On Diaspora: Prof. Somdatta Mandal in Conversation with Prof. Ajay K Chaubey

Prof Somdatta Mondal
Prof Somdatta Mondal

Somdatta Mandal (SM) is Professor of English at the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India. Her areas of interest are contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, Diaspora studies and translation. A recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships like the Fulbright-Pre-doctoral Fellowship, Fulbright Visiting Teaching Fellowship, Charles Wallace Trust & British Council Fellowship, Rockefeller Residency Fellowship at Bellagio, Salzburg Seminar Fellowship, Shastri Indo-Canadian Faculty Enrichment Fellowship, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has written two academic books, edited and co-edited more than twenty books and journals, and published scholarly articles and book reviews both in India and abroad. She has received a Sahitya Academy award for translating short fiction and has also been awarded the Meenakshi Mukherjee Memorial Prize 2014 by Indian Association of Commonwealth Literature & Language Studies (IACLALS) for the best scholarly essay published between 2012-2013. Prof. Mandal spoke to Ajay K Chaubey (AKC) through e-mail on multiple contours of theory, texts and contexts related to diaspora.

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AKC: Since Man’s arrival on earth is a consequence of his dispersal from heaven, How far do you agree that man bears the seeds of Diaspora since its genesis?

SM: Whether we believe in the idea that man was actually expelled from heaven or not, it is true that since time immemorial, the nomadic nature of man in earlier times carried with it the urge to migrate. This was because of survival, search for food, and suitable habitation. In the case of the origin of the concept and the etymological meaning of the word ‘diaspora’ of course, we have the mythological story from the Old Testament when the Jews were forcibly thrown out of their homeland and like seeds, they were scattered in different places of Egypt. In their minds, they always nourished the desire to return to their homeland. It was only during the last two decades of the twentieth century that postcolonial scholars and critics started using the term ‘diaspora’ without any religious connotation and use it in a broader sense for people who have undergone transnational migration.

AKC: Is migration of people within their own country regarded as a category of Diaspora? If “yes”. How far? And if “No”. Why not?

SM: Migration is always undertaken for two purposes, either voluntarily for financial reasons or involuntarily due to forced political conditions. In both cases the situation is similar as within the country as well as outside the country. For a large multilingual country like India movement from one state to another and settling down in another part of the country by a particular socio-linguistic group bears with it all the essential tropes that define diasporic existence, namely nostalgia for homeland, bonding within their own community and living in ghetto-like state, trying to maintain contact with root culture through food, clothing, language etc. The refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan who settled in West Bengal after the partition of India still prefer to maintain their own enclaves, language and customs. In recent times novels like Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head which speaks about the Khasi versus non-Khasi life in Shillong is a good example of an author settling in a different part of the country. Having grown up and lived most of her life there, Anjum Hasan does a brilliant job in grasping the laid-back nerve of the city, something that people over the years have associated Shillong with.

AKC: The pre-colonial diaspora was labour diaspora what Robin Cohen classifies in his magnum opus, Global Diasporas (1997). The ancestors of Naipaul were also sent across black sea in the same pursuit. In what context do you see the migrants and their modus operandi in post-colonial Diaspora? How far postcolonial diaspora differs from the pre-colonial Diaspora?

SM: We all know that after the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, the plantations around the world were in dire need of manual labour and that was when the ‘girmits’ or indentured labour from India (the ancestors of Naipaul for instance) were sent to places like Guyana, West Indies, Fiji, Mauritius and other places. Though not by force, most of these illiterate workforce did not have any idea where they were being taken and they all nurtured the desire to come back after five years when the contract period would be over and after they would be able to amass sufficient amount of money by then. In reality, of course, it never happened and very few of them ever came back. Therefore, the people belonging to this class of labour diaspora along with their descendants suffered from nostalgia for their homeland much more than those who voluntarily went to lead better lives. Many of these girmits considered themselves suffering a period of banishment like Lord Rama in exile and they neither acculturated well in the new environment in which they lived but clung on to their old traditions as much as they could. A House for Mr. Biswas serves as a good example of this.

As for the voluntary diasporics, though they suffer from occasional pangs of nostalgia for their homeland too, they are much keener to acculturate in the hostland as ‘model minorities’. Financial stability and better living conditions deter them from ever returning to their original homeland. For the people belonging to the petro-dollar diaspora, earning money to remit home becomes the main objective of their living in the diaspora and as a result, the demographics of their hometowns have changed significantly. But unable to enjoy the benefits of the new diasporic space, they go on slogging in inhuman conditions and so everything is not always rosy for them.

AKC: What are the factors behind dynamics of Diaspora that has resulted in a progressive journey from labour and victim Diaspora to academic, economic, or technocratic Diaspora?

