The Indian diaspora: When? Why? Where? And, what next?

Writer Minal Hajratwala takes an in-depth look at the evolution of the global Indian diaspora through the lens of her own family’s migrations in her book Leaving India. In an interview with me for Bookslut , she talks about the Indian diaspora in America, the research that went into her book, and the place she calls “home.”

Here is an excerpt:

 

 In your book, you seem to discard the notion of the ABCD — the American-Born Confused Desi, a person of Indian ethnicity who is constantly forced to choose between America and India and confused as to her cultural identity. Do you think that image is irrelevant/dated now?

 I think that image was always a lie, although like most lies it had some truth to it. Our generation was not particularly confused; we were a focal point for the confusion of others, both the white society around us that didn’t know what to make of Indians and the immigrant generation that didn’t know quite what to make of America.

To distill the complexity of a group of 1.7 million people of various socioeconomic levels, religions, languages, and regional backgrounds down to a single “image” is something that various forces both inside and outside the Indo-American community are constantly trying to do, but it’s an impossible and, to me, undesirable project. I’m much more interested in a multiplicity of images of who we are and can be. The diaspora is incredibly complex and diverse, and in the United States some desis have been here five generations, some arrived yesterday, and there are confusions and certainties in each situation. The best image for me would be one of those goddesses with a thousand and one different faces and arms and tools. No confusion, but lots of options.

You’ve placed much emphasis on the accuracy of your writing, stating explicitly that you have not fictionalized anything in the book. What significance does this scrupulousness about telling the truth about your history hold for you?

It’s interesting that, no matter how much I reiterate that Leaving India is nonfiction, people still call it a “novel.” On the one hand I think that’s a compliment, as people often say admiringly of nonfiction books, “It reads like a novel.” No one ever compliments the voice or pacing of a novel by saying “It reads like nonfiction”!

On the other hand I think we’ve just become very used to the dominant experience of South Asian literature in the United States being fiction. It’s lovely for readers to sink into an exotic world of spices, silks, and family dramas, and often those dramas are stripped of historical tensions such as colonialism and racism, or at least history takes a far back seat. To me the project of this book was to understand why and how the Indian diaspora formed, in a very personal way; why do I have 36 first cousins spread out all across the globe? And because I really wanted to understand precisely how political and personal circumstances conspired to affect our lives, it wouldn’t have helped me to just make things up. I have other fiction projects in the work, and fiction is a fine way of making sense of the world; it just wasn’t right for this material, for me.

You’re a poet, and a journalist. Did you have to work to reconcile these two sides while writing the book, or did they flow into each other?

My journalistic and poetic voices battled mightily, but it was a productive struggle in a sort of Hegelian sense. I hope the synthesis is as satisfying to readers as it was torturous for me.

Read the whole interview with Minal here.

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9 responses to “The Indian diaspora: When? Why? Where? And, what next?

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  3. Thanks for the link – it made for interesting reading, although I’m not sure I agree with some of the things she says. For example, the ABCD. Yes, it is a much over-used term, leading to all manner of stereotyped notions, but there is more than a grain of truth to the confused part. In many people, this confusion takes them down a positive path, leading to the desire to explore and learn more about their heritage; in others it makes them (often temporarily) reject that heritage. Very few give it no thought at all. I have seen all varieties.

  4. @ Kamini: I think Hajratwala is saying that given the varities of people who might fall under the term ABD, assuming confusion is a simplistic notion. So in a sense, I think you are both saying the same thing–that there is a diversity of desi attitudes.

  5. I agree with Kamini, there is more than a grain of truth in the term ABCD. Suggesting anything else is denial and taking refuge in “diversity” to deny confusion is fragmenting that misses the larger picture, the fact that 2+2 =5.

    It is high time we Indians understood – and acknowledged – that ABCD’ism is a reality, the product of an entire ecosystem that feels compelled to demean and marginalize other cultures in order to pump itself up in the eyes of immigrants. An uneasy, unhealthy mix of an economic imperative that desperately needs skilled immigrants to work and pay taxes, superimposed on a still-immature culture that has not yet learned to synthesize cross-culturally; one that compartmentalizes differences from the dominant culture under (a) multi-culturalism to be exoticized as once a year museum-type displays or (b) to be subsumed under a swaggering, dominant culture in the melting pot model.

  6. @ Sanjay: Well, I guess your comment should rightly be answered by Minal, as you are replying to her statement, but I want to say my mite (not specifically about America). To be placed at the intersection of cultures is not necessarily a negative, for it provides the space to choose. Yes, one troubling response in the face of such choice is the rejection of one’s culture. But let’s not ignore the other potentialities that space carries. I don’t think it’s “denial” to acknowledge, for instance, that we might start questioning the comfortable assumptions held when we were part of the dominant culture, without chucking the baby out with the bathwater. And if all that questioning leads to confusion–that’s not necessarily a bad thing IMO.

  7. Thanks everyone for the interesting discussion and thanks, Niranjana, for the invitation to respond.

    Of course, one can always find examples to uphold any stereotype. However, I know Indians born and raised in India who refuse to eat Indian food or wear Indian clothes (“rejecting their heritage”), and 1st-generation immigrants who find the United States bewildering and unfathomable (“confused”), yet no one tags these groups with such labels.

    Yes, the so-called ABCD generation may sometimes be confused about its own identity, as may any other human beings exposed to and living in globalized, polycultural societies. And since the label is catchy, it’s somewhat self-perpetuating; it does lead people to frame their own cultural and psychological struggles in its own terms, which can be helpful as a starting point. But whenever a single definition becomes the be-all and end-all, a way of fixing or even dismissing a broad diversity of individual experiences, I tend to find it extremely limiting.

    As a writer, I’m interested in deconstructing and looking deeper than the standard explanations, and seeing the richness of what my characters’ actual experiences reveal. In the book I was searching for deeper and fuller versions of these stories, not just the standard tropes. In doing so, I wrote about my own experience and my sense of how the duality that is set up by the “American” vs “Indian” values debate is a false duality; but I also wrote about a cousin who proudly claims (reclaims?) the “ABCD” title.

    It’s a fuller discussion of these issues than can be engaged in on a blog, but I’d love to know what you think after reading.

    Warmly,
    Minal

  8. Well Niranjana, my point was perhaps a little different. Less to do with making space for oneself at the “intersection of cultures” etc and more how one gets to that crossroads in the first place. You talked about the ‘space to choose” – was there really free will involved in getting here? I tend to doubt that.

    Of course, one has to make the best of the hand that one is dealt. That is a no-brainer.

  9. Minal, you wrote:

    However, I know Indians born and raised in India who refuse to eat Indian food or wear Indian clothes (”rejecting their heritage”), and 1st-generation immigrants who find the United States bewildering and unfathomable (”confused”), yet no one tags these groups with such labels.

    I’m not so sure about the tags part. Haven’t you heard of dismissive stereotypes like FOB and RNI? I assure you that even in a professional office setting in the U.S., I hear the derisive tag FOB used far, far more frequently than ABCD.

    I have no problem if some of those born and raised in India want to reject some aspect of their heritage. Why? because I suspect that has to do with free will and exercising personal choice, not because some overbearing system socializes one to be that way.

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