Friday, December 21, 2012

The Mosaic of Multicultural Diasporic Encounters: Literature, Society and Politics.

By T.P.Sreenivasan

I am honoured to rise to deliver the Prof. Rajaram Menon Memorial Lecture 2012, in memory of a great English teacher, who was equally adept in eastern and western literary traditions. The fact that these lectures have been delivered in the past by very distinguished scholars makes me feel inadequate for the task.

Kerala has a veritable pantheon of English teachers, who are remembered with veneration long after they left the podium. Some of them have even earned the appellations of English literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton and Eliot. My own English teachers like Prof. G.Kumara Pillai and Ayyappa Paniker, both of them creative writers in both English and Malayalam, like Prof. Menon, have been elevated to legendary status. Having started off my career as an English teacher and presently entrusted with higher education in Kerala, I welcome this opportunity to pay my respects to the long line of brilliant English teachers, who have enriched both English and Malayalam.

When I saw the topic, “The Mosaic of Multicultural Diasporic Encounters: Literature, Society and Politics”, it looked as though it was an invitation to tell the story of my entire professional life. Many of the countries I served in my nearly forty years of diplomatic service had significant Indian disaporic presence and my encounters with them extended to literature, society and politics. Its variety, contributions and influence in the countries of their adoption and back home have been considerable. I am using the word diaspora to include the various components of the overseas Indians, regardless as to whether they are Non Resident Indians, Persons of Indian Origin or Overseas Citizens of India.

The sun never sets on the Indian diaspora today. As the day breaks on Taveuni islands in Fiji, the place where the dawn comes first in the world, the Indian farmers there go to work in the cane farms. At that very moment, the Indian computer engineers in San jose will be returning home from work in their swanky Mercedez cars. Today in California is tomorrow in Fiji.

The lifestyle of the diaspora too is varied, ranging from the poor paddy cultivators in Myanmar to the billionaires in the United States. Some migrated nearly two hundred years ago to escape from poverty and squalor in search of a promised land. Others went as professionals in search of opportunities for education and research. Teachers, doctors and nurses filled the needs of many developed societies. The IT revolution in the west and the oil boom in the Gulf attracted workers from India. Indian traders in Africa have been there for years. Thus the diaspora is a mix, a microcosm of India, but it reflects India of different times and stages of development. Their attitudes to India depends on when they went, from where they went and what fortunes they encountered abroad. In a sense, migration to Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean were forced, while the migration to the US, the UK and other European countries was voluntary.

The diverse as the diaspora is, there is one thing in common with all of them. We can take Indians out of India, but we cannot take India out of them. Whether they went hundreds of years ago or just recently, India lives in them through their Indian way of life, culture and religion. They are nostalgic about their Indian roots even if they never come back for various reasons. They yearn for Mother India, they preserve their customs even if those customs  have undergone changes in India itself and they cling to their languages. As a result, the Indian diaspora never merges completely with the populations of the countries of their adoption. After 200 years, the Fiji citizens of Indian origin still call themselves Fiji Indians, while their Polynesian and Melanesian counterparts call themselves Fijians. But the diaspora has accomplished something that we the Indians in India have not been able to do, which is to integrate fully among themselves. Indian migrants lost their sectarian identities in the melting pot of suffering. In Fiji, Guyana and South Africa, castes and linguistic differences among them have completely disappeared. Many of them speak some version of Hindi and eat some kind of Indian food. They merge with the local scene by adapting their customs to appear close to local practices. For early migrants, Intermarriages with the local populations were rare. Many have seen India only recently, basically to trace their roots to create a sense of belonging to Indian civilization.

The Indian diaspora has made a mark in the literary, social and political life of the countries they adopted. First and foremost, they worked tirelessly and earned a reputation for industry, honesty and integrity. Their work culture was in contrast to the fun loving and easy going nature of early inhabitants of some of the countries. Their cultural heritage, their efforts to achieve excellence, their yearning for education their propensity for savings and their enterprise were impressive. They built schools and hospitals wherever they went and sent their children abroad for higher studies. The children of blue-collar workers became professionals and managers and, in some countries, they came to control the economy through trade, commerce and industry. Among the South Pacific states, Fiji is the most advanced, basically because of the Indian diaspora. Essentially, the Indian communities there also brought about political changes in the Caribbean and Mauritius. Their strong political sense too was refreshing. Indian independence impelled them to seek independence for the countries of their adoption. In Fiji, for instance, the local population did not want independence from the British Crown and it was the Indian leaders, who pushed for freedom and democracy.

India had pursued a policy of detachment with the diaspora, particularly because India wanted to be politically correct and did not want to be accused of interference in internal affairs of other countries. India expected its communities abroad to owe their allegiance to the countries of their adoption, but remained alive to their welfare and interests. India simply took back those who had to leave countries like Myanmar and Uganda for policy reasons and did not even claim the properties left behind by them. It was Rajiv Gandhi, at the time of the Fiji coup, who decided to fight against the denial of fundamental rights to the Fiji Indians. He imposed sanctions against the military regime and even got Fiji thrown out of the Commonwealth. His logic was that since he wanted the diaspora to participate in the economic development of India, he could not be insensitive to their problems. Fiji eventually returned to democracy after a short period.

