Indo Canadian diaspora: a mythical interpretationBy confluence | January 25th, 2009 | Category: Viewpoint |
Any immigrant group from any nation who uses neither Indian dress nor enjoys Indian food on a routine basis should not be identified as part of the Indian diaspora.
The word Diaspora is not a substitute for the word immigrant. Diaspora essentially is a bitter experience of dislocation that leads to alienation, a sense of loss and nostalgic desires. It refers to that particular class of immigrants who are unable to go back, primarily because of the hostile climate of discrimination in the country of birth. The hostile climate is intolerable in the land of birth and tolerable in the land of adoption. Usually Diasporans are not happy anywhere, and suffer silently. A poem I wrote catches their inner self to some extent:
I have gazed
into the graveyard of their eyes
the dry bones of their silence……
A smoke of uncertainty
surround them like fear
and the albatross of loneliness
sits upon them
like a paperweight
The “dry bones of their silence” due to hostility are seen nowhere among Indo-Canadian writers. Their writings do not reflect any trace of hostilities, because the climate of intolerable discrimination is non-existent in the country of their birth, and is tolerable in the country of their adoption. Indian immigrants in the global age are aspirants of new affluence. Indian immigrants to Canada can be included among the aspirants of new affluence more easily than among the Diaspora based on the mythical interpretation of Indo-Canadians.
Diaspora in Greek means dispersion or scattering. In Hebrew, the word that is used for Diaspora is Galut which means exile. It referred to the Jewish communities scattered in exile outside Palestine. Those Jewish communities were exiled from their homeland by Roman authorities between 66 and 70 CE. Diaspora therefore is “expulsion of a national from his country by the government or voluntary removal of a citizen, usually in order to escape punishment.”
The Indian Diaspora started mainly after the British made India a part of the empire. Indians were taken as forced labour in the nineteenth century to other parts of the empire, including Fiji, Maritius, Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname and Malaysia. Canada has a sizeable number of immigrants of Indian origin from African and Caribbean nations. Several of them are the descendents of the Indian Diaspora of colonial days.
The major Diasporas have marked similarities. One is their loss of homeland and the sufferings connected with this loss. This loss is associated mainly with the Jews, the Armenians, the Africans and Indian indentured labour and a few other groups. In all these stories, migration was under compulsion.
The present use of the term Indian Diaspora, particularly when it refers to Indo-Canadian writers, is loaded with confusion. Its overuse conflicts with words like immigrant, visitor, racial minorities, ethnic groups, refugee, new Canadian, workers, expatriates, travellers, and other categories.
Sometimes the word is used to include nearly every one; even those who were born outside the country inwhich they live. If Diaspora is analyzed in the light of its original use that was for the Jews and the major Diasporas of non-Jews, it becomes necessary to include the elements of alienation, loss, forced migration, and a dream to return to the land of birth. It may include also the unwilling acceptance of the host country.
Diaspora and nostalgic desires are inseparable. There is no exoticism or marketing involved when diasporans write about their days back home, where they leave their childhood, friends and relatives because of the compulsory exile or intolerable climate of discrimination. “Exoticism, by definition, is the charm of the unfamiliar.”8. Nostalgia is the condition of being homesick. It is a moral pain with the obsession to return. It may cause functional disorders that may sap one’s vitality. Such persons are miraculously cured when they return to the family home. However, how can these immigrant writers be home sick when they never lived in India, except for their tourist trips? There is almost nothing in their writing about India that can be considered as nostalgic. If there is any, that is to exoticize for marketing. To group them under Indian Diaspora is going too far. It is better to call them immigrants or ethnic or Afro-Asian or Afro-Indian writers. The closest words that can be applied is ‘aspirants of new affluence’.
Some immigrant writers cry over discrimination in Canada, whereas the fact is that there was no discrimination in the country of their birth that forced them to settle abroad. They had no problem as forced exiled people have. Their tears in Canada are of a political nature. They enjoy shedding tears because there are sympathetic ears to listen to them. Sometimes, it helps to receive awards from governments on a sympathy basis.
Book publishers are in business to make money. They look for sensational material that is available in India at every corner. They also guide their authors as to how to sensationalize particular stories. The authors of such books are not there as prophets or on any mercy or peace mission. They want to exploit situations. The result is exaggeration in the novels of such fiction writers to make them interesting. Such descriptions should not be confused with nostalgic desires. Such writers pedal India to Canada with exotic tales and settings. Their far-fetched stories may make them famous and bring money and to some even government grants but their descriptions are based on fantasies. It is mainly because Canadians do not know much about India.
Normally, Diasporans maintain continuous explicit and implicit contact with their homeland and other dispersed segments of the same group to ease their grief and cherish the memories of the past. Indo-Canadian writers do not have an organization to remain in touch and to draw consolation from one another. There is no necessity to draw consolation, because they are free to move back and forth between Canada and India. Most Indo-Canadian organizations are there just to dine and watch Indian dances arranged with funding from the Government of Canada.
“A key characteristic of diaspora is that a strong sense of connection to a homeland is maintained through cultural practices and ways of life. Among these culinary culture has an important part to play in diasporic identifications.”9 It is the culture that bonds a group and culture includes language and food habits. Religion has never been a unifying force in the history of humankind nor the last or the first name of a person. Any immigrant group from any nation who uses neither Indian dress nor enjoys Indian food on a routine basis should not be identified as part of the Indian diaspora. Food habits and language are the key constituents of diaspora. Indo-African and Indo-Carrebbeans in Canada hardly understand any Indian language and hardly prepare any Indian food at home.
