Interrogating Diasporic Creativity: The Patan Initiative--A Valedictory Address
The Patan Initiative?
Valedictions, regrettably, are always tinged with a certain sadness. As Dr. Kavita Sharma said, everyone gets into a wind down mode. Some participants have already left; others are already thinking of catching their train or flight. Those of us who have been here for three days, know how very inspiring and enriching our interactions have been with senior colleagues, visitors from abroad, and others whom we are meeting for the first time, in addition to old friends whom we are seeing again after a gap of several years. No doubt, the hospitality of North Gujarat and of Patan itself will linger in our hearts even when we leave. I am reminded of what Homi Bhabha says in one of his well-known essays, “Dissemination.” He reminds us how a time of scattering, which is what causes the diaspora, is also a time of gathering. Because those who are scattered here gather elsewhere. And that process of scattering and gathering is what we are trying to understand. In this context it is interesting that some of those who have been scattered from Patan have gathered in Rajkot. So, when I say valedictions are tinged with sadness I am thinking about some who are not in our midst right now: while we miss them here, they must be feeling welcomed there.
Among those who have left us, I wish particularly to remember my esteemed senior colleague, Prof. Kapil Kapoor, who all of us affectionately call Sir-ji. How happy I would have been if he were here to listen to this talk. But let us just say that his absence makes us remember him, thereby making him present, at least in our hearts. You will remember that it was he who started this seminar by giving us a very thorough framework for the analysis of the diasporic experience. His talk left a lasting impression on our minds. If I have time, I shall come back to it later. Then, another dear friend, Professor Avadesh Singh, who is responsible for taking Sir-ji to Rajkot, also said many interesting things in his ten propositions on the diaspora. We had several other good papers, some of which were indeed provocative, besides being thoroughly researched, well written, and stimulating. Some papers we had to miss because of the parallel sessions. Prof. Adesh Pal has to bear the responsibility for that, for denying us those other papers. But now that we have come to the end of our deliberations, there seems to be so little to say. In fact, as debaters in college, when we did not have a prepared speech, we would ask for the last slot so that we could make up our own arguments from scraps of things culled from the various other presentations. Earlier this morning Prof. Jasbir Jain, the Chair of this session, asked me “Makarand, tell me what is the title of your talk?” I said, “Madam, valedictions don’t have titles.” She said, “No, no, but I have to say a few things after your piece, so what are you going to say?” I didn’t want to confess exactly what I was going to say so as not to foreclose what the spirit of this particular moment had in store for me. But to give her an idea, I told her, “Interrogating Diasporic Creativity.” Now I can actually tell you, Madam Chair, the sub-title too: “The Patan Initiative.”
Since the sub-title might seem unusual, let me try to justify it. I waited for so long to announce it because, as I’ve hinted earlier, I was trying to ascertain if something new would really come up in this seminar. Now in the last session, I can confidently say that it has. We have managed to push the thinking on this topic forward. To that extent, our work here can indeed be called “The Patan Initiative.” Knowing that Adesh Pal-ji will lose no time in publishing the proceedings, such a sub-title will soon have a book to back it.
But there are other reasons for such a claim. On the night before the first day of this seminar, when we were traveling together from the Ahmedabad airport to Patan, Prof. Kapil Kapoor said, “When you get an invitation from certain places in India like Patan, Rajkot, Ujjain, and so on, you should go. Why? Because it’s something you have to do. Treat it as an anushthan; you must do it as a part of your discipline, your professional obligation.” Professor Kapoor was reminding me of my duty as a contemporary Indian intellectual. Like the itinerant teachers and preachers of yore, we too must travel to share ourselves and to learn from our audiences all over India. In other words, we must stir out of our metropolitan cocoons and venture even to the most remote corners of this land. Moreover, to certain places, we have to go whether or not we have much to say or do. Just going there, expressing support and solidarity, sharing and listening—that alone is sufficient. That is because these places are like Peethams; they are centers of learning. In times to come, news ideas will emerge from their precincts. So, it is in this spirit that I come here again and again. And let me tell you that whenever I come, I never go back empty handed. Your careful attention to my words and the warmth of your hospitality fulfils me in a manner that is as rare as it is precious. So this is another reason why I call our collective efforts in this seminar “the Patan Initiative.”
There yet another reason why I choose to confer on this seminar what might appear as a prematurely self-congratulatory epithet. Some of you may remember how in our last conference a couple of years ago, on “Decolonizing English Education,” one of the points that I tried to make was that the process of decolonizing will not be initiated solely in metropolitan centers. If this process of decolonization is really to occur, if it has really to take place, then it has to start from places like Patan, Shimoga, Guwahati, Kolhapur, Rohtak, and so on. These smaller towns have the resources and the closeness to the hinterland to achieve greater gains than the metros, which tend to be closer to overseas centers of knowledge and power. That we come here to Patan shows that such a shift is gradually though assuredly taking place. So, to speak of the Patan initiative, then, is not just to make a customary and lighthearted genuflection in the direction of one’s hosts and friends, as if to repay their hospitality, concern and their kindness. It may actually signal a more important process of intellectual change.
What I am actually trying to say is that a new direction of thinking about the diasporic experience, diasporic creativity, should indeed take place, whether or not it may actually have taken place, from a place like Patan. I say this for two special reasons. One reason is that it is from here and hereabouts that since times immemorial people have left their native shores and gone to other parts of the world—to Arabia, to Africa, and, more recently, even beyond. So this is the right place from where to launch an initiative to try to understand their experience. As I’ve said before, I believe that we have seen some pioneering works towards this end in the last three days itself. The other reason may be more personal, even self-indulgent. But this seminar and my position in it as the Valedictory speaker affords me an opportunity to survey my own work in this area and to ask myself if I have anything more to say or offer on the topic. So, this talk itself may contain a sort of self audit. Let me hasten to clarify that I do this not because I consider my work in this area to be either significant or extensive; indeed, there be many here, like our learned Chair, not to speak of other members in the audience, who have done much more. But very briefly, for my own benefit, if not yours, simply to try to understand the direction of my own thought, I hope you will permit me to recapitulate some of my previous ideas on this topic and to see if I can take them forward today. If nothing else, let the sub-title imply a very personal initiative for me, here at Patan.
II: Diasporas and Homelands
I have four published papers on the diaspora. Two of them are on Canadian and Australian diasporic literature respectively, and two other papers are of a more theoretical kind. One of these papers, “What About Those Who Stayed Back?” has already been referred to; I am not going to talk much about it today. But the only thing about that paper which is still pertinent is this whole question of representation, which I am going to come to soon. Today we had a paper on Rohinton Mistry by Professor Niloufer Bharucha. Though I didn’t intervene, I think the crucial question in a text like Such a Long Journey, or A Fine Balance is this question of the politics of representations. At the heart of my aforementioned paper is this concern about who represents whom. Does the diaspora write the homeland? Should the homeland succumb to such a representation because it comes bearing the stamp of metropolitan authority? What are the implications of this imbalance in power between the author and his Indian audience? Instead, should there be an attempt from the homeland to write the diaspora? Because, whether we like it or not, all representations are shot through and through with a certain dynamics of power, from which there is not escape. So this was the question that I raised in one my papers.