In more recent years, the diaspora has come to be a bridge between India and their host country, notably in the US and the UK. The Indian diaspora in these countries have come to acquire great influence because of their education, competence and dedication. The nearly three million Indian Americans, though they form only one percent of the population, play a significant role in the political, cultural,  academic, scientific, and technological fields. Indian Americans have also formed political action committees, not only to secure their rights as a minority community, but also to foster US-India relations.

The political role of Indian Americans became pronounced during the period of the India-US Nuclear Agreement, which ran into rough weather both in India and the US. Having realized the significance of the agreement not only in scientific terms, but also in political terms, the Indian Americans campaigned effectively among the Congressmen, Senators and other decision makers and helped its conclusion. The stature of the Indian community has begun to help India and the improvement in India-US relations has begun to help the diaspora to meet their own interests.

Only the Indian nationals in the Gulf have fulfilled the expectation of the diaspora to make remittances to India and to invest here. The remittances from the Gulf saved Kerala from bankruptcy some years ago and still contribute to the state’s prosperity. In recognition of this, both the central and the state Governments have been giving particular attention to the needs of the Indians in the Gulf.

India and its diaspora have rediscovered each other and realized that they can help each other. The various initiatives like the establishment of the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the convening of the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, once a year in India and once a year in different regions, the Pravasi Bharatiya Awards for distinguished members of the diaspora are the gestures of a grateful nation for its children abroad. In fact, there is a consensus among all the political parties in India that India should do more and more for its diaspora.

I have kept the diasporic encounters in literature for the end as the audience today should be interested in it more than in the other aspects. The sense of yearning for the motherland, as I said before, is the most overwhelming sentiment of the diaspora. When travel was hazardous and unusual, the yearning was intense, as they knew well that they would never return home. Though the age of technological advancement, which has made travelling easier and the distance shorter, their imagination continued to nurse the feeling of inadequacy in being away in a distant land. Their nostalgia, together with a curious attachment to the homeland’s traditions, religions and languages gave birth to diasporic literature. The migrant, who leaves his homeland runs from pillar to post, crossing the boundaries of time and money to become one with his new surroundings, but longs to return home at an appropriate time. Consequently, he remains a creature of the edge, the “peripheral man”, as V.S.Naipaul calls him. According to Naipaul, the Indians are well aware that their journey to Trinidad was final, but these tensions and throes remain a recurring theme in the diasporic literature.

The literary talents of the diaspora found expression first in adversity and flourished with the advent of prosperity. The writers later began mixing nostalgia with criticism of evils in the Indian society in contrast with their host countries. Some of the most prominent Indian writers in English belong to the diaspora. V.S.Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri and Shashi Tharoor are diasporic writers. Even Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry became creative after they began to live abroad. Our own Anita Pratap has said that great creativity comes out of great departures. The greater the pangs of departure, the greater the literature.

V.S.Naipaul is easily the most outspoken critic of India among the diasporic writers. His sarcastic comments on India and the Caribbean and his decisive appraisal of Muslim fundamentalism in non-Arab countries have been topics of ruthless denigration. Undeterred by opposition from his homeland as well as his host country, Naipaul continues at the epicenter of literary development even today. Salman Rushdie spearheaded the renaissance of Indian writing in English with his path-breaking novel, Midnight’s Children. His work revolves around the Indian subcontinent as a vital theme and his “paranormal pragmatism” has a certain appeal to Indians. Amitav Ghosh has created some of the most lyrical and insightful works on the consequences of colonialism on the natives. Jhumpa Lahiri started a new trend by poignantly portraying the lives of a family of immigrants in her first novel, “The Namesake” through the eyes of a young boy. Shashi Tharoor wrote a biting political satire on Indian politics in his “The Great Indian Novel” by narrating the Mahabharata story in modern terms. Much significant diasporic literature exists in regional languages, including Malayalam. Diasporic newspapers, magazines, television and websites in modern times look critically at India. Their commentaries rejoice over the success of India, but caustically criticize failures. Those in developed countries feel impatient that India is not progressing as fast as it should. They constantly advise India what it should be doing to develop faster, without taking constraints into account.

While the first generation immigrants from India constantly nurse their grievances against the homeland, the second and third generations look at India without prejudices and take pride in India’s accomplishments. For them, India is a brand name, which they can use for their own advancement and they become true assets for the country.

The diaspora story is fascinating, but it is equally complex and hard to deal with in a lecture. But one of the advantages of globalization is the renewed interest that the diaspora is taking in India. India’s growing strength has also become beneficial to the diaspora in different parts of the globe.

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