Tag Archive for 'diaspora'

South Asians and the Shaping of Britain

Sarfraz Manzoor in The Telegraph, London:

southasian-bookMahinder Singh Pujji, a 22-year-old Indian man, was queuing to see a film at his local cinema. The man in front of him saw his turban and uniform – Pujji was a member of the RAF – and said: “Sir, you don’t have to stand in the queue.” He ushered him to the front of the line. No one grumbled and the woman working in the ticket office, again seeing his turban and wings, refused to accept money for the ticket.

This incident would be surprising and heart-warming if it occurred today; in fact, the film that Pujji was queuing to see was Gone with the Wind, and the year was 1940. What makes this story so powerful is that it challenges established narratives about south Asian migration to Britain: it shows us that years before Commonwealth immigration there had been migrants from the subcontinent; it questions the assumption that migrants were always treated poorly, and it reminds us of the contribution many made.

South Asians and the Shaping of Britain excavates the archives for letters, diaries, books and articles relating to this subject. Taking the year 1870 – the zenith of empire – as the starting point and traversing 80 years to 1950 – a period that witnessed two world wars, the decline of empire, the fight for Indian independence and Partition – the book demonstrates that Britain has a more complex multicultural heritage than is usually acknowledged. More:

The hidden history of Bengali Harlem

From MIT News:

While it is commonly known that a wave of well-educated South Asians arrived in the United States after 1965, this earlier saga of immigration and assimilation has largely been overlooked. Until now, that is: A new book, “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America,” by MIT assistant professor Vivek Bald, illuminates this thread of history in unprecedented detail.

“Without these stories, the history of South Asians in the U.S. is incomplete,” Bald says.

One reason the subject has particular resonance for the present day, Bald believes, is that many of the immigrants in question were Muslim. “I wanted to make clear the depth and the persistence of the South Asian presence in the U.S.,” he says, “and specifically the South Asian Muslim presence in the U.S., at a time when Muslims are being portrayed as newcomers, enemies and outsiders.”

The genesis of “Bengali Harlem,” published this month by Harvard University Press, comes in good measure from conversations Bald had with Alaudin Ullah, a New York-based actor and playwright and the son of Habib Ullah. Hearing about the Ullah family’s odyssey sparked Bald’s curiosity. More:

Indians abroad: A story from Trinidad

Namit Arora in 3quarksdaily:

An Indo-Trinidadian woman selling cassava and dasheen at the Chaguanas Market.

The first immigrant ship from India, Fatel Rozack, arrived in 1845 after a journey of five months, carrying 225 Indians, most in their twenties, and over eight men for every woman. It had separate areas for men and women. Jokhan showed me a copy of its passenger log, pointing out that the first Indian to disembark was coincidentally named Bhuruth Suroop—a colonial clerk’s rendition of what I might have written as Bharat Swaroop. Trinidad is full of such tweaked spellings: Sewdass, Capildeo, Ramnarine. Until 1901, the ships were sailing vessels (‘Pal Jahaj’); thereafter, they were steamships (‘Aag Jahaj’). Jokhan pointed me to a list of ships that made the passage, the number of passengers in each, and the deaths en route. The mortality rate varied a lot. In 1858, on a ship named Salsette, 106 of the 197 Indians died. Scanning the numbers, I estimated the average mortality during the 19th century to be around 5%.

About 145,000 Indians came between 1845-1917 in over 320 shiploads. The vast majority was from the densely populated Gangetic Plain, from what are now UP and Bihar. They spoke Bhojpuri, a dialect of Hindi. Their primary driver was to escape economic destitution—intensified by repressive British taxation after the Indian Mutiny in 1857—and for a few perhaps to dodge a crime or a caste dispute. Due in part to a double failure of the monsoon, a major famine hit India in 1878-79, killing millions. Trained recruiters went from village to village promising good jobs in Damru Tapu (‘Demerara Island’). The lure was strong enough to overcome the significant taboo of Kala Pani, or crossing salt water, which rendered one an outcaste. Few women came at first but after 1868, concerted effort raised their numbers to four women for every ten men—though better, the continuing imbalance caused a host of social problems later, including violence over and against women. Because they left from Calcutta, they were also called Kalkatiyas. Until 1870, a fewMadrasis came too, but were deemed unsuitable and troublesome, not the least because many of them were urbanites. About 85% were Hindu and most of the rest Muslim. Of the Hindus, about 15% were Brahmins—more than the 9% in their home population—and most of them, writes historian Radica Mahase, had ‘earned a livelihood from the land and were also vulnerable to changes in the rural economy.’  More:

Between two worlds

Himal Southasian‘s latest cover is on “home and land: diaspora dilemmas”. Below, links to two stories. There are many more by eminent writers that you can read at the Himal Southasian website.

