One Foot in Canada and a Couple of Toes in India: Diasporas and Homelands in South Asian Canadian Experience


              The title of my paper is an inversion of a remark of Anita Rau Badami’s that appeared as the headline in the May 13th Globe and Mail supplement, Toronto.   Badami said:  “I was 29 years in India and 10 years here, so I have one foot in India and a couple of toes here.” Badami was speaking of her experience as a Canadian writer of Indian origin in the context of the launch of her just released novel, The Hero’s Walk.  Badami’s own resolution of the crisis of being diasporic is eloquently expressed in her affirmation of the blessings of double vision: “We are both doomed and blessed, to be suspended between two worlds, always looking back, but with two gorgeous places to inhabit, in our imaginations or our hearts.” In my opinion, however, such affirmations serve to camouflage the central impulse of many of the novels of the South Asian Diaspora.  That is why I am inverting her statement. I shall argue that the main thrust of South Asian Canadian writers is away from India and towards Canada. In other words, it is an out of India or away from India experience that is being recorded. This, then, is my central argument in a paper which, to use Peter van de Veer’s phrase, is about the dialectics of longing and belonging, about the way in which diasporic fictions relate to their homelands.

              I’m interested in the relationship between diasporas and homelands, particularly because I believe that this will help us understand not only how diasporas regard themselves, but in how homelands come to be created and defined. What the a growing body of research on this area suggests is a complex and reciprocal relationship between the two, rather than a simplistic unilinear trajectory of influence or impact. As van der Veer puts it:  “The theme of belonging opposes rootedness to uprootedness, establishment to marginality.  The theme of longing harps on the desire for change and movement, but relates this to the enigma of arrival, which brings a similar desire to return to what one has left”  (4). In other words, a nation needs a diaspora to reaffirm its own sense of rootedness, while the migrant who did not feel like an India in India may suddenly discover his Indianness as a diasporan. Or, in van der Veer’s words, “Those who do not think of themselves as Indians before migration become Indians in the diaspora” (7)

              Diasporas and homelands are therefore best seen as structurally interdependent, though in the case of South Asia this may not seem immediately obvious.  One reason for this is that the region that is today known as South Asia consists of several independent nation states, most of whom arguably share a cultural commonality and continuity stretching to four or more thousand years.  There is thus confusion and overlapping of the categories of nation, culture, ethnicity, religion, race, language, and even caste, when it comes to defining the identity of the diasporan.  Any one or more of these categories in conjunction or even contradiction defines what can be called the South Asian diaspora. This is one reason that I have retained the somewhat ambiguous idea of the homeland in my paper.  A homeland can be a nation, a region, a linguistic area located in South Asia or a language, ethnic, or religious group originally from South Asia or a combination of both.  When considering the South Asian diaspora, the challenge, in van der Veer’s words, is neither to “unify and homogenize” all the diasporic cultures into “Indian culture overseas” nor to “deconstruct the South Asian diaspora to the point of dissolution” (8).

              The reason why homelands and diasporas are structurally interdependent is that just as homelands give rise to diasporas, diasporas also have the capacity to shape, if not create homelands. So, while it is obvious that forced or free migration out of the subcontinent gave rise to what we can today identify as diasporan communities across the world, these communities, or at least some of their members, contributed immensely to the creation of the modern nation states of the region.  To be more specific, the idea of India as an independent, modern nation was formed not just within its geographical borders but in the greater India of the diaspora.  Let us not forget that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi became a Mahatma not in India, but among the indentured labourers whose rights and dignity he fought for in distant South Africa.  It was his fight against racism, imperialism, and apartheid that made him take on the most powerful empire in history—and, so to say--win.  Similarly, Mohammad Ali Jinnah had withdrawn to England but was called back to assume the leadership of the Muslim League in its struggle that led to a separate Muslim homeland of Pakistan. More recently, both Sikh and Tamil separatism in Punjab and Sri Lanka respectively have been supported, if not controlled by diasporic communities.  But the best example of the diaspora creating the homeland is that of Israel; in this case, a modern nation was invented and willed into existence by a community of diasporic people concentrated mostly in Europe.

              If we were to apply this idea to what Rushdie calls “imaginary homelands,” those fictional territories that are created in literature, I think that the structural interdependence that I spoke of earlier still holds.  The canonical texts of native literatures are often authored far away by exiled or diasporic writers refashioning a home not so much away from home as from abroad.  The long and distinguished line of expatriates who shaped twentieth century American literature is an example.  If we consider Indian English literature today, it would be no exaggeration to say that most of its best known writers live abroad:  Naipaul, Rushdie, Raja Rao, Kamala Markandaya, Anita Desai, G.V.Desani, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry—the list seems to be endless.  In fact, a leading Canadian Punjabi poet, Ajmer Rode, is now a part of the syllabus of modern Punjabi poetry in India.