The other theoretical paper was actually the Introduction to a book that Professor Adesh Pal-ji has been kind enough to mention. It is called In-Diaspora: Theories Histories and Texts. In this paper I was trying to theorize the relationship between diasporas and homelands. An important point that was made in that Introduction was that it is not just the homeland that creates diasporas but that diasporas also create the homeland. Prof. Mohan Ramanan also said this today. In my Introduction, which he has perhaps not seen, I have actually tried to work out how this happens, what are the dynamics of such a process. Briefly, consider an example in recent times—the creation of the nation of Israel. Israel, of course, was the creation of the Jewish diaspora in Europe, though with the complicity of the British colonial rule. Palestine was a British protectorate. The British encouraged Jewish settlement, knowing that in the future having a Jewish state in the middle of Arabia might be very convenient for the Western powers. But the conception of nation of the modern nation of Israel was from and by the diaspora. This is also true to an extent of India, because the nation that is India, to some extent Pakistan also, was conceptualized and debated, if not created, in the diasporic community. As Niloufer said, the first Indian flag was unfurled outside India by a Parsi lady, Madame Bhikaji Cama. Recent books like Giriraj Kishor’s Pehla Girmitia, or films like Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma, focus on Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa, implying that India’s freedom struggle was shaped by a man who learned how to fight authority in the diaspora. Gandhi learned the methodology of the freedom struggle in South Africa. It was in South Africa that satyagraha was invented.
Still on the topic of Gandhiji, let me add one or two points. Hind Swaraj, the “Bible” of non-violent resistance, was written outside India. In the early 20th century, England was the hot bed of Indian revolutionaries. Gandhiji wrote Hind Swaraj in 1909, on board a ship, which was returning to South Africa from England. He had just met several “extremists” and revolutionaries in England. It is likely that he even met V.D. Savarkar at the residence of Shyamji Krishnadas. The latter gave fellowships to Indian students in Britain. He gave support and succor and shelter to a lot of young Indian potential revolutionaries. The question of India was of course hotly debated in the Oxford and Cambridge unions too. The Indian Majlis in Oxford or Indian Union in Cambridge or such places like University of London helped shaped the history of India. So, Gandhiji, having met someone like Savarkar, might have written Hind Swaraj to explain an alternative view on how to free India, not through violence, but through satyagraha. Similarly, let us not forget that after he had withdrawn from national politics, the “father” of another nation, Mohammmad Ali Jinnah, was also in England as a practicing barrister. Liaqat Ali went to England to call him back to lead and revitalize the Muslim League. In my Introduction, though I did not go into this detailed history, I tried to modify Benedict Anderson’s formulations of how nations evolve from certain kind of states – for example from monarchies or religious empires. What I had tried to argue is that withdrawing empires not only create nations, not only leave nations in their wake, but also create new communities like the diasporas.
Now concerning the other two papers – one was on Canadian and the other on Australian diasporic literature. What I tried to do in the Canadian paper is to identify the various phases not only of the Indian migration to Canada, which has already been talked about right here but about Indian diasporic creativity. I tried to use other critics like Uma Parmeswaran to see what happens to various phases and generations of Indian Canadians. What kind of identity they have? Are they simply Canadian writers? Is it an unmarked discourse that they have been producing or is there some trace of hybridy? You know, the first phase of this literature is paradoxically in the pre-illiterate era, the era of orature where you have oral records but few written books. Some of the reminiscences of these people are being recorded, as Prof.Om Prakash Juneja mentioned. Then you have the era of literature proper, 60s, 70s and so on, and even here you have two streams – those who write in English and those who write in Punjabi or Gujarati or Hindi. So there is vernacular versus English tradition even within the diaspora in Canada. The title of my paper was actually from a quotation of Anita Rao Badami’s in The Toronto Globe and Mail where she says “one Foot in India and couple of toes in Canada” to describe her identity. So, I inverted that statement and said if you actually analyse her writings, it’s more like one foot in Canada and a couple of toes in India. The basic argument in that paper was that these writers usually portray an away from India experience. I would argue that Niloufer calls a compulsive return to India is really a way of saying good-bye to India. It is not a way of dealing with India but a self-justifying narrative of a passage not to India but from India.
From Canada if you go to Australia as I have in another paper, then again you see a certain ambivalence, both of the host country towards Indians, but also of the diasporic Indians towards Australia. India enters the Australian imagination after the so-called Mutiny of 1857. Australians read the British propaganda about the savagery of the mutineers. This is the first time that India enters the Australian imagination, apart from the fact that the camels used to cross the great Australian desert before the railways were actually from India. Indian traders helped to open up the Australian continent were all called Afghans partly because some of them were and because the Australians didn’t know the difference between an Indian and an Afghan in any case. So, anybody who had a camel was called an Afghan. These camels, by the way, have now gone wild and are breeding so much that they have to be culled. When I went to Australia I saw some of them; let me tell you that Australia seems to have suited them; they were much healthier than Indian camels. Still on the topic of animal husbandry, Dr. Patadia was saying this morning that we send them camels and they sent us horses. So when you had Skinner’s Horse or some other old cavalry regiment in India, the horses used were bred in Australia—so Skinner’s horse was probably an Australian.
Of course, I don’t spend much time of these matters in my paper, but I do use another popular metaphor to analyse the cultural exchange between these two countries, that is cricket. The defining moment is the bodyline series when Dougals Jardine went to Australia and through Larwood unleashed these bouncers that gave this type of bowling and the series itself the name “bodyline.” Jardine actually took home the Ashes, but Australia’s relations with Britain reached their lowest point. What is very interesting is that Jardine was born in India, on Malabar Hill in Bombay. He retained a soft corner for India. After Australia, when England played in India, he not only did not use the bodyline. In fact, after the Madras test he retired from cricket. Ashis Nandy makes the point is that Australians were badly treated by the British as descendents of convicts and as an ‘under class.’ They in turn treated people of colour badly, trying at the same time to retain the favour of their English, and now American mentors. I used this idea in my paper. Around the turn of the century there were invasion narratives produced in Australia about the Japanese or the Chinese taking over. So the Australian attitudes to Asia are characterized by a deep ambivalence; on the one hand they want to see themselves as a part of the Asia-Pacific region, but on the other hand they are a part of the “West.” I argue that the Asian attitude to Australia as reflected in Australian diasporic literature is also characterized by this kind of dualism. On the one hand they would like to embrace that continent and become Australian, but on the other hand, they are unable to do so. I used two texts to show this: In the Time of the Peacock by Meena Abdulla and If the Moon Smiled by a later writer Chandani Lokuge.