History of the desi umbilical by Vijay Prashad:

As I exit most mornings off Interstate 84 into Hartford, Connecticut, I pass a corner where about 30 Southasians gather to catch the bus. Most of them wear backpacks, and many have headphones on, listening, I imagine, to the sounds of Lata Mangeshkar or Krish. These are in-sourced workers, on short-term contracts through firms such as Tata Consultancy Services or Wipro, working for the large insurance companies such as Aetna or Travelers Insurance.

Along Farmington Avenue, where the software engineers cluster, is a nondescript store called Cosmos International. Run by a family from the Baltic region, Cosmos sells Southasian, Arab and Eastern European packaged food and spices, as well as fresh food and snacks from the Subcontinent. It is an oasis for the software workers and for the larger Southasian community in Hartford, a place one can buy rice with a DVD of the very latest film, or find halal goat alongside a tongue scraper. More:

Rhymes with fun-jew-free by Manjushree Thapa

The receptionist looks over the waiting room, clipboard in hand. She is a middle-aged woman, dusky, of unreadable national origin: the face of multicultural Canada. She stammers: ‘M-M-Man-Manjorie. Manjorie Tapas.’

‘Yes.’ I stand up.

She flashes me an anxious smile. ‘I’m not sure I got your name right.’

Having grown up with a funny ‘foreign’ name, I understand her anxiety. I feel it my duty to quell it. ‘That was perfect,’ I say.

‘The doctor will see you now, Manjorie.’


It was the early 1970s in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Canada, my father was working at a think tank, and my family lived in a sleepy hamlet in Ottawa, where everyone was friends – or so it seemed. I was three years old. For a year, I stayed home as my older brother and sister trotted off to school every morning with the neighbour girl, Dara: she of the oblong face, blue eyes and straight blonde hair, and a desire to make us children feel at home. Dara and the other kids knew me by my family nickname, Sanu – little one. ‘S’nu.’ More:

Meera Syal: My family values

In this YouTube video, Meera Syal reads from The Taming of the Shrew in this clip from Baby Cow’s ‘From Bard to Verse’ – Shakespeare’s greatest hits packaged into bite size chunks and performed by the UK’s hottest acting and comedy talent.

In The Guardian:

Inside our Punjabi household the atmosphere was one of familiarity and solidity, but outside the house things sometimes felt threatening. I have vivid memories of my parents and all their friends talking about a certain speech that Enoch Powell made. I always thought that the reason there were packed suitcases on top of every wardrobe was that we might have to leave the country in the middle of the night because of Enoch Powell. It was only years later that I realised that everybody’s families had suitcases on top of the wardrobe.

Punjabis are the cockneys of India. They are party people – gregarious, outgoing, very entrepreneurial, sharp-witted, loud, meat-eaters. Back in the Punjab, they are basically earthy, rural workers. And that was very much the atmosphere when we had friends around. It was incredibly noisy, loads of music, lots of loud voices and drinking, and I thought that was normal until I went to other people’s houses and I was shocked to discover that sometimes people’s families say nothing to each other during dinner. More:

Also at Wiki

A normal man in a not so normal world

An encounter near London’s Southall with a man’s troubled past and his ambition to make movies. Amitava Kumar in The Caravan:

On a warm July morning, I boarded the London Tube to Boston Manor station. The southbound Piccadilly Line, represented by a Navy Blue line on my map, would terminate at Heathrow airport. My stop came a few stations before the line ended.

The people I had come to meet were waiting outside in a car, and after introductions had been made, we drove to a store to buy meat and beer for lunch. The man who was driving was in his early 30s. He wore a stylish shirt and dark glasses. His name was Aryian Singh, but he later told me that this wasn’t what he had been named at birth. He had changed his name after he had come out of prison. When I questioned him about his job, he said he was working on a couple of film projects but didn’t provide details. I noticed that there were small scars on his face. I later learned that a couple of them were from injuries inflicted by his mother when he was a kid—once, his mother had smashed his face with a milk bottle.

The man whose face I was now watching in the rearview mirror interested me. His name change and the reason for it wasn’t what one has come to expect as a staple of Indian fiction about diasporic lives—Samiullah changing to Sam or a Madhu becoming Maddy, one pining for the neem tree outside his ancestral home and the other for her mother’s cardamom-scented fish curry. In those stories, particularly those written in the US, the only crime a human seems capable of is forgetting to write a letter home. Or if there are transgressions they seem to have blossomed out of a fantasy spun out in a garden called a creative writing MFA programme. But Aryian Singh’s story appeared to be different. Sitting in the backseat of the silver Mercedes E220, I imagined an entry into another life. Not one offered as homage to quiet domesticity but one lived in recognition of the reality of the street.

