Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On Vinay Lal's The Other Indians

In the early pages of Patrick French’s recent biography of VS Naipaul, there is a detailed portrait of the first representatives of the modern Indian diaspora in the mid-nineteenth century. These were unwilling travellers: luckless, impoverished indentured labourers, mostly drawn from regions in north India suffering drought or famine, tossed on board ship like chickens in a coop for an arduous journey across the seas on their way to plantations in the West Indies. From these early beginnings, fraught with dread and uncertainty, beset with dangers to both body and self, the Indian diaspora has come a long way to become “an incontestable fact of world culture”, as Vinay Lal puts it in his new history of South Asians in America, The Other Indians.

Notwithstanding several other significant narratives of movement and resettlement, the great Indian narrative of migration of our age, and surely for many decades to come, has been the journey to America. This migration has a kind of double reality: it as much a dream for millions of what Lal calls Resident Non-Indians (a representative example of how the term is used in popular Indian thought is here) as it is a proud fact for actual NRIs. For a long time, before our current period of reverse migration in modest proportions, America was thought to be the natural destination for our best and brightest, the site where they might break free of the sloth and stasis and crab mentality of benighted Indian life and grow wings.
But one of the tricks of the human brain – it the reason we need history – is that it all too easily extrapolates from a present reality that things have always been that way in the past. One of the aims of Lal’s book is to show us the stages of negotiation, attrition, and doubt through which Indian life in America has passed in order to reach its present bullish phase. For instance, although educational attainment among Americans of Indian origin is now famously high (63.9 per cent now have a bachelor’s degree compared to 24.4 per cent in the general population), as recently as 1940 Indians had the lowest educational standards of any ethnic group. Even as India made the transition from colony to independent republic, Asians in America were fighting for the most basic political rights (and often allying with the African-American movement). Lal’s book meticulously charts the progress of Indian life in America from trickle to flood, stammer to swagger.
Indians first began to arrive in America in significant numbers around the close of the nineteenth century. Almost all were male. Some were peasants from the Punjab who had been drawn by reports of American prosperity and who found work as farm labourers, others were students. Perhaps the most interesting of these groups was the one with clear political aims: a set of nationalists and revolutionaries trying to unshackle the British Empire from without by force of both words and militant action. As Lal explains,

By the second decade of the twentieth century, a sufficiently large coterie of cosmopolitan Indian rebels, whose ranks would be swelled and complicated by peasants and workers who had experienced the piercing effects of racial discrimination, felt emboldened enough to initiate a political party to press for Indian independence from British rule. The “Hindi Association of the Pacific Coast” took root in 1913, founded in Oregon, but it is by the name of Ghadr (also Ghadar) that it is commonly known. This “Ghadar Conspiracy” as the British termed it, lasted a mere five years[...] but it is the Ghadr’s party newspaper [which had the words “the enemy of the British Raj” emblazoned on its masthead] which most of all suggests why the romance with the Ghadr movement among Indian progressives endures.
[...] Published at first in Urdu, the predominant language (alongside Hindustani) of north India, and Gurmukhi, the language of Punjabi peasants, Ghadr had within months also commenced publication in Gujarati and Hindi. A contemporary British intelligence report confirmed that some 3,000 copies of the paper at this time were mailed to the Federated Malay States, Siam, and elsewhere in Asia [...]. When one contemplates that nearly 100 years ago an Indian newspaper was being published from the United States in at leadt four languages...one marvels at the ecumenism, grit, ambition, and vision of the movement’s advocates.
One might argue that it was only at a great remove from India that the Ghadrites could entertain...the utopian notion of a mother India that would be freed by militant action. The sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer coined the phrase “Gadar syndrome” to describe the phenomenon of a “militant nationalist movement” created “abroad by expatriates” embodying “the fusion of ethnic anger and nationalist pride”...Useful as are these ideas, they do not entirely capture the globalizing energy of Ghadr, much less the magisterial manner in which the Ghadr movement anticipated the notion of a global Indian diaspora. The Ghadrites, I am tempted to say after Bruce Chatwin, drew their own songlines across the oceans, and everywhere provided assurance to Indians that Indianness was, in some fashion, theirs to claim.
Just before the ascent of the Ghadr party an attractive picture of Indian civilization had already been imprinted on America by the discourses of Swami Vivekananda, whose electrifying address to delegates of the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893 catapulted him into the consciousness of the American public. And as the century rolled on India slowly became synonymous in the American imagination with the thought and work of Gandhi, who acquired a considerable following among the intelligentsia and members of the press. At the same time Indians in America were fighting a long battle over their right to citizenship that would not be resolved until the passing of the National Origins Act in 1965, which set in place systems and quotas for immigration which are still largely in place today.
Lal has many interesting things to say on a wealth of subjects, from the growth of Hinduism in America to the takeover of the motel business by the Patel community, and from contributions by Indians to American literature to the changing dynamics of the relationship between adopted land and motherland. He notes the pervasive anxiety about cultural loss and contamination among Indian Americans, which has spawned an aggressive and rancorous form of Hinduism that is broadly sympathetic to, and often lavishly funds, the activities of the Bharatiya Janata Party in India and sees nothing wrong in calling itself Hindu nationalist. It is not surprising, observes Lal,

