidaying in Patagonia with Nazma, he chanced upon the vineyard of his dreams. For him, “only India brings a kind of peace”, but, he also admits, “I cannot stay in one place.”

Aziz’s endemic restlessness finds him on the road. He is a veteran of the Camino de Santiago that cuts across Europe to lead to the Cathedral of Santiago (St Jacob) in Northern Spain. Like me, when I visited the cathedral, he was amused to learn of Santiago’s appellation: “matamoros”, or the slayer of Muslims.

Religiosity is as contingent as citizenship. Aziz’s father built the Nhatrang mosque, even as he bequeathed to his son a love of wine and of the French way of life in which wine plays such an important role. Aziz and his family are creolised – by the coastline and the sea, and the mercantile histories they belong to.

Aziz's certificate for having completed the Camino de Santiago on foot. Credit: Ananya Kabir.

Creolisation as adaptation, improvisation and innovation with fragments reflects in Chateau Hana too, which brings Old World techniques to the New World to create a wine that partners perfectly with tandoori quail, as Aziz informs me. My feeble protest – “but tandoori is not South Indian” was met with a Gallic shrug. “We love cooking quail tandoori-style,” Nazma confirmed. In their living room a chest from Rajasthan opens to reveal Vietnamese bank notes; opposite it, sands from various beaches the family has visited sit in neatly-labelled spice jars. I spot “Nhatrang” and “Majunga”.

Sand from Nhatrang and Majunga. Credit: Ananya Kabir.

Alongside these memories in jars is the history contained in a wine bottle: the malbec of Chateau Hana, created by a pilgrim on transoceanic caminos over land and sea.

Ananya Jahanara Kabir is Professor of English Literature, King’s College London. Her new research project is on creole Indias. She thanks Aziz Abdul and Nazma Asgarally for generously sharing their life stories. The visit to their home took place in September 2022.

A Rajasthani chest with Vietnamese currency notes. Credit: Ananya Kabir.