SM: At the beginning of the twentieth century, Indians wanting to immigrate to the west had to face plenty of problems, as the policies of the governments were not conducive for such migrations. For example, let me mention the tragic Komagata Maru incident when Indians who were British nationals were denied to land in Vancouver in Canada fearing the browning of the nation and were sent back to India to be tortured there by the British administration once again. Later the scenario changed when in 1965 the US government passed the new immigration act and since then there has been a regular stream of white collared professionals entering and settling down in that country. Though they faced discrimination in certain circumstances, their experience can in no way be compared to the people of labour diaspora.

AKC: What type of paradigm shift has been caused by political treaties, compromises, multiple socio-economic deals and Military agreements in diasporic writings?

SM: Though many countries have given permission to people seeking political asylum at different periods of time, the same has not been reflected much in literary writings. Probably, like all refugees or victims who suffered from the trauma of partition, these diasporic individuals prefer to remain silent about their past. We find issues of cross-cultural conflicts/dilemmas especially in areas where difference in generations, gender and sexuality intersect. Needless to say the more recent voluntary diasporic subjects are different from those Indians whose lives were mapped by exile, mass migration and economic emigration.

AKC: During my short span in the UK, I found that Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals were residing in disguise of Indians. Even, I found many Indian restaurants owned by them. What is the position of Indian Diaspora as compared to Pakistani and Bangladeshi Diaspora in the West after 9/11 insurgencies?

SM: Belonging to the Indian sub-continent, Bangladeshi and Pakistani diasporic nationals are often clubbed together in the UK as belonging to the South Asian group, of which Indians form the largest contingent. One has to remember here that a sort of racism by the ruling Brits pervades multicultural British society even today. Novels by Hanif Kureishi, Monica Ali, Atima Srivastava, Meera Syal and others amply testify this phenomenon. We have to keep in mind the different nature of migration of these various South Asian groups and the reason for their settling down in the UK. For instance, Bangladeshi persons (then from undivided region of East Bengal) have been going and settling in Britain for quite a long time and they went primarily from Sylhet and Noakhali districts of that country to work as lascars in ships and later settled in the East End district of London. Many of them later took on the job of cooks and ayahs and helped in the flourishing of the restaurant business. As for Indian restaurants run by them, the lure and taste of ‘curry’ and ‘chicken tikka masala’ that entices the British palate is their USP and the Britishers are either unable or not simply bothered to distinguish between genuine and fake identities of the South Asians who run the businesses. Another fact has to be kept in mind. Unlike in the United States, the number of Indians and Pakistani migrants in the UK are much more in number, because these countries were part of the Commonwealth and under the British imperial rule. As far as we can make out, the division of South Asian Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in Britain is operational more on religious lines, than on nationality. Also a lot of South Asians settled in the UK has undergone multiple migrations after being evicted from some country in Eastern Africa.

AKC: Younger authors are also writing a lot about India like Rushdie and Naipaul but unlike them, they are slightly positive about India. How are they different from the other younger diasporic writers in the perspectives of India?

SM: Examining the themes of exile, identity, longing, displacement, race relations, rootlessness, and ultimately acceptance is the staple stuff of most novels on the diasporic experience. In order to make sense of his present state, the writer revisits the past by taking recourse to memory and imagination. Most diasporic writers feel nostalgic about their homeland. I feel Rushdie and Naipaul are exceptions. In the gifted writers, the cross-cultural conflicts/dilemmas are generally disrupted and complicated in productive ways, especially in areas where differences in generations, gender and sexuality intersect – as in Meera Syal in Britain, Jhumpa Lahiri in the USA. This points to a trend or a pattern in the future of Indian diaspora also.Both Syal and Lahiri write from their own experiences of living abroad as a second-generation immigrant in multicultural society. An Indian by descent, the Kenyan-born, Tanzania-raised, US educated, and a Canadian by citizenship since 1978, M.G. Vassanji is a writer who falls somewhere in between the two categories. Like Neil Bissoondath and Michael Ondaatje, he is an Indian expatriate separated from the subcontinent by generations. Most diasporic writers try to juxtapose their homeland and the hostland in their works. In their fiction the plots and characters usually in some way or the other link India as well as UK or the US. The novels of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, or Sunetra Gupta are good examples of such transcultural interface.

AKC: The prevalent conditions of “New Diaspora” are much more different from that of “Old Diaspora”. What difference do you find in both the Diasporas?