              We could sum up this ambivalent, complex and dialectical relationship between diasporas and homelands in the words of Victor Ramraj:  "Diasporic writings are invariably concerned with the individual's or community's attachment to the centrifugal homeland.  But this attachment is countered by a yearning for a sense of belonging to the current place of abode" (216).  This makes diasporic narratives both transitional and liminal.  The texts themselves are journeys between source cultures and target cultures, between homelands and diasporas, until the two overlap, change places, or merge. While I am interested in this broader issue of the relationship between diasporas and homelands, my focus in this paper is on South Asian Canadian literature.  What I propose to do is not to offer extensive and elaborate readings of texts, but concentrate instead on the possible models or coordinates that will help us map this literature.


Attitudes to the Homeland in South Asian Canadian Literature

              In this portion of my paper, I look for ways of mapping the South Asian Canadian attitudes to the homeland.  In his essay, "Diasporas and Multiculturalism" Ramraj refers to two key types of diasporas, traditionalist and assimilationist (217). The former retains its separate identity, while the latter gradually merges with the mainstream of the host country and, eventually, ceases to regard itself as a diaspora. These two positions are closely related to the host country’s own attitude to the diaspora. Milton Israel, citing Chirstopher Bagely’s work, outlines the types of responses that mark the receiving society’s response to South Asian immigrants:  “1)  Ethnocentric and opposed to their culture, values and lifestyle; 2) accommodating and understanding of the context of cultural transfer.”  He also notes two corresponding models of the South Asian immigrant response:  “the effort to maintain ties with the motherland; and acculturation and adaptation to the host society (10-11).  In the South Asian experience in Canada, we find both attitudes present through a complex layering.  It is this complexity that I propose to map out, suggesting a broad attitudinal patterning for each of its layers.

              Uma Parmeswaran in “Ganga in Assiniboine: Prospects for Indo-Canadian Literature” identifies four phases of the immigrant experience to Canada:  1) the experience of encountering the "vastness and harshness of the Canadian landscape," which she believes the South Asians missed out totally because they went basically to cities (83).  2) "the struggle of the immigrants to establish themselves in their own esteem and in society" (83).  Again, Parmeswaran belives that South Asians haven’t achieved this totally because, despite being settled financially, they still feel unsettled (84).  3) Second-generation Canadians of South Asian origin, "realize that home is here, not elsewhere" (85).  4) "the affirmation that home is here but 'here' is not exclusively English … but a place where one can be oneself, assimilating if one is comfortable doing so, being different if one chooses to be so" (85).  That is, one might right in  Punjabi, Gujarati or English, but yet almost no one has produced works set in Canada.

In a later essay, “Literature of the Indian Diaspora in Canada:  An Overview,” Parmeswaran offers another chronological description of the South Asian diaspora in general and then applies that framework to Canada. She talks of “two very distinct waves of emigration,” one which took place during the colonial period, and the other after independence.  The first wave consists of three phases:  indentured labourers, traders, and educated people.  The first phase of the first wave doesn’t apply to Canada where no indentured labourers came.  Instead, farmers from Punjab, hearing accounts of cheap, virgin land from Sikh soldiers passing through Canada, arrived in the first decade of the 20th century (7).  However, further immigration was blocked after the infamous Komagatu Maru incident of 1914.  The second wave, starting in the early 1950s, is also divided into phases, each a decade long. The 1960s “may be called the gold rush period”(6); the 1970s are dubbed as the reactionary decade; the 1980s “brought into the open the racism that till then had been latent and covert” (7).  While Parmeswarn doesn’t predict what the 1990s would be like, they might be called the decade of multiculturalism.

While I find Parmeswaran’s work extremely useful, I think it is simpler to conceive of the South Asian diaspora in Canada in four distinct layers, each with its own literature.  The first consists of the 5000 immigrants that came to Canada from 1905-1908 and their descendents. The literature of this group was, until recently, mostly oral and unrecorded. The early texts of this group are not easily available.

The second group consists of Indo-Caribbean and Indo-African immigrants.  Their forefathers had already left India as a part of the old, colonial diaspora of the 19th century and early 20th century. More recently, they moved farther North West to Canada.  A good number of the well-known South Asian Canadian writers, including Neil Bissoondath, Cyril Dabydeen, Ramabai Espinet, Reshad Gool (Ved Devajee) Arnold Itwaru, Ismith Khan, Harold Sonny Ladoo, Farida Karodia, Sam Selvon, and M.G.Vassanji, belong to this group.