If I had the opportunity, I would take this further, looking at what happens in to the Indian diaspora in the United States, in UK, and so forth, which I certainly can’t do today. But the only thing I would like to mention, coming back to my earlier point about how diasporas shape the homeland, is to very briefly talk about Fiji because one of the most outstanding texts of the Diasporic Creativity has actually come out of Fiji not in English but in Fijian Hindi. This is called Dauka Puran and its author is Professor Subramani. It is in a special kind of Hindi, which is not available in India now. What is more it is the only book, the first and only substantial literary text, produced in that language. It appears at that very point when the Fijian Indians are undergoing the second diaspora. After this second migration, Fijian Hindi itself may disappear because some of the best trained, best educated Fijians of Indian origin are moving to Australia or to New Zealand. Fijians of a later generation may forget their mother tongue and start speaking English—or learn standard Hindi instead. So at the brink of this second diaspora in Fiji, comes this immense book written in a language, which is in way, defined by this book. This Dauka Puran is something that we should really be looking at as a very unique kind of diasporic text. We should take it seriously as an attempt to preserve an entire way of life, an entire culture and an entire language even when it is beleaguered.
But that’s not the only reason why I mentioned Fiji. What is interesting about Fiji is that it is a unique experiment in forging a “national” culture in the diaspora. All these diasporic communities are obviously experimenting with how to retain their Indian identity. This in turn hinges on what is the definition of India, Indianness, and the relationship of the diaspora with the homeland. This relationship is determined by the nature of the migration. It is not customary to talk about the two kinds of diaspora, the diaspora of high imperialism, which is the diaspora of indentured labour, the second, more recent diaspora, the new diaspora, of professionally skilled and upwardly mobile people. The latter are going abroad to improve their prospects without being under any kind of compulsion. So there are two entirely different kinds of diasporas. But the point is that whether it is Guyana Surinam or Guadeloupe or Mauritius – all these become as it were case studies—each community is experimenting in different ways of coping with this experience of leaving your homeland. Remember in those days, they could not keep going back and forth. One reason why the notion of the diaspora changes is because both time and space have shrunk so that you can actually if not inhabit two spaces certainly be connected to two spaces without the kind of trauma that people underwent when they left India and could not return for years and years. All that they had were little relics, which became living symbols of India, a sort of “Hindu tool-kit,” if you will--one copy of Manas, one Shivalinga, one rosary, a family picture, and so on. This applies to other communities also. So all these societies give you different versions, different ways of coping with what was a very real problem, being wrenched from home and sent of to a distant land which was very different.
Fiji is very special because one of the things that happened in Fiji is that, regardless of where the labourers came from--and they did come from Andhra Pradesh, from Tamil Nadu, from U.P., from Bihar, from Madhya Pradesh, from Bengal--what is so fascinating is that when they all went to Fiji they created a new community where everybody spoke Fijian Hindi. This is very the multiplicity of languages and cultures do not clash but there is an attempt to unify, to create a new society where everybody speaks Hindi though a special kind of Hindi, no doubt. Subramani whose ancestors came from Tamil Nadu also writes Hindi, speaks Hindi, as does Satyendra Nandan whose ancestors came from Northern India. So does my friend Sudesh Mishra who is a very fine poet. And what happens, for example, to caste, what happens to community, what happens to all those different markers, which were cause for all kinds of tensions within India? Fiji becomes an example of how such a community can be created overseas.
Similarly on the fringes of India we have the island of Andaman where again you have this very interesting experiment in the creation of an Indian society where everyone speaks one language—Hindi—regardless of where they come from. According to what I am told by some friends, they found a new way of naming their children. So that there is no changing of names after marriage as is the patriarchal practice, a girl child’s first name will be her own and the second name will be her mother’s name, while a boy’s first name will be his own and second name will be his father’s. So you see in Andaman you got people trying to get out of identity markers which pigeonhole you into a caste, into a community, into a class or whatever. Though the Andamans do not constitute a diaspora, they are farther away from India than many foreign countries are.
In this section, I have not only tried to summarise what I’d argued in my four previous papers on the diaspora, but tried to take some of the arguments, especially of the relationship of the diaspora and the homeland, farther. Diasporas offer a special space in national experiments can take place. These may or may not later be replicated or translated into nations, but do serve as benchmarks of how to manage questions of identity. The diaspora thus becomes a varied and interesting site of constructing and deconstructing the nation. In the next section of my paper, I would like to take some of these arguments forward today because we have now to consider the diaspora in the globalization phase of human history. What are the implications of diasporas and nations in this new phase?
III: Diasporas in a Time of Globalisation
Consider the experience of travelling overseas today. You could start in Mumbai or Delhi and proceed, say, West. First stop is London, then New York or Toronto. From your origin to your destination, you could, if you chose, listen to the same music, eat the same food, speak the same language, even watch the same films. All these venues are not identical, but continuous, like beads in a necklace. There will be different flavours of course, and there will be an addition and subtractions, but the kind of continuity that we can experience today as Indians as we travel across the globe is perhaps unprecedented. That is because of the numerical, economic, and cultural strength of the Indian diaspora. Let us not forget that the U.S.A has become the second largest home of Indians in the world. They are about two millions of us in the U.S. The important question is how do you reconcile this continuity with the idea of location and dislocation, which have come to characterize diasporic narratives of today? The truth is that there is less dislocation today, precisely when dislocation is valorised and essentialised as the defining feature not just of diasporic but of the human condition itself.
That is why, going back to the questions that were raised on the first day of the seminar, I would simply say that even if the word diaspora is a contentious word, a word that seems to conceal more than it reveals, it is imperative to confront it with those the Government of India has used – PIO and NRI. I am suggesting that the phrase “Person of Indian Origin” or “Non-resident Indian” is more illuminating as a category than diaspora which is neither here nor there. A case has been made out for diaspora of the capital ‘D’ or small ‘d’—the former signifying the Jewish experience, for instance, and the latter, the other experiences of migration. But this has its own problems, besides essentialising and dichotomising. Similarly the old and the new diaspora also have their own share of problems as descriptive categories. Perhaps, PIO and NRI are more illuminating. Perhaps, we even need to divide our diasporic literary texts into PIO vs. NRI texts!
Now let me move to some of the main questions that I wanted to raise today. The first of these questions is simply what do we mean when we say “interrogating diasporic creativity?” What are we trying to say? I think we are trying to ask, first of all, why is that the questions of diaspora have become so important today? We have to look at what are the factors, political, cultural, economic, that have suddenly made diaspora the favourite topic, whether it’s with the publishers, here or abroad, or with the Government of India. Now certainly one of the reasons for this is the conjunction or conjuncture of circumstances in which the South Asian minority that constitutes the diaspora especially in North America has suddenly come into the limelight.