Singh lives in a modest, semi-detached house with his wife and a couple of boarders. There is also a dog in the house, a handsome German Shepherd named Simba. Singh’s father, a large, taciturn man named Gurdev, was in the house that day. He had come from India as a teenager several decades ago and worked first in a factory that printed labels for bottles. He had also worked in construction, and as a cook, making chicken tikka at a restaurant. He now began to prepare the chicken and fish that his son had bought at a Punjabi butchery on Uxbridge Road after picking me up at the station. More:

How to make fun of Indian-American immigrants

[Above: Canadian comic Russel Peters of Indian descent]

Niraj Chokshi at The Atlantic:

Is this funny? (The following excerpt is from Joel Stein’s latest article. Stein is Time magazine’s humor columnist, a title often flanked by quotation marks.)

[A] few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison because of its proximity to AT&T, good schools and reasonably priced, if slightly deteriorating, post-WW II housing. For a while, we assumed all Indians were geniuses. Then, in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.

Hell, read the whole thing, it’s short. In the July 5th issue, Stein laments the influx of Indian immigrants that hit his hometown, Edison, N.J. The column offended some and upset a lot of South Asians, sparking at least one petition. Most people of Indian descent I know are thick-skinned about ethnic jokes (and often initiate them), but Stein’s piece is ethnic humor minus the funny parts.

In an apology appended to the piece online, Stein says he’s pro-immigration: “I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town.” The first line of his piece is “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J.” More:

[And do also read the comments in The Atlantic]

Furore over Time’s “My own private India” essay

My own private India

Joel Stein in Time:

I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 — the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Alva Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor — has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S., as familiar to people in India as how to instruct stupid Americans to reboot their Internet routers.

My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas. The Italian restaurant that my friends stole cash from as waiters is now Moghul, one of the most famous Indian restaurants in the country. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison who have nowhere to learn crime.

I never knew how a bunch of people half a world away chose a random town in New Jersey to populate. Were they from some Indian state that got made fun of by all the other Indian states and didn’t want to give up that feeling? Are the malls in India that bad? Did we accidentally keep numbering our parkway exits all the way to Mumbai? More:

Nikki Haley and the new racial face of the American South

Nikki Haley is poised to join Bobby Jindal as conservative Indian Americans running Deep South states. Tunku Varadarajan at The Daily Beast on how they’re exploding racial attitudes—and why the Dems don’t get it.

Nikki Haley, née Nimrata Randhawa, is almost assured of the Republican nomination for governor of the state of South Carolina. And if she does win her runoff on June 22, she is almost certain to be elected governor in November, which would give rise to the remarkable fact that two deeply conservative Southern states—South Carolina and Louisiana—will be home to governors of Indian descent, one the son of Hindu immigrants, the other the daughter of Sikhs.

What explains the success of Jindal and Haley in their respective states? In posing this question, I hint, of course, at the South’s lingering reputation for racial intolerance; and who can deny that the two states in question have not always been at the forefront of America’s historical striving for racial amity?

One answer is that these two politicians are consummate conservatives in a milieu that rewards political conservatism, and that their success is a validation of their ideology and intelligence. Their ethnicity, in other words, is an irrelevance. This view was expressed, in effect, by a friend—a law professor in Tennessee—when I asked him why he thought Indian-American conservatives were doing so well in some Southern states: “There are lots of Indians in the South, and they work hard and do well. Why wouldn’t people like ‘em, especially when they work hard at politics and espouse conservative, capitalist, pro-family views?” More:

Nikki Haley’s big step

Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants, now finds herself one of the Republican Party’s brightest rising stars. Born Nimrata Nikki Randhawa, she was always called Nikki, which in Punjabi means means the “little one.” Shaila Dewan and Robbie Brown in The New York Times:

BAMBERG, S.C. — Nikki Haley, the favorite to become the first governor of South Carolina who is neither white nor male, has always challenged established norms with her own brand of moxie.

As a girl, her parents — the first Indian immigrants this small, working-class town had ever seen — entered Nikki and her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg pageant. The judges of the contest, one that crowned one black queen and one white queen, were so flummoxed that they simply disqualified Nikki and her sister, Simran — but not before Nikki, about 5, sang “This Land Is Your Land.”