The third group consists of those who have come to Canada directly from the sub-continent after 1960.  This group is made up mostly of highly educated, professional, upwardly mobile workers and professionals.  Writers like Anita Rau Badami, Himani Bannerji, Rana Bose, Saros Cowasjee, Rienzi Cruz, Lakshmi Gill, Surjeet Kalsey, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee (the Canadian phase, that is), Suniti Namjoshi, Uma Parmeswaran, Balachandra Rajan, Ajmer Rode, Suwanda Sugunasiri, and others, belong to this group. What is interesting is that this group may be further sub-divided into two categories by their choice of language.  The dominant category includes those who write in English, the language of international power and prosperity.  But in recent years, there is a growing body of rich literature mainly in Punjabi, but in other Indian languages as well.  There is, thus, a new vernacular tradition in diasporic literature that demands our attention.

Finally, there is a fourth group which includes the descendants of those who may belong to any of the three mentioned above.  These are writers born and brought up in Canada.  Their links with India are at best tenuous and tentative.  Yet, culturally, they form a distinct voice within the multicultural Canadian mosaic.

What kind of generalizations might possibly be made about these four distinct layers or groups within the South Asian diaspora?  It seems to me that three of these four groups may be clubbed together by the setting of most of their writings.  For instance, the second group consisting of Indo-Caribbean and Indo-African writers depict what we could call an “in-Canada” experience.  “West Indian Writing in Canada,” Ramraj observes, “is largely immigrant writing, preoccupied with the complexities, contraditions, and ambivalences associated with leaving one society and adjusting to another” (102).  In the Canadian contixt, this usually the experience of the hostility and racism encountered by the immigrant and of the transition from the older diasporic homeland to the new, Northern home in Canada.  These writers may take either a traditionalist or an assimilationist stance, or a retreatist vs. integrationist stance, but I would still consider their work as moving away from the homeland towards Canada.  The fourth group, too, writes mostly about the Canadian experience; in fact, their stance is not only towards Canada, but within Canada.  There is not other homeland for them to compare their present location with; Canada is the only homeland they know.  Yet, their heritage distinguishes them from “unmarked” or default Canadians. Their texts attempt to explore the special challenges and problems of their Canadian, albeit hyphenated identities.

              The third layer or group of South Asian immigrants, however, writes mostly about India or the subcontinent.  In her highly perceptive essay, "Ganga in the Assiniboine”: Uma Parmeswaran citing Suwanda Sugunasiri's survey of South Asian Canadian writers, observes:  "Surjeet Kalsey, of Vancouver, has compiled the Panjabi section of the study. She lists approximately 75 poets, 30 short-story writers, and a few novelists and playwrights.  However, except for rare pieces, like a drama on the Komagata Maru episode, produced in 1979, these writers seem to have altogether eschewed the Canadian setting.  Pragna Enros's compilation of Gujarati writing shows the same trend" (85).  This is also true of those who write in English.  No writer has produced, to my knowledge, a major work set in Canada.  So the great Canadian or millennial novel, one that will do justice to the totality of the Canadian, multicultural experience is yet to be written.

              The fact that this group of Indo-Canadian writers keep going back to India for their fictional material might suggest that they are moving away from Canada, towards India or the homeland, in the classic, Jewish sense of the diaspora.  However, I am not sure this is the case.  If one considers Rohinton Mistry, perhaps the most gifted and respected of this group, one notices that his two novels Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance are elegiac, not nostalgic in tone.  They do not celebrate the homeland but mourn its relentless and innumerable atrocities and tragedies.  If I had more time to prove my point I would attempt to show that what they actually enact is a farewell to India, not a passage to India.  In that sense, despite what such texts appear to be, they in fact end up demonstrating a self-legitimating logic of leaving the homeland behind and, therefore, at least indirectly, of embracing the new diasporic home.  These texts justify, in subtle and indirect ways, the immigrant writers' subject position and the cultural choices that such a position entails.  However, I would not like to simplify the issue of the location of culture by implying that place of residence is identical to a cultural position or that the politics of culture is solely determined by the place of residence. What is more likely is that instead of sacralizing the leftovers and relics of a now inaccessible homeland as the old diaspora of indentured labourers did, the new diaspora of international Indian English writers lives close to their market, in the comforts of the suburbia of advanced capital but draws their raw material from the inexhaustible imaginative resources of that messy and disorderly subcontinent that is India.

Thus, what seems to be a longing for the homeland, is actually a critique of the host country, a plea for better terms of living and assimilation. To give a concrete example, the speaker in Lakshmi Gill's poem, "Out of Canada," complains that she can't die here in Canada and wishes, instead, to "sit at the foothills of the Himalayas/ and leave hard Canada for the hardy Canadians":


                            I cannot die here, on the streets

                            Of Moncton, I tell myself over and over—

                            people wouldn’t know where to send my body.