One of the things I said in the Preface to my book In Diaspora is that it is almost as if a minority has suddenly attained the status of majority. That is, it has come of age. What happens when a minority suddenly comes of age? It becomes globally visible. And in the last ten years this is exactly what has happened in the United States and other parts of the world. A major reason for this is the boom in IT or information technology. We know that 40% of all the companies in the Silicon Valley or at any rate a very large percentage are either owned or run by Indians. Silicon Valley itself has become like a mini India. But this is more than just a plain fact. Southhall is a mini India but nobody took notice, except to refer to it sarcastically. Southhall is a suburban ghetto of ethnicity, which people would write about with a certain kind of patronizing interest, but it didn’t become an international metaphor for a new Indian presence in the world. Similarly, there have been India towns in Singapore or Malaysia or in other parts of the world, but they were not famous or celebrated.
I would suggest that in this span of ten years, the Indian community, especially in US, which is the leader of the Unipolar World today, has suddenly “arrived.” They have made it. They have attained economic prominence by leading the IT revolution; this has, in turn, given them a kind of mystique. But the economic clout translates into cultural, political, and social influence. Affluence, in other words, leads to influence. In Britain too, the home of our former masters, we have notable Indian grandees like Lord Swaraj Paul who are so well known and visible. By the way, how telling the name “Swaraj” is for the point that I’m making. Then there is the extraordinary world-wide importance to Indian writers like V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, and dozens of others. I think the interest in Indian Diaspora has been fueled by all this—the comprehensive rise of the expatriate or diasporic Indian and, at long last, the Government of India’s interest in these people.
But while all these success stories get publicity, there is little work done on the flip side of this celebration. Just as there were two kinds of diasporas, of the old indentured labours and the new diaspora of upwardly mobile professionals, there are two diasporas today. In contrast to the astonishing success of overseas Indians, there are large numbers of illegal and desperate Indians overseas. Go to Greece, go to Austria, to France, to any Western European country. You will find people from Punjab selling you a little model of the Eiffel Tower, or water, or flowers. When I was in Florence, Italy, I saw people who wear masks or mime for money. I saw a someone pretending to be Cleopatra—in golden coloured, very tight fitting costume that must have been suffocating in the summer heat. If you drop a coin in the can placed in front, it makes a loud noise. Then the magnificent Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, bows very low in front of you, sort of like a farshi salaam, before straightening back to her upright and immobile position. I did not know who might be doing this, but when I saw the person changing, I realized that he was an Indian. If you go outside the US, Canadian, or some other embassies in Chanakyapuri, you will see so many desperate souls, entire families, on the pavement, waiting to go abroad to improve their prospects. For many of these hopefuls, what lies ahead is not pretty.
What I’ve been suggesting is that diasporic literature and experience need to be subjected to some rigorous class analyses. We will discover that the diasporans themselves form a stratified society. Those on the top, the creamy layer, get all the accolades and laurels; those at the bottom end up in the dustbins of history. They inequalities of the home and of the host country are more often than not reproduced, not negated, in the diaspora. So the word diasporas actually includes two types of people. One who are doubly under privileged and the other who are doubly privileged. This is where we have to be able to make our own critical distinctions.
The doubly under privileged are those who have lost both homeland, and as illegal immigrants abroad have lost izzat. They can’t come back without having earned the money which they lost when they left. When you come across them, they do not look you in the eye because they know that you are from India. They see themselves doing low status jobs. You, on the other hand, are a tourist. So they don’t want to say ‘hello’ to you. They also know that you will not buy their products, so they target the “rich” white people instead. To cite a personal example, I was catching a bus in Vienna back to my hotel. Since I had some time I started talking to the newspaper vendors. The newspapers vending profession in Vienna, incidentally, has been taken over by Indians. You can always find an Indian at a Metro Station selling newspapers, magazines & other things. So I tried talking to somebody and this is what happened. He says, “Aap the zuban kuch ajeeb lagti hai; aap Punjab se nahin ho.” “Haan ji,” I replied, “mein to delhi se hoon.” “How is life?” I asked him. When he knew that I was from India, he said, “Bahut changa hai ji. Yahan aish kar rahen hain.” He told me that he had ten people working under him. Finally, he said if he could help me. I thanked him, but said that I had to catch a bus. He had arrived and would have helped someone who was down and out. So such are the networks of doubly underprivileged.
Who are doubly privileged? These are the people who are “highly placed” in both homeland and the host country. They don’t necessarily have to go through those very difficult and at times damming experiences that the others who had to make a life for themselves had to go through. You know when Mira Nair comes to India and starts shooting a film all the doors open, so that in thirty days you can make a film which goes on to gross 70-80 million dollars. This is a doubly privileged diaspora. So what do you do with Monsoon Wedding? It is a diasporic text? If not, what kind of a text is it? I will come to this question in a minute, but I think we will all see it as a text created by a doubly privileged, not doubly displaced diasporan.
IV: A Model to Understand Diasporic Creativity
Keeping some of these issues in mind, let me now go back to back to what Prof. Avadesh Kumar said about the global celebration of the creativity of the Indian diaspora. He asked what should our response be to this phenomenon. If I remember right, he used a rather innovative phrase that I find so eloquent. He said let it be a critical celebration. I was struck by this phrase and found myself asking, can celebration be critical? Because when you celebrate you actually forego, you renounce that critical component. Instead, you join in the song and dance. Yes, I appreciate Avadhesh bhai’s stance. We must join in the celebration. It would be churlish not to. We would be dogs in the manger, so to speak, if all that we did were to scream: “No! No! No! No! All this is a fraud. Diasporic creativity is a fraud. These writers are opportunists and they are just trying to sell India.” We have heard people decry the success of the diasporic writers thus. It reminds one, to use another animal idiom, of the sour grapes syndrome. We who have failed to make the grade, who are by no means international writers, vent out frustration against the world by abusing those who have made it over there. You know this would be a reverse-power malaise, where we try to make a virtue of our own powerlessness. Instead, I think we should join in the global celebration for there are some fringe benefits that can accrue to us from this. Let me refer to the dukandari ka muhavra that has already been used; if the diaspora is a famous retail chain, then kyon na hum bhi ek franchise le le? You shouldn’t throw the baby with the bath water.
But, all the same, it is very important, as Prof. Jahagirdar has said, not to lose our sense of proportion, not to lose that critical ability to look at the phenomenal success of diaspora creativity shorn of the hype, shorn of all the market forces that surround it. So what I am saying is that our first imperative should be to call for a new initiative to interrogating the diaspora. This would lead us to a twofold task: on the one hand it is incumbent on us to do justice to diasporic creativity. This is one of our jobs as critics, as intellectuals, teachers. It is clear that there is this efflorescence of creativity, which we must take into account. But the other imperative is that we should also do justice to ourselves. That is to say, in doing justice to this body of creativity, we shouldn’t do injustice to ourselves. So the real question for us is “what are the appropriate ways of evaluating the diasporic creativity?” I think this has been the question that has exercised some many of those who have delivered papers today. That is why I would like to touch on this question for the next few minutes.