SM: The formation of the Indian diaspora according to Amitav Ghosh “is not merely one of the most important demographic dislocations of modern times: it now represents an important force in world culture” and can be classified, according to the critic Sudesh Mishra, as the ‘sugar’ and the ‘masala’ diaspora. There is also a distinction to be made between the old and the new diasporas. “This distinction,” according to Mishra, “is between, on the one hand, the semi-voluntary flight of indentured peasants to the non-metropolitan plantation colonies such as Fiji, Trinidad, Mauritius, South Africa, Malaysia, Surinam, and Guyana, roughly between the years 1830 and 1917; and on the other the late capital or postmodern dispersal of new migrants of all classes to thriving metropolitan centres, such as Australia, the United States, Canada and Britain.” This same classification is termed by other critics as ‘forced diaspora’ and ‘voluntary diaspora’. Another critic and scholar, Vinay Lal, reiterates the same idea by calling it ‘diaspora of labour’ versus ‘diaspora of longing’. For most of the old diasporic writers, there is an unease of the dislocated and the deracinated who either by choice or by compulsion have abandoned home in the country of their birth for a home in their adopted country. For the migrants of choice, on the other hand, the situation is totally different. They prefer to live in a kind of cosmopolitan globalised world where the markers of their borderless state have often to be invented.

AKC: There are many authors like Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Jeet Thayil who live in India but they have pen-pictured the “exotic tales” of dark side of India. What is your assessment of this type of writing? (a) Politicsfor prize-winning (b) desire to seize popularity by being negative about the nationor(c) because of being more realists?

SM: First and foremost, none of them are diasporic writers. Instead, they reside in India. But it is true that almost all Indian English writers wherever they are physically located, along with their publishers, have a latent wish to win some sort of a prize from the western world – be it a Booker, or a Commonwealth or a Nobel. The noted Kannada writer U.R. Ananthamurthy had once remarked, “A lot of new writers who get the kind of  attention that Rushdie gives them are writers who write for export. It is a shame that in   the whole world only Indian writers in English write for export.” It is true that exoticism sells. Though India is no longer perceived in the west to be a land of princes and snake charmers and naked fakirs, nevertheless the reality of India at present times is what probably motivates these writers. When Arundhati Roy wrote The God of Small Things in 1997, the theme of the novel highlighted in the dust jacket cover of the New York Random House edition was the caste system in India where the love between a person of a higher caste and an untouchable was the main focus. After all, like any other multinational consumer product book production is also dependent upon marketing hype. Balaram Halwai becoming rich through improper means in The White Tiger is part of the present reality in India. I do not understand why some critics lay blame on Aravind Adiga for being negative about the nation. When a novel like An Obedient Father was published by the diasporic Indian American novelist Akhil Sharma in the United States several years ago and even won a prize, the judges thought that the novelist had given a true picture of India with its dubious politicians and bureaucrats in Delhi. We feel ashamed to admit that the Indian protagonist of the novel was a man who raped his own daughter, kept on living with her, and even attempted to sexually abuse his granddaughter. Even Bharati Mukherjee, who claims to be recognized as a mainstream American novelist, wrote about the reality of a resurgent India of contemporary times with its call-centers and urban problems and sexual abuse of young women in her latest novel Miss New India. She depicted a true picture of the nation as of now and I don’t feel she was aiming at popularity by being negative about India. In fact she sees the book as a stand-alone novel and last part of her trilogy comprising of Desirable Daughters and The Tree Bride.

AKC: There are many South Asian authors who prefer to settle down in the “other” world rather than in the First world viz. Uma Parameswaran, Vassanji, Mistry, Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai in Canada; Suneeta Peres da Costa, Yasmine Gooneratne and Chandani Lokugé, Samantha Sirimanne Hydein Australia; AmulyaMalladi and Tabish Khair in Denmark; Sujata Bhat in Germany; Manjushree Thapa and TaslimaNasrin in India and ShehanKarunatilaka in Singapore. Do you think that that the First Worlds-the UK, the US and France and etc. are not safer in the backdrop of 9/11 attacks in the US, 7/7 in the UK and, of late, Charlie Hebdo attacks in France? Please comment.

SM:I find this question of yours problematic because as far as my knowledge goes writers who have settled down and live in Canada are considered part of the First World. You cannot call it ‘other.’ It is true migrants have been more suspect to state vigilance after the terrorist attacks in events like 9/11in the US and 7/7 in UK, but we should be very careful about not falling into the trap of essentialism. Each individual South Asian writer has a different reason and trajectory for settling in an alien country and so we cannot generalize. For example, many of them went along with their family for better economic prospects, like Yasmine Gooneratne from Sri Lanka who went to Australia or Romesh Gunesekera who went and settled in Britain after the Civil War in his native country. Some went for academic reasons (Tabish Khairfor example, who went from his native Bihar to Denmark, Amitava Kumar from Bihar to the United States), whereas Taslima Nasrin had to flee her homeland Bangladesh (and now even India) because of religious fundamentalism, and so on.

