Non Violence, humility and diamonds a group of words which do not really seem to go together but in Antwerp this is truly what it is.
Diamonds have long been associated with bloodshed and conflicts, especially in Africa whereas the Jain community are a group who follow the principles of nonviolence and vegetarianism (which excludes eggs, fish and any produce which grows underneath the ground) .
The Jains are a religious community, who originate from Gujarat a territory in the Western part of India, began moving to Antwerp in late 60s and early 70s and slowly began competing and taking over the diamond market.
If you were to walk around the diamond district in Antwerp you would feel like you are in a small part of India, as you’d walk around the district you could hear the Jains talk in one of their native tongue in this case , i.e; Gujarati, an Indian store around the corner with a State Bank of India branch right by its’ side. You feel like you are being drawn into a tiny quarter in India.
Walking further into the diamond district, a small area filled with buildings on either sides of the street and police presence at the very beginning,I have a feeling I am being watched by more than the security visible to my eye, I walk into through this highly secure building with state of the art security, even to get inside you need to hand in your official id to the security after which they would make a call to the office you would be visiting to inform the person you were going to see and also to receive clearance after which you would receive a pass to head upstairs.
All this because, as Mr Amit Mehta pointed out a few offices away from his office is the place where 100 million euros worth of Diamonds were stolen in 2003.
As I get invited into the office, there isn’t pomp nor is it glittery, a simple office, with sheets of paper lined across the table, a computer and a coffee machine. Mr Chetan Mehta joins us from the adjoining office and there is simplicity in every sense of the word and no grandeur, unlike the business they deal in.
Mr Chetan Mehta, who runs and owns Feroc one of the businesses in the Diamond district moved to Antwerp in the late 70s followed by his wife Pallavi and son Amit who is now part of this family business too.
According to Mr Chetan Mehta, “When my son Amit arrived in Antwerp there were approximately 500 families at the time and now it has gone up to about 1500 families, times are changing”.
“Initially we wouldn’t interact and we lived in the bubble of our own community, we wouldn’t venture out too much due to financial reasons and it was a new country to us and we were still trying to figure out how everything works here and that took us time”, added Mr Chetan Mehta.
“As we started growing financially, we started understanding society here, and then we started getting bolder and the more we got exposed to this new way of life at the time we started to feel at home and we began to perceive things a lot better”.
According to Amit, “When I was 18, I didn’t really feel any difference unlike what my Dad felt when he got here, he was born and raised in India and moved here as an Adult for me I grew up and have practically lived all my life here in Antwerp, so it would be like asking any other Belgian citizen do you notice any differences, for me it is quite redundant I have been here all my life”.
Amit further added, “ For me, it began to change the school I was in I was exposed much more to the Belgian culture than my parents were and naturally I started making more friends outside of our community and even with every generation that has walked in after my dad and I we have integrated within the larger community even more”.
“ The times were different when my dad had immigrated to Antwerp, we wouldn’t go out much for the lack of vegetarian places to eat at and nor did we have friends outside our community” added Amit.
According to Mr Chetan Mehta, “Amit being enrolled in a school at the time actually changed our outlook, we started to feel we were becoming a part of the culture, be it sports or the local scene, we integrated further than ever before”.
According to Amit, “Neither we nor they changed our lifestyles to really accommodate another out of good will, those in the food industry saw us as a means where they could further expand their business and make money and hence they started catering to our needs”.
It would be wrong to further say that the Jain community began to change their habits according to the Belgian way of life and it would be even more wrong to say the Belgians changed their way of life according to the Jains.
Mr Chetan further added, “When I moved here there were no places where we could really go out to eat at, we would take packed lunches to work and in the evenings we would go over to our friends and have dinner parties”.
“As time passed we started eating out a lot more with more places being opened to suit our needs and we came a long way from getting hot packed lunches from home some of us started getting content even with sandwiches we began to integrated into the Belgian way of life”.
The restaurant owners in Antwerp understood the Jain market and began developing their menus to attract the Jains, that is the way businesses work they change to the needs of a prospective market.
Amit admits that he didn’t really notice any differences and did not really face difficulties unlike his father.
“When my dad came here, he made this place his home where as for me this is my home”, further added Amit.
Mr Amit Mehta who is the co-owner of Feroc was born in India but moved to Antwerp when he was a child, he did his primary and secondary education in Antwerp and completed his graduation from the U.K. and then when to Surat to complete his training for the diamond training.
The diamond industry is a form of family business for the Jains wherein usually the son/s join in after graduate and it is always from the top schools from either in the U.K. or the United States and once they have graduated they are sent to Surat a place in Gujarat for training with respect to diamonds and from there on they join in to their business and help in expanding and enlarging it.
For most already present in this trade, traditionally their sons join and take over as is the case with Mr Chetan Mehta and his son Amit.
Mr Chetan Mehta began to speak of his religious community and their connections to diamonds , “Our community, the Jain Community is changing too with the times, with every new generation that is coming in we are progressing too but our core values yet remain and hopefully will forever remain unchanged”.
“I do know the history of diamonds but what people sometimes forget is we are just traders we do not mine the diamonds, we just trade and as for ‘blood diamonds’, Antwerp’s strict diamond policies means that every diamond that comes through these halls are all acquired legally and through non-violent means”.
The diamond industry for this community is not about getting monetarily rich as much as it is about getting spirituality as for them Diamonds are the purest gem present and hence this equates to a pure soul.
“The beauty of this place is the simplicity even when it comes to things like celebrations of the religious festivals, no one interferes in another, every group has their freedom to celebrate their festival and it isn’t on a grand scale as people here respect each other and their beliefs even if they might not agree with it, and I believe the world can take away a lot from this city” added Amit.
When it comes to the festivities it is another thing altogether, each community be it Jains, Jews, Catholics, Muslims or any other have their own set festival
According to Mr Chetan,” Festivals are not a thing where you try to show off or get a one up on the next group, it’s more about connecting you to your own roots and reminding of the ways along which you came for us that is India and the festivals remind of us that”.
Mr Chetan further added, “ Let me tell you an example, when the Jews fast during their Yom Kippur we shut down as we know what it means to them and they in turn understand when Diwali is around which according to our calendar is our New Year they too give us respect in turn, this the way everything, it isn’t about tolerance as much as it is about understanding and respecting another’s culture”.
“It is a very small city, in a place like this everyone at least on some level knows everybody and the thing is not all of us have the same culture and background, in a manner of speaking for all of us to survive we do have to accept and respect one another”, added Amit.
Amit further said, “If you look at our industry as a singular unit we have people from various places like Israel, Lebanese and us Gujaratis form a minority as a whole and this kind of bring us closer.
“Within the diamond industry there are small communities such as us but when we come together as one, we form this larger community”.
“The Belgians have welcomed us with open arms, they respect our community for the way we are, we don’t go around waving our flags in their face or exclaiming we are Indians nor do we impose any of religious beliefs on them, we have a mantra of live and let live.”
“Even our temples, our gates are always OPEN to anyone irrespective of the colour of their skin, religious beliefs etc, there are many people outside of our community that would walk into the temples to see what is like to sort of understand us and we totally respect that”.
“Many Belgians have started taking yoga and meditation classes, it is a great feeling to see them take interest in to something that is part of our culture, it feels great and we appreciate them for doing so”.
“And thinking about it now there has never been any such thing as a cultural boundary for me”, added Amit right before Mr Chetan and him had to leave for an important appointment.