The point is simply this, Prof. Jahagirdar and others have raised important questions on diasporic literature. For instance, “What is the literary historiography of diasporic writing? Where are we to locate this literature? Is it a part of some national literature or is it a completely different genre of writing?” And this is precisely the kind of question I was raising when I asked, “How do you read Monsoon Wedding?” It is set in India. It is about an Indian family. But how do you read its perspective, how do you read its point of view or its attitude to India? Similarly, how are we to read An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. This novel, set London and Italy, has no Indian characters, but has been written by an Indian author, who himself lives abroad. What kind of a text is it? Take another Seth book, The Golden Gate. How do we read this? If diasporic writing is characterized by a sense of dislocation, it recounts no such experience, at least in the normal, cultural sense. One character in it who does experience dislocation does so because he discovers he is homosexual. Likewise, this novel does not have a protagonist going from India to the US. What is more, it is not a conventional novel at all because it is written in verse, patterned after Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.
Are such books diasporic texts? What is the critical salience of the word diasporic if it does not help you place the given text? Is it an Indian text? Is it American? These are the questions that have been asked again and again. That is why, to my mind the question of literary historiography complements the question of literary evaluation. Somebody had said earlier that “a text is a text is as text”—why try, in other words, to situate it in this or that national literature? Yes that is for sure. But if that text is getting a Governor General’s award in Canada, that too for its compassionate portrayal of an underclass of another country, then it becomes a slightly different kind of text. Why is it getting that award? How do we read that text, now that it has got the award? How do we understand its attitude to India? Will that help us situate it better?
Here is where I would like to propose a model. And the model is simply to assist us to read some of the texts of diasporic creativity. I would suggest reading them in two ways. One is that we read them alongside their context. But what do we mean by context? Contexts are not just those cultural, economic, social and other factors that surround that text. That is the normal meaning of the word context. But as my friend John Thieme has written in his recent book, a context is also a contrary text. You see, like a pro-text or a pre-text, this is the con-text. If so, then what are the contexts of this diasporic text? I would say there are two kinds of contexts. One is a text by an Indian English writer who is actually living in India. That forms one context. So when you read Rushdie, one way to read him is to read him alongside a writer like R.K.Narayan. The second context is what I would call the vernacular writer. Vernacular writers are both those who write, say, in Canada in Punjabi and those who write in India in Indian language other than English. So one way to read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is to read it with The Legend of Khassak by O.V. Vijayan. Or you read Monsoon Wedding in juxtaposition to any other Indian film with a similar theme such as Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. If you do that, something very interesting starts happening to both texts. In this fashion we will be better able to evaluate the claims and the “merits” of diasporic writers or directors.
Now why should we do all this? Why not be (un)happy Indo-Anglian, pretending that Indian English creativity is an autonomous field of study? I think we need to do all this because we are facing a situation where a diasporic creativity threatens to engulf and in a way overwhelm native creativity. Just as Indian English creativity threatens to submerge native creativity, diasporic creativity threatens to submerge native Indian English creativity. If you go to any university abroad and look at what they mean by “courses in Indian literature,” 80% of the texts are from diasporic literature. So the diaspora has become a substitute for the homeland. Now if 20 million people stand instead of a billion people that becomes a very fine example of a kind of metonymy, which is one of the modes of modern writings if one reads David Lodge. But still there is a flip side to it. And this flip side is the erasure of the richness, the diversity, the multiplicity of native literature in all our languages. So that is why there needs to be a special initiative from here, from India. What we need is not just a reaction, but an alternative. There is no point simply cursing Rushdie for writing a book like The Satanic Verses. Can we do better? We need, in other words, to resist diasporic writings with our own counter-narratives, which should be more believable than Rushdie’s. And one way to create alternatives is certainly through translations. The wider availability of Indian texts will serve as a counter to the hegemony of diasporic texts, especially among those who wish to take Indian literature seriously. When we read disaporic texts in conjunction with native texts and Indian English texts, we might be able to provide new ways of reading them. We can also prevent diasporic texts from appropriating the space of Indian literature, just as Indian literature in English tends to appropriate the space of other native literatures. The bottom line is this: if we are not going to be critical, who is going to be critical?
I will ask two more questions – and one questions is this --“How do you define a diasporic text?” I would suggest that if you want to use the category of the diaspora as a critical category not merely as a descriptive category, then we would have to ask, “What is the typology of a diasporic text?” And I would say a diasporic text has the following structure. It has a structure of location followed by dislocation and relocation. Of course, all these terms must be used with inverted commas. The advantage of proposing such a typology is that you can say that those texts, like An Equal Music, which do not conform to this structure are not, strictly speaking, diasporic texts at all. That is, they do not display the formal features of diasporic creativity.
But what do we mean by dislocation, if this is to be the defining element of a diasporic text? I think it would imply, at the least, a crossing borders and boundaries, moving from one culture to another culture. Without such a movement or journey, I would not consider a text diasporic. Now what is interesting is that both a location and relocation are, if not under erasure, under a question mark because location in the first place is not certain and relocation is also doubtful. If you take a text like Jasmine, for example, there is no comfortable location from where the protagonist emerges and no comfortable location to which she finally arrives. So this is a diasporic text which problematises or portrays this experience of dislocation. That to me is the quintessence of a diasporic text. That is if you use diaspora as a critical, not simply a descriptive category.
This reminds me of the various types of diasporic writers. Prof. Kapil Kapoor described them very aptly. He said that there we permanent aliens like Raja Rao, who lived abroad for fifty sixty years but never as a part of that culture and always at odds with it. The second category is the divided settler who is neither here nor there—sort of like Trishanku, which is the metaphor Uma Parmeswaran has also used. The third is the immigrant. Of course, the perfect immigrant is actually the imperfect immigrant, if you take Bharati Mukharjee as an example. Because all these enthusiastic pro-America narratives show various discontents within the immigrant experiences. The immigrant experience is not a small and welcoming experience. This is entirely marked by fissures and contradictions, which emerge. So these three categories I think go well with some of the things I tried to say here.