Ms. Haley, 38, upended things again last week after a sharp-elbowed primary that included allegations of marital infidelity and pitted her against the lieutenant governor, the attorney general and a congressman. Ms. Haley, a state legislator, received 49 percent of the vote, but faces a June 22 runoff with Representative Gresham Barrett, whom she beat by more than 25 points Tuesday. And this from a campaign that was so underfinanced that it had to sell yard signs at $5 apiece, Ms. Haley said.

Now, she finds herself one of the brightest rising stars in the Republican Party, a Tea Party favorite, a Sarah Palin endorsee and the subject of national attention.

“I love that people think it’s a good story, but I don’t understand how it’s different,” she said in an interview Friday, in a voice with a faint watermark of Southern drawl. “I feel like I’m just an accountant and businessperson who wants to be a part of state government.” More:

More at: http://www.nikkihaley.com/

Why are Indian kids so good at spelling?

Because they have their own minor-league spelling bee circuit. Ben Paynter at Slate:

Image: Slate / Spelling BeeThis April’s North South Foundation bee in Shawnee, Kan., might seem like an obscure place to find the spelling world’s two biggest stars. Mostly, it looked like the sort of geeky local bee I might have attended as a kid—except everyone there was Indian. Inside Shawnee’s Hindu Temple and Cultural Center, 23 awkward kids took turns passing a microphone back and forth in a hushed beige auditorium. No spotlights, no podium, just cringe-inducing feedback on the P.A. system. And for the record, the spelling was a-t-r-o-c-i-o-u-s. Just three of the first 10 contestants spelled their words correctly. At one point, a poor kid paced in circles and clutched his crotch before misspelling beleaguered and sprinting off to the restroom.

Amid it all, 13-year-old Kavya Shivashankar pronounced words from a fold-out judging table as her father, Mirle, emceed in a sharp dark suit. Kavya, the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, is a spelling superstar complete with signature move: She air-writes each word across her palm before speaking it. Kavya and Mirle—her innovative, ever-enthusiastic coach—were at the small-time competition to pay homage. Over the past two decades, tournaments like this one—a regional qualifier for the North South Foundation’s spelling league—have become a breeding ground for Scripps contenders. These minor-league competitions help kids as young as 6 years old work out the spelling kinks at an early age. The result has been an Indian-American dynasty at the National Spelling Bee. More:

America’s real dream team

Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times:

Went to a big Washington dinner last week. You know the kind: Large hall; black ties; long dresses. But this was no ordinary dinner. There were 40 guests of honor. So here’s my Sunday news quiz: I’ll give you the names of most of the honorees, and you tell me what dinner I was at. Ready?

Linda Zhou, Alice Wei Zhao, Lori Ying, Angela Yu-Yun Yeung, Lynnelle Lin Ye, Kevin Young Xu, Benjamin Chang Sun, Jane Yoonhae Suh, Katheryn Cheng Shi, Sunanda Sharma, Sarine Gayaneh Shahmirian, Arjun Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, Akhil Mathew, Paul Masih Das, David Chienyun Liu, Elisa Bisi Lin, Yifan Li, Lanair Amaad Lett, Ruoyi Jiang, Otana Agape Jakpor, Peter Danming Hu, Yale Wang Fan, Yuval Yaacov Calev, Levent Alpoge, John Vincenzo Capodilupo and Namrata Anand.

No, sorry, it was not a dinner of the China-India Friendship League. Give up? More:

Exchanging one cliché for another

Akash Kapur in the New York Times:

My first memory of being Indian in America was being called an “injun.” This was around 1980. I was visiting my grandparents in rural Minnesota. The boy who called me an “injun” punched me in the stomach; later, his friends would call me a “communist.”

Those were particularly crude reactions but they were characteristic of the distance that separated India and America for much of my life. I grew up between both countries, the son of an Indian father and an American mother, but my two homes always felt very far apart. For much of my childhood and early adulthood, India and America were literally — but also culturally, socially, politically and experientially — on opposite sides of the planet.

When I moved to America in the early 1990s, India was little more than a cipher in the American imagination. Many of my new friends were uninterested in and uninformed about the country that I desperately missed. India was defined by the broadest, and usually most unflattering, of brush strokes — stereotypes about poverty and corruption, images of crowds, maybe a vague sense of what Indians in America used to call the “three C’s”: caste, cows and curry. More:

Kitchen sink

In the National, Ed Lake reviews “In the Kitchen” by Monica Ali (Doubleday)

monicaali_bookIn retrospect, nobody came out of l’affaire Brick Lane very well. Monica Ali’s first novel was published in 2003 to simultaneous fanfare and denunciation. The author was already a star; Granta had named her one of Britain’s best young novelists on the strength of her unpublished manuscript. And the book, when it came, seemed to do what was asked of it: its portrait of life among Bangladeshi immigrants in East London was celebrated by a largely white critical fraternity as a dispatch from Britain’s alienated and increasingly radical Islamic contingent. The Scotsman wrote that it opened “a new and potentially rich seam in mainstream British fiction”. The Evening Standard praised its insights into a “fresh, rich and hidden world”. In short, it dished dirt, and in doing so assisted the commentariat in their grand inquiries. Ali’s vision of a small world beset by oppression, hypocrisy and militant posturing was taken to be authentic, which is to say, just bad enough to be true. And that, of course, is what many of the real Brick Lane’s Bangladeshis objected to.