AKC: What role does Bollywood construct in gaining prevalenceabroad and re-uniting the Indian diaspora at the global forum? Do you think that Indian Cinema is more accepted in the West than any other film industry of neighbouring countries of India?

SM:By its sheer number of films produced per year,Bollywood happens to be the largest film industry in this subcontinent and thus overshadows films produced by neighbouring countries of India. Bollywood films are watched by an overwhelming number of South Asians both at home and abroad. Of course the diaspora watches these products differently than the home audience. I feel this difference is marked in two particular areas. First is the spirit of nationalism that is inculcated in many films where dying for the nation becomes a heroic act. This even cuts across religious lines. The second and more significant issue is the interest showed in the west for queerness in Bollywood films where narratives about queerness in the Indian diaspora are almost upbeat and use the acceptance of queerness as a token for entry. For example, Karan Johar’s films Dostana and Kal Ho Na Ho, set among the diaspora community in America, present the possibility of joy, hope, and acceptance for an Indian gay man. In contrast, Bombay Talkies, Johar’s only film addressing queerness within India, deals with the same issues while at home, shows only the possibility of a violent confrontation with society, represented by parents, followed by a life of loneliness, pain and lies while the spirit of India looks on and sings songs of mourning for them. All of the recent films set within India with a prominent gay story line have had similar bleak endings. With the advancement of technology and simultaneous release of a Bollywood film in any part of the world on the same day, the people of the Indian diaspora feel more connected with the homeland now. Unlike earlier times they do not have to wait for pirated copies of Bollywood blockbusters to reach them much later.

AKC: When you are on tour to abroad or settled there for a long time, what do you think of your homeland? Do you realize the contours of Rushdie proliferated by him in his tour de force, Imaginary Homelands (1991)?  

SM: The critic Avtar Brah in Cartographies of Diaspora emphasises on the homing desire and the desire for the homeland as recurrent themes in diasporic writing. Accordingly, she identifies four stages in the process of assimilation in the hostland. These are the tourist phase, the culture shock phase, the conformist phase and the assimilation phase. For Rushdie, the role of memory, what he terms as ‘Indias of the mind’ remains the most significant criteria. The other metaphor that he uses is that of the pieces of a broken mirror, parts of which are lost. So, in spite of having a desire for the homeland, when one is settled abroad for a long time, the memory keeps on fading. As Rushdie has put it in Imaginary Homelands, the position of ‘the exile or immigrant’ is one of ‘profound uncertainties’ The diasporic person is at home neither in the west nor in India and is thus ‘unhomed’ (Homi Bhabha) in the most essential sense of the term. Thus the concept and interpretation of ‘home’ becomes vital in all kinds of diasporic writing.

AKC: To what extent do you agree that present economic and political fluidity has converted the “nowhere presence” of Diaspora into “omnipresence”?

SM: The way our Indian government woos her diaspora population by observing the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwasevery year and by offering sops like PIO and OCI cards and by asking them to invest in the country speaks a lot about their financial stability in general. On the other hand, the overt presence of politicians of Indian origin in both the UK and the US also speak a lot about their ‘omnipresence’. They are now a serious power to reckon with.

AKC: What role has South Asian Diaspora played in deconstructing the Orientalist view of the Occident?

SM: I believe that South Asian diasporic writers see a new phase of neo-orientalism in recent fiction. For example, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland or Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others where large sections of the novels are based on Kolkata fits in this sort of agenda.

AKC: Thank you, Prof. Mandal! Its enlightening talk not only for me but also for the pan-Indian scholars and academicians.

SM: Welcome Ajay. It’s worthwhile for me too.

Ajay K Chaubey is Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Sciences & Humanities at the National Institute of Technology, Uttarakhand, India. His has recently published his maiden academic work, V S Naipaul: An Anthology of 21st Century Criticism(Atlantic, 2015). His another volume on Salman Rushdie is under publication from the Atlantic itself. He has co-edited two volumes on the Literature of the Indian Diaspora—Transnational Passages: An Anthology of Diaspora Criticism (Vol. I)and Discursive Passages: An Anthology of Diaspora Criticism (Vol. II)—under publication from the Yking Books, Jaipur. He has attended, participated and presented research papers in the conferences and symposia held in India and overseas including York St. John University, York; Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham and University of Leicester, Leicester (UK) during June 2014. He is also associated with the preparation of syllabi and academic policy making as he is also the Officiating Dean (Student Welfare) in his institute. He is a Life Member of the research organizations viz. IACLALS, AESI and Sahitya Academy, New Delhi.

The Golden Line: Volume 1, Number 2, 2015

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