Finally a couple of points. What is the structure of the experience of dislocation, if we consider it as the defining element in a diasporic text? Also, why is it a traumatic experience? Again, this is not question that has been dealt with very much, though Professor Prashant Sinha brought in Eric Fromm to explain why this experience becomes traumatic. What happens to the self when it is propelled from a familiar surrounding to an alien location? Of course Vijay Mishra has theorized this when he talks about the melancholy of the diaspora in Freudian terms, as a wound that is never healed. He argues that diaspora is like being ejected out of a mother’s womb; you can’t return to the womb, so you are condemned to a perpetual moving without arrival. So, the diaspora is always migrating without arriving. We certainly find this with the Jews, but also with some Indians who went from India to Fiji or Uganda, but then had to move again to Australia or England. These theories are no doubt illuminating, but without going into them in great detail, what I wish to ask is a more basic question: what is the structure of dislocation?
Essentially, I would theorize it is a break with the old identity and the invention of a new identity. This is all that matters. Again I’ll just mention a little anecdote that Prof. Salat shared with me. He was invited to York University, Canada. You know when we all go abroad from India we have the same difficulty. Our currency is very weak there, so we feel as if suddenly we have been plunged below the poverty line. Sometimes we don’t have the means to pay local airfares when we are invited to lecture somewhere; some times our hosts also don’t have the funds to call us. So it was a mutual friend, who very kindly suggested to Prof. Salat, “Listen! Don’t worry! We will pass the hat around and collect some money for you.” Prof. Salat said “No, is tarah ki muflisi dikhake hamara dil ko chot pahunchegi—itne to hum bhi khuddar hain.” What this means is that he was unwilling to let go off the old identity for the sake of going to deliver a lecture at York. On a larger scale, this is the experience of several diasporics. There is a clinging to the old identity and a resistance to making a transition. That is why I don’t think that a diasporic journey or a diasporic cross over is possible without being able to break away from the old identity and invent a new identity. How do people do that? They go to a pub and cheer a local team, for instance. That is one way of getting integrated into a new culture. You know that is why Gurindar Chaddha used that metaphor of football in Bend It like Beckham. Here football, or soccer, is shorthand for British culture itself. And of course, those of us who’ve seen the film knows how everything goes well in the end. Jassi, the heroine, marries her coach. The coach is Irish, the old anti-colonial, anti-British kind. So most of the real problems are papered over and the film is a high-grossing success. It does show the shedding of an old identity, but the process is not traumatic.
For those of us who admire the Natyasastra, here is an addition query. Is there a rasa of dislocation? Are these diasporic texts marked by a dominant emotion that they produce in their readers? If we were to take examples from Hindi films, we will immediately see how they typify, conventionalise, the diasporic experience. For indeed, in a film like Naam, it is viraha that exemplifies the diasporic experience—viraha from the Motherland. You will remember the famous song of Pankaj Udhas’s in that film, Chitthi Ayi Hai.’ It is amazing how I heard that song again, of all places in an airport limousine taking me from the Denver International airport to a hotel. It so happened that I had missed my connecting flight. I was actually travelling from San Jose, California, to Iowa City in the Midwest. Having missed my flight, I picked up the phone and called up a hotel. I was sure that there was something in the voice at the other end of the line that sounded oddly familiar. This was confirmed when I went to the hotel. It was owned by a Patel. When they took me from the airport to the hotel, the driver played this song. Of course, he was from India, in fact from Ahmedabad, and I had a nice talk with him. Actually he was a lawyer but he said, “Dekho Ham Kaya Kar Rehe Hai? Ham To Gadi Chala Rahe Hai.” So the point is that the Rasa of dislocation is available in diasporic texts, should we choose to theorize it. The implication is that, ultimately, diasporic texts are love stories whose presiding rasa is sringara, even if it vipralamba or love in separation.
Towards the end of my paper I want to ask this fundamental question again--what happens when people change, when the go to another land, assume another citizenship or culture? Is it true that they can’t return? In Delhi there was an exhibition by the twins, Rabindra and Amrit K.D. Kaur Singh, two sisters from Edinburgh in England. What do they do? They have adopted and adapted a style of miniature painting to contemporary subject. In my book In Diaspora I have used one of their paintings on the cover. It is a very richly textured, very colourful, very oriental, rather neo-oriental style, which is appropriate to the themes of the book. You know they also have these marvellous portraits of Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana, done in miniature style. The paintings are of course not miniatures. So this is a new type or art, a new style of expression. It’s neither Indian nor British. As Kavita-ji was mentioning, it’s a bit like chutney music or what you call Disco Bhangra. Now these are hybrid forms, neither pure Bhangra nor pure disco. The twins too, knowing that they were doing something quite original and different, had a very telling appellation for it, past-modern (not post-modern). I thought that was very interesting because they are returning to the past, you know, through all these miniature paintings, and yet they were very modern, very contemporary. Take another example, a painting of 9/11 by Atul Dodia. It’s a very fascinating painting wherein he puts a Yogi in a kind of a Sarvangasana Mudra and the towers are being crashed into in the background. The painting, which I think is in acrylic, has a psychedelic effect.
People may say that what you see in the Twins or in Dodia is a kind of hybridity. But is that enough? I mean, hybridity of what? The camouflage of hybridity, you see, has to be interrogated. We cannot simply say hybrid and simply leave it there. Just as we cannot say aporia and leave it there. Aporias or pathless paths have to be traversed. You have to interrogate them. You have to bring to them a critical consciousness. Even if the meaning gets deferred endlessly, that need not prevent us from engaging with an issue or a text. That is why I would say that we have to theorize various kinds of hybridities. There is, you see, a towards-India hybridity and an away from Indian hybridity. That is, a hybridity that shows sensitivity towards India, and a hybridity that does not. We have to be able to distinguish between these two kinds of hybridity because otherwise we are losing our sense of distinction. We must very respectfully ask what is inside the Trojan horse of hybridity.
Fredric Jameson tells us that Third World texts are national allegories. It seems to me that this may be applied to several diasporic texts. Many of these texts show you that the motherland or the homeland rapes you when you go back. Now if this is the underlying story of our hybrid text, it is surely a very anti-India type of hybridity, which so conveniently supports the very migration of the writer away from her native country. That is why we have to examine its politics of representation, perhaps even to point out the low probability of such an incident actually happening. So this is what I mean by away from India and towards India hybridity. When we want to interrogate diasporic creativity what are the questions that we should keep in mind? We should keep in mind the question of collaboration and resistance as Dr. Anand Patil mentioned. In his paper he was very conscious of this when he contrasted two kinds of diasporic texts-- one by Ajita Kale and the other by Bharati Mukherjee. The former is a diasporic Marathi text, while the latter is in English. That is why his presentation involved a comparative methodology. We must always ask ourselves if we are opportunistic in our celebration of the diaspora, simply collaborating with it because its proponents are rich and powerful. And all we can do is play a secondary role in their story.