In addition to these crumbling organizations of Indian immigrants, there are restaurants in some cities of Canada where both Indian and Canadian foods are served. Most Indian restaurants emphasise that they are in business due to the whites. Indians do not patronize them much.
Still another feature is arranged marriages that are few and far between among educated families from cities. If there are arranged marriages, they are between the families living in Canada and India, not between the families within Canada. Most such marriages are to bring someone else into Canada.
Unwilling acceptance by the host countries is an important constituent of Diaspora. This unwilling acceptance leads to their exclusion and alienation. But Canada on the political and also on the social level accepts ethnic groups. The problem is with these ethnic groups themselves. They keep themselves aloof and form their own ghettoes. To say that the host country, Canada, does not accept them is largely based on assumptions. Canada has multicultural policies. It has policies to hire members of ethnic groups in government and government funded agencies. Immigrants are treated equally before the law. Governments at all levels have funds for cultural and language activities. Materially they are better off than they had been in the countries of their birth. They can come and go wherever they like. There is no restriction either from the host country or from the country of birth. Several writers in Canada have been recognized with medals, certificates, prominent honours, even with money. They are recognized more than they had been in the country of their birth.
Canada is a nation of nations—a united nations in microcosm. A poem I wrote, “My Canada”, expresses this aspect when it says, “in thy lap/ lie all nations/ human and beasts/ melt into one shape/ under thy care.”11 This aspect of Canada is obvious from the policies of Canadian governments at all levels. One example is the multicultural festivals when Canadians of different ethnic groups set up their stalls to sell their national foods in their national costumes. Instead of an entry ticket, visitors buy a pseudo passport that is stamped by these stall holders of different nations. Here visitors buy their national foods. The idea behind this practice is to signify that Canadians do not have to travel to distant lands of the world. They can see the culture of the distant lands right in Canada; even can taste their national foods. Several immigrants hold dual citizenships. They come and go to the countries of their birth.
The children of parents of Canadian multicultural society who enjoy most of the modern comforts would not like to settle in India. They may go as tourists to see the land of their ancestors but not to settle there. They are not home sick. They do not bear similarities with the Jews, Armenians and the Diaspora of the indentured labourers. Even the children of the first generation Indo-Canadians are the outcome of mixed marriages between different ethnic groups. The culture of several Indo-Canadians and Afro-Canadians or Caribbean-Canadians who appear to be of Indian origin, is a mixture of identities. The new generation cannot be nostalgic about the country they only hear, read or see on the TV screens like any other country or nationality.
Most ethnic writers of Canada are not Diasporans and they were not Diasporans in the countries of their origin either. Their knowledge of India is not better than the knowledge of several whites who for one reason or the other are interested in India. Those who were not born in India, nor even their parents, cannot belong to the Indian Diaspora, because they are not in touch with India; they keep their contacts with the country of their birth that may be Caribbean or African.
Also, those aspirants who go abroad in search of new affluence cannot be termed part of a Diaspora, because they are free to go back. Skilled workers and professionals, including medical doctors, engineers, nurses and investors, are under no compulsion to leave their country. Most newcomers bid farewell to their lands of birth because of their loyalty to the god of gold. Suffering from the mania of petrodollars, they search for an El Dorado of prosperity for themselves and their children in Europe and North America. They come and go whenever they want and eventually settle in Canada, enjoying the best of both worlds.
Such immigrants are like neo colonizers because due to their superior skills they are able to make money in much better living conditions and send it back home like colonizers. Some of them are overseas Indians who are given different names. One of them is ‘non-resident Indians’ (NRI). They carry their luggage of colour and habits that are peculiar to the nation where they were born. They buy lands in the land of their origin and visit them periodically.
Considering the barometer that has been used here, most Indo-Canadian writers are not “in tears amid alien corn,” as Ruth was in ”Ode to a Nightingale” of John Keats. Modern India is an awakening giant after a long slumber. Some Afro-Asian or Afro-Indian writers of Canada want to be associated with India that has a long tradition of welcoming everyone. Association is one thing and to be Diaspora or a diasporan another.
Most immigrant writers of Indian origin in Canada may be identifiable because of their physical features or their first or last name. They may be second or third generation Indians with mixed identities and may be grouped on the basis of consciousness or a state of mind that is a kind of awareness that their ancestors are Indian. Because of this historical heritage, a new map needs to be drawn for them with different colours. They may be a part of transnational migration in general but to confine them to the pigeon hole of Diaspora would be confusing. The loyalties of these newcomers are divided among Canada and the country of their birth that possibly is in Africa or a Caribbean Island.
Diaspora is a concept with its own history. Its studies were established in the late twentieth century. Indo-Canadians bear more dissimilarities with the word Diaspora than similarities. Their migration is voluntary and more of an entrepreneurial nature. Taking hints from the discourses of other dispersions, the government of India began to adopt this term for Indians abroad for nearly every category, for political ends. They include anyone who has even a remote blood tie with India to grab the dollars of the overseas settlers to save the ship of Indian bankruptcy. Most Indo-Canadians are aspirants of new affluence. A mythical interpretation of Indo-Canadian diaspora is a great injustice to the original Diasporans.
Dr.Stephen Gill is Anstead Poet Laureate