The novel’s heroine, Nazneen, is an illiterate Sylhetti farm girl who finds herself married off as a teenager to Chanu, a council worker twice her age, who lives in the navel of the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Through Nazneen’s eyes we are shown a world of dank state housing, busybody neighbours and desperate boredom. Chanu is a failure though he doesn’t know it, blinded as he is by pride at his numerous certificates, his degree in English literature, and his Open University non-insights into colonial history. In one of Ali’s better – because bitter – jokes, she has Chanu announce grandly, with the clear intention to impress, that: “To be an immigrant is to live out a tragedy.” Despite cultivating aloofness from the old-country gaucheries of a faceless horde of “ignorant types”, he can’t get ahead at the office. He’s that recurring figure in the literature of the Indian diaspora, the would-be bourgeois, cousin to VS Naipaul’s Mr Biswas. The only way for him is down. More:

How Indians spell S-U-C-C-E-S-S at the Bee

Meena Thiruvengadam in the Wall Street Journal:

The word was “milieu.” Balu Natarajan spelled it — and transformed it.

In 1985, Dr. Natarajan, now a sports doctor, correctly spelled the word to become the first Indian American to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Before you ask for a definition, it means, “the physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops.”

Since his victory, Indians have become as ubiquitous at the annual bee as dictionaries. They have won eight times, and the 2002 documentary “Spellbound” chronicled one Indian family’s dreams of victory. But back then, Dr. Natarajan recalls, “it was big deal that a son of immigrants was winning the spelling bee.”

A quarter-century later, it’s become pretty normal. More:

Roots, migration and exile

[Updated on March 31] 

In The Hindu, Mukund Padmanabhan speaks to Jhumpa Lahiri ahead of the launch of her new book of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth (Random House, Rs 450, pp 333)

jhumpa-lahiri.jpgThe recent literature of emigration and exile is forged by perspectives that emerge from at least two cultures, identities and, in some cases, languages. The themes in migrant literature, however, vary, depending not only on the country of origin but also on the pattern of the migration itself. The attention of first generation migrant literature is often directed at the act of migration, the passage to another land, the reception in the emigration country, issues of rootlessness and racism, nostalgia and longing. While some of these issues do crop up in second generation migrant writing, it does so often in a much more morally complex way. Affiliations are more ambivalent, there is a recognition that global uprootedness is…well…a global phenomenon, and the focus, in an odd way, is not on the country of origin or arrival, but in a community that does not fully belong to either.


And in Hindustan Times, Indrajit Hazra reviews the book 

One way of looking at nostalgia is to see it as a yearning for an old habit. In that sense, Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book, a collection of short stories that has the quietness and the cleanliness of a modern breakfast, is not about diasporic dilemmas, but about coming to terms with new habits and reconciling with broken ones.

Unlike in her novel, The Namesake, or in her debut collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, the stories in Unaccustomed Earth do not as much deal with the differences of uprooting oneself from one’s culture and setting tentative roots in a new one, as they do about that other space-time difference: the generation gap. What Lahiri does, in the manner of an irony-less Evelyn Waugh, is to use the (anticipated, perceived or real) effects of translocation of an older generation as fodder for embarrassment-cum-concern for their children.

Continue reading ‘Roots, migration and exile’

India arrives

Times of India

Swapan Dasgupta relates Indian aggression at the Sydney cricket ground to the rise in nationalism

There were two powerful images of India that came through from Sydney Cricket Ground last week. The first was a visibly irate Harbhajan Singh in a verbal altercation with Andrew Symonds. The second was a very composed but undeniably haughty Anil Kumble throwing a variant of Bill Woodfull’s legendary remark on Bodyline back at the Australians: “There are two teams out there; only one is playing cricket.”

Cricket, once a metaphor for life, has increasingly become associated with the national character. In the heydays of socialism and the shortage economy, it is unlikely an Indian player would have reacted to Australian sledging the way Harbhajan did. It is more inconceivable that the captain would have had the temerity to call the rival team a bunch of cheats – which is what Kumble did with all the imperiousness at his disposal.

Continue reading ‘India arrives’