Or can we play a more critical role? Besides collaboration and resistance, is there a third way? This is the key question. I think that when we interrogate diasporic creativity we must keep in mind questions of autonomy, questions of Swaraj, questions of dignity, not only of the diasporic but of the natives and how these texts negotiate between these two poles. How is the homeland portrayed? What is the politics of representation? Are these text neo-orientalist fantasies where the black man or the brown man does the dirty job of a white man? The latter don’t have to come here to rubbish us anymore. We are doing it for them and there is a market for it. We write about own country to show how impossible it is to live here. I wrote another paper where I stated that most diasporic texts end either with violence or rioting or some form of chaos. This means that India is impossible. It cannot be written about as Salman Rushdie said. It’s not only an area of darkness, as Naipaul suggests, but it’s an area of nightmares as Prof. Shankaran said. We must not give up our right to interrogate and critique such portrayals. We must not ignore the politics of addressivity, which is a function of market forces. The market for the exotic continues to grow. The west has the perpetual hunger for the exotic. So the marketing of the margins, as Graham Huggan says, is good business. So we must have the ability to critique these representations. At the same time you needn’t dismiss diasporic creativity altogether.
That is why I would go back to the phrase “critical celebration” and suggest that that is the third way, the way forward. We have the means both to celebrate and to critique diasporic creativity. This has been demonstrated in this very conference. We were supported by our diasporic brother financially, but not interfered with. He gave us the freedom to criticize to discuss, to interrogate. So I would suggest the future lies in the synergy between the diaspora and the homeland, an active collaboration based on mutual support and dignity. As Kavita-ji said, there is a very big stake for the diaspora in the homeland for until the homeland is strong the diaspora can’t hold their heads high. India is a brand name. Let’s not forget that both the diasporic and the natives are stakeholders in this brand. If you agree that globalisation, as Kavita-ji pointed out, is not just the discourse of homogenisation but also the discourse of difference, then the synergy between the diaspora and the homeland can indeed produce not just new opportunities for collaboration and criticism, for sharing and difference. This way we can ensure that those who have left home are always welcome back and those who remained are not left behind.
In this very last session of the seminar, I want to hark back to Professor Kapoor’s Keynote Address. This is not only an auspicious way to wrap up, in a cyclic fashion, what we began two days back. Whenever I happen to be with Prof. Kapoor, I am struck by how much he embodies the practical continuity of the classical Indian mind. Now what is the classical Indian mind? It is essentially a mind which constructs not just knowledge, not just knowledge, but knowledge systems. It constructs theories. It teaches us how to order large bodies of information. On the aeroplane, Professor Kapoor gave me a copy of one of his latest talks, which have now been published. This is [PLEASE CHECK TITLE AND INSERT] Memorial Lecture that he gave at of Punjab University [PLEASE CHECK], where he spoke on Indian knowledge systems. In this paper, he outlines the salient features of Indian knowledge systems, contrasting them with Western knowledge systems. Whether we agree with him or not, the structure that he provides is very useful as a point of reference. Similarly, in his keynote, he raised the most crucial and significant questions about our topic, the Indian diaspora.
I think in a sense Prof. Kapoor has covered the whole ground of our deliberations with his questions. He has warned us that the term “diaspora” may not be the right one at all to describe what seems to increasingly resemble an opportunistic business or industry of Indian creative writing in English overseas. This industry seems to be market driven, devoid of the kind of spiritual, cultural, and political trauma that is associated with the term “diaspora.” Earlier, on the same car ride from Ahmedabad to Patan, Professor Kapoor told me, “What makes this latest group of emigrants special is that they write so much. But those who went before them and did not write, what about them? Just because people don’t write things down doesn’t mean they don’t experience them as intensely.” The very literacy of the new disapora is thus a sort of problem. The experience, or whatever little there is of it, is lost in the writing. The point is that we cannot afford to loose our critical perspective when we look at the literature of diaspora. Unfortunately, all kinds of mediocre writing is considered great or unique just because it is from the diaspora. To put it plainly, this hype over diasporic writing is a bit of a racket.
There is, however, another kind of diasporic intervention in India, which, as I have already suggested, is at the other end of the spectrum. Several of our expatriate brothers and sisters have begun to take a serious interest in the country which is their original home. They are donating money, building hospitals and schools, investing in India in a variety of ways. This is quite different from those writers who use India merely as data or raw material, write about us for foreign audiences, thereby more often than not falsifying or distorting our realities. In contrast there are those who are bringing back some of their riches to this country to help it its path to progress and prosperity. The patron of our seminar, Shri Ramjibhai [PLEASE CHECK NAME] is a very good example. I would like to thank him for supporting this seminar and for being in our midst. This sort of homecoming is also a part of the diasporic experience, though it has not been written up in a novel or short story.
I would like to end my Valedictory Address by expressing a mild disagreement with one aspect of Professor Kapoor’s address. Let me refer you to a conversation I had with a famous English professor who also objected, like Professor Kapoor, to the use of the word “diaspora” to define the experience of Indians overseas. Of course, in those days, the term was not used as widely as it is today, nor was it so fashionable. The writings of these very same overseas Indians used to be called the literature of exile or expatriation. This professor said that diaspora is mainly about the Jewish experience, which was unique. It could not be applied to other migrants. In fact, he went on to say that we are all migrants, but that doesn’t make us members of the diaspora. Human history is indeed full of migrations of various kinds. In fact, I gather that all of us have come from Africa, which was our original home. Does this mean that we are all diasporic? Professor Kapoor has already pointed out one thing that makes the Jewish experience unique. It is the constant persecution and trauma that they were subjected to, chased from one country to another for two thousand years. But the other thing that distinguishes the Jewish experience from the others their distinct relationship with the Israel, their original homeland. So it is the notion of Israel is a notion, which these people carried for years and years, which gave them the strength to bear the suffering, and which filled them with hope of their ultimate return—it is that that makes them unique.
Professor Kapoor had mentioned in passing that Panini was a great psychologist in addition to be a great grammarian. Let me mention another great psychologist, of more recent vintage, Sri Aurobindo. Sri Aurobindo gave us an extremely well worked out theory and way of defining our being in a five-fold manner. This system is, of course, based on the yoga of Patanjali. He sees a person as physical, vital, mental, psychic, and spiritual. He thus addresses the idea of the self at all these levels. What is more, he applies it not just to persons, but to larger continuities. That is, nations too have souls, not just physical characteristics. When we apply this theory to a nation like India, we begin to see that India is not just a physical, that is, territorial entity. It is also an idea. And the idea of India, as Sunil Khilnani reminds us is perhaps more important than the physical entity that India is. Or, as Raja Rao would put it, India is not a desa, but a darsana, a way of looking at the world. If so, then this India of the mind, this India of the spirit, is what makes this nation unique. That is why I believe that like the Jews, we Indians too have a mystic relationship with this land that is India. To that extent, when we leave or are forced to leave India, we continue to have a tie with the motherland.