                            I cannot die here in this country

                            Where would I be buried? …

                                                                                    (The Geography of Voice 50)


But, to my mind, the longing that the poem expresses is actually a veiled plea for belonging to a more receptive, friendly, equitable, and less racist, alienating, or strange Canada, where at the end of it all, her bones can find not just a place to rest, but the peace that comes with homecoming.

In a sense, the poem illustrates how diasporic women in general experience multiple repression as a function of what Israel calls “negative status arising from race, culture, gender and class”:  “For the Indo-Canadian woman, lacking the traditional support system, the result is often isolation and alienation” (11).  Citing the work of Joshephine Naidoo, he mentions “self-paced acculturation” as the strategy adopted by Indian women.  Canada offers “cultural self-determination” and “culture-based creativity” while forcing immigrants to conform to general societal norms (11-12).  Therefore, what Gill’s speaker will do eventually, is to seek such “self-paced acculturation” to get used to living and, indeed, dying in Canada.”

              In this respect, these novels are a part of a larger process of moving away from the homeland towards the host country.  In a descriptive scheme designed as early as 1965, Johan D. Speckerman, talks of the following five phases of diasporic experience:  “(1) immigration (causing social disarray and anomie); (2) acculturation (a reorientation of traditional institutions and the adoption of new ones); (3)establishment (growth in numbers, residential footing and economic security); (4) incorporation (increased urban social patterns and the rise of a middle class); and (5) accelerated development (including greater occupational mobility, educational attainment, and political representation)” (cited in Clarke et al 3).  To put it differently, Mistry’s winning the Governor-General’s medal and other honours in Canadian society for his work on India suggests not just the rewards of writing novels which are critical of homelands, but do not threaten the host country.  It also indicates Mistry’s effort to say farewell to India and to accelerate his development as a Canadian citizen.

              Ultimately, however, the diasporic experience need not be reduced to either a simple-minded rejection of the homeland and acceptance of the home country, or vice-versa.  What happens, especially to the writers in the third category, is a more complex process of confluence.  Akin to what Homi Bhabha calls hybridization, this process is not a superimposition of one culture on the other, nor is it a facile transplantation.  As Parmeswarn puts it in "Ganga in the Assiniboine: Prospects for Indo-Canadian Literature":

Every immigrant transplants part of his native land to the new country, and the translpant may be said to have taken root once the immigrant figuratively sees his native river in the river that runs in his adopted place; not Ganga as the Assiniboine or the Assiniboine as the Ganga, both of which imply a simple transference or substitution, but Ganga in the Assiniboine, which implies a flowing into, a merger that enriches the river.  The confluence of any two rivers is sacred for the Hindu ethos, perhaps because it is symbolic of this enrichment. In the literary context of the immigrant experience this image has an added dimension.  At the confluence, the rivers are distinct, and one can see the seam of the two separate streams as they join" (79-80).

Earlier this year, I actually stood with Parmeswarn at such a confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers in Winnipeg, the city she has lived for the last thirty-five years.  She pointed to the merging streams and said, “Look, can you see that the two rivers have different colours?”  When I watched carefully, I noticed that she was right.  One was mud red, while the other looked a greenish gray.

              This third group of South Asian Canadian writers are in the privileged position of actually seeing the distinct strands of their lives merge to create a new type of culture.  Perhaps, their children, the writers who belong to the fourth layer, don’t have this privilege.  To them is give a different task, of disentangling or describing the features of their merged or hyphenated identities.  It is only this third group that have access to the Indian and the Canadian, both separately and together. 


                                                                               Works Cited



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Badami, Anita Rau.  The Hero’s WalkToronto:  Knoff, 2000.


Clarke, Colin, Ceri Peach and Steven Vertovec.  South Asians Overseas:  Migration and Ethnicity

Cambridge:  UP, 1990.  "Introduction":  1-32.


Israel, Milton, ed. The South Asian Diaspora in Canada:  Six Essays.  Toronto:  The Multicultural History

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Nelson, Emmanuel S.  Reworlding:  The Literature of the Indian DiasporaNew YorkGreenwood Press,



Parmeswaran, Uma.  “Ganga in the Assiniboine:  Prospects for Indo-Canadian Literature.”  In A Meeting of

Streams:  South Asian Canadian Literature.  M.G. Vassanji ed.  Toronto:  TSAR Publications,



-----.  “Literature of the Indian Diaspora in Canada:  An Overview.”  In SACLIT:  An Introduction to South-

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Ramraji, Victor.  “Diasporas and Multiculturalism."  In New National and Post-Colonial Literatures:  An

Introduction. Bruce Kind, ed. Oxford:  The Clarendon Press, 1996:   214-229.


-----.  “West Indian Writing in Canada.”  In West Indian Literature.  Bruce King, ed.  2nd.rev. ed.  London

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Space in the South Asian Diaspora. Peter van der Veer, ed.  Philadelphia  U Pennsylvania Press,

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