...that, as India slowly begins to emerge as an Asian power, the Hindu community in the United States, which contributes substantially more to direct foreign investment in India than Hindus elsewhere, should begin to feel emboldened, mindful of its “rights” and prerogatives; nor is it surprising that these Hindus should view themselves in the vanguard of what I would characterize as revolutionary internet Hinduism. The internet is not merely the medium through which debates on Hinduness and Hinduism are being conducted, it is the vehicle, nowhere more so than among Indian Americans, for advancing a new conception of Hinduism as a global faith. If internet Hindutva’s proponents had their way, Hinduism, or more precisely Hindutva, would have something of an ummah, a worldwide community that would also assist in bringing pliant Hindus, both in India and in older Indian diasporas of the nineteenth century, to a awareness of the global strengths of a “modern” Hindu community. [...] Though nationalist Hindus in the United States take recourse to arguments about multiculturalism, they have not at all been hospitable to multiculturalism or even Indian variants of pluralism in India itself.
Indeed, there is material for an entirely different book in Lal’s thought that “Indian culture is perhaps more stable in the US than it is in India”. Himself a resident of America for almost three decades (he teaches History at the University of California), Lal has the advantage of being able to draw upon both scholarship and personal experience in this work, and speaks as both observer and participant. He elegantly summarises and brings into the mainstream a wealth of more specialised literature, such as ethnographies of particular migrant communities (such as the Punjabi-Mexican community in California). Many Indians at home will savour this book about Indians abroad.
Lal's website Manas: India and its Neighbours is here. And some links to essays by Lal: "Reflections on the Indian Diaspora", "Indic Presence in World Culture", "Labour and longing", "Palpable Falsehoods", a letter on the California textbook controversy of 2005, "Bobby Jindal and America", "Gulf Indians and the Hierarchies of NRIs".
And here are some other essays by Lal on aspects of Indian politics and culture other than the diaspora: "Reading Nandigram through ‘The Hindu’", "The future of Indian democracy", "The Tavistock Square Gandhi: 'war on terror' and non-violence", "Muhammad Yunus and the Nobel Prize", "Partitioned Selves, Partitioned Pasts" (an essay on Ashis Nandy), "After Bamiyan", and "The cultural politics of the national flag".
And for more on themes and isues raised by Lal's book: "The Ghadr Rebellion", an essay published in the Illustrated Weekly of India nearly fifty years ago by Khushwant Singh; Amitava Kumar's essay from 2000 "The Indian Is Coming", on the place of the Indian immigrant experience in American literature (Kumar is also one of the hands behind the film Pure Chutney, about the intersection of Trinidadian and Indian culture); Farrukh Dhondy's "The great Indian diaspora is more Indian than great"; Vidya Dehejia's "Arts and the Indian Diaspora"; Seema Sirohi's recent piece in Outlook "The Good War"; and Vijay Prashad's "Dusra Hindustan" and "Letter to a Young American Hindu". A special issue of the Indian magazine Seminar on the Indian diaspora, from which some of these links are taken, is here.
Links to other good essays on the Indian diaspora past and present are welcome.


Anonymous said...

This book seems like a welcome change.
Most of my previous readings of the Indian diaspora seemed to fit within a couple of clichés. I particularly remember an article by Ramachandra Guha that was so ridiculous that I am sure it was an attempt at humour.

Space Bar said...

What I like best about these essays of yours, Chandrahas, is the wide net you cast while linking to other relevant essays. These links illuminate your own essay while making it clear that all has not been - and perhaps cannot be - said about the subject.

About the question of RNIs: it is not clear whether Lal uses the phrase ironically? The rediff article you have linked to seems to be the standard issue right-wing babble that is commonly found on rediff. Are you saying the Prof. Lal uses the term in the same way? Surely something is missing here?

(And what are you doing posting in the middle of your vacation?!)

Chandrahas said...

N - I found a lot of good things in this book. I think it helps that the writer is a member of the group he is trying to describe. I guess there are as many cliches about the Indian diaspora now as there are about Indians, so in this sense we are all in the same boat fighting the war against cliche.

Sridala - This seems, to my ever-suspicious imagination, a kind of backhanded compliment which, as I am in a very good mood (I have spent the last two hours in sunshine in the company of a Turkish novel and a garlic baguette, only one of which still exists), I shall take in the best possible spirit. My own method is always to try and natter on about the subject for as long as possible, so as to make all the other links redundant, or at least too far down the page to access without getting repetitive strain disorder. So perhaps you like my work so much because you read it from the bottom up.

About the RNIs: my intention was actually to link to a fairly representative use of the term in Indian discourse to give a sense of the meanings attached to it. I should have made this more clear, and have now.

I am posting from the middle of my vacation because...because it has only this morning turned back into the middle. It was supposed to be the end, but just to prove that all good things don't have to come to an end I have tacked on another two weeks to it, and promised myself I will try to work for half of every day. If this trend continues I shall soon find myself a new recruit into the Indian diaspora, and have to change my accent.

Send me your address, and I will send you a postcard in black ink.

Space Bar said...

Hash: No, no, no backhanded compliments at all. I was, merely, all admiration for your zeal in finding so many things to link to, all of which add flavour to your own essay (now why does that sound back-handed all over again? Have another garlic baguette. Quick.)

(And about my style of reading: I actually start - when the writer doesn't - in media res!)

And do you take requests in colour of ink or must I settle for black?

Anonymous said...

Looks like an interesting read. :)

Anonymous said...

Amazing review!
I am now going to order this book and i cant wait to read it.
The way you write seems like a must-read.