Moreover, this “discovery of India,” which is the title of another famous book, is actually facilitated by leaving it to live elsewhere. This is illustrated quite well in one of Anita Desai’s early novels, By-Bye Blackbird, which is almost an archetypal novel of the diasporic experience although it was written years before more famous and discussed books. The text tells the story two crossings which are almost symmetrically opposite, reminiscent of The Ambassadors by Henry James. One man, an Indian, goes to Britain, hates it to begin with, but then remains there. Another Indian man, who has been living in Britain for many years, plans to return, even though he has a British wife. Dev, the man who wishes to remain, experiences his moment of epiphany or conversation not among the crowds of London, but in the solitary experience of the British countryside. It is the landscape that seems to accept him. This is how he establishes an emotional bond with the host country. Adit, on the other hand, reconstructs an India from his memories, whose tug is too strong to resist. In other words, a deeper experience of India is sometimes made possible by living far away from it. That is when the mind, distanced from the day to day worries and hassles of living here, glimpses at the true significance of this great country. Let us not forget that it was on the rock away from the tip of India that is Kanyakumari that Swami Vivekanda had his great vision of his mission. As Walt Whitman said so eloquently, a passage to India is always more than just that; it is also a passage to more than India. E. M. Forster chose his title well because it is this India that Mrs. Moore experiences and Adela Quested misses.
To go back to Sri Aurobindo, what I’ve been trying to suggest is that we relate to places and countries at various levels. So there is the physical relationship with either the host or the home, the experience of living in that particular country. Then there is an emotional relationship, at what Sri Aurobindo calls the vital level. Going one level higher, we have a mental, an intellectual relationship with a country. At last you begin to feel that you can read the country aright. It’s like someone listening to Indian classical music for years and years, being able even to feel it but not really understand it because he doesn’t know either the language of the song, what its words mean, or, worse, he doesn’t know the structure of the music, the raga, its notes, its rhythmic cycles, and so on. There is some understanding—he likes the good looks of the performer, for instance, or can even emotionally feel the quality of the music, but otherwise feels shut out from it intellectually. But suppose there is another listener, who is also trained to appreciate the raga and the sahitya, who can decode the technical intricacies of the composition or understand the tala—surely the understanding of such a person is far richer, far more complete. Similarly, after years of training, some of us can actually understand the West intellectually; we feel at home in the whole of western culture. And because of this, you begin to see very subtle differences between, say, Western culture and Indian culture. Such understanding comes after a great deal of study and thought.
But, in this scheme of things, it is when you move even deeper, to the psychic level, that you actually connect with a person, on object, a thing, or even a country. The psyche refers to soul; there is a belief that even machines, say a car or a refrigerator, has some kind of “soul” a force field, if you will. I am told that there is some research on this in the West. Apparently, “talking” to machines helps improve their performance; certainly, we know that talking to plants makes them grow faster. By talking, we are establishing a tie deeper than the instrumental; we are trying to connect at a deeper level. One reason why Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s song, “Bande Mataram,” continues to be so moving is because it addresses the soul of the nation, personified as the great mother. If you think of the theory of reanimation, you will see what I mean by a psychic connection with a land or country. They say that this very body is constituted of certain elements which are congealed in this particular form. That is to say, elements and parts of the body are drawn together by a peculiar logic to bring them together. So, some of dust in my body, which may be drawn from a particular place, may actually draw me back there. I can vouch for this because I was born in Ahmedabad, which is why the very soil of Gujarat calls me back again and again! Similarly, how can you explain why Adesh Palji, who was born very far away from here, was brought here?
The highest level of contact in the Aurobindonian scheme is the spiritual, which is also the mystical. Mystical in the sense that it is supra-sensual. This is perhaps the most intense contact or relationship with somebody because it is direct, unmediated by the senses, therefore a priori, in a manner of speaking. If you agree that many Indians have such a relationship with India, that is India is the holy of the holies, not just a land, but live being, a hive of shrines, criss-crossing rivers, lofty mountain, all of which are considered sacred by a majority of the populace. Such an India will never be forgotten by its sons and daughters no matter how far they live. Of course, not everyone can have such an inner awakening or relationship with India.
So if you look at these categories then the view that the Indian experience is totally dissimilar to the Jewish one needs to be modified. Like the Jews, we too have a mystic relationship with India. My submission to you is that is what makes the Indian experience of migration qualify for the label “diaspora.”
You know of course that however badly we may think of our country, to millions of people, especially in the East—from Burma to Tibet to Thailand to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and all to way to inner Mongolia, Korea, and Japan—India remains the Arya bhoomi, the noble land that gave birth to the Sakya Muni, the great enlightened master, the Buddha. Many people believe that this is the land where Siddhas, Yogis, Rishis, Munis, Bhaktas, Sadhus, Sanyasis, and many other kinds of holy men and women have lived and performed their tapasya since times immemorial. Every inch of this country has had some great soul walk over it. Though our focus is only the diaspora today, it is perfectly evident that India will have a special relationship with all those who are seekers of the ultimate truth, all those who wish to follow dharma, all those who are sadhaks and sadhikas—all of them look to India for guidance and inspiration. Because they are not evident on the surface, does not mean that these truths do not exist, that such an Indis is a myth. This India may not be fashionable, but that does not make it any the less real.
Let me end with a memorable experience. I once went to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Though this is a fine museum, it is not as frequented as the more famous Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art. The Brooklyn museum also has a rich collection of Indian artefacts. I went there but after seeing so many things, felt somewhat tired. So I sat down on a bench. One of the caretakers came to me and started talking to me. He was from Guyana. His English wasn’t very impressive, not was he very coherent. But he wanted so much to talk to me when he found that I was an Indian too, from India in fact. He spoke to me for about twenty minutes and what he wanted to convey to me was what India really meant to him. He who had never been to India, was trying to explain its true significance to me. He was the descendent of unlettered folk, who left India from the villages of U.P. and Bihar, as indentured labourers. They were poor and simple folk. All they had were a few pictures of their favourite deities, a selection of verses from the Manas, and some other old photos, perhaps. God knows what sackfulls of memories, what experience graphs, what learning from India these simple folk carried with them across the black waters. Packed into ships like cattle, often started and ill-treated, they lived so far off from a country which had done little for them and to which they or their descendents might never return. Yet they held that very country in such high reverence that one of their sons was now telling me, so far away from India, “You know, son, wherever you go and however far you are from India, remember that it is such a great country, a country of the divine, of yogis and rishis, it is a holy country, I tell you. Never forget that.” Today, I present to you a fragment of the memory of one of the sons of the diaspora that carries for me much greater meaning and value and which sheds greater light on the experience of the old diaspora that the hundreds of clever books written by clever men and women who neither understand nor love India, but only want to sell it cheaply to Western audiences as some slice of exotica. The meaning of India, for my diasporan interlocutor, was the discovery of one’s inner dignity, something that no book or great intellectual ever told me, but this Guyanese-New Yorker who had never been to India did.
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