Mariam Pirbhai, Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. University of Toronto Press, 2009. 262 pp., ISBN 978-0-8020-9964-8.
By Ameena Gafoor
The arts form a critical part of our cultural consciousness and can make vital inputs into our social and psychological development. Imaginative prose writing – the novel, poetry, drama – collectively give shape and meaning to experience and form a reservoir of the beliefs, values and customs of a people. All too often, the most perceptive insights on the human condition are to be gained from works of fiction, poetry, drama, the visual arts, perhaps more so than from other disciplines, including laborious reports on social conditions by institutions such as the World Bank.
The body of fictional narratives by and about Caribbean Indians has been appreciably extensive and engrossing even if critical studies on them are lagging behind. There is an even larger blank with respect to critical studies that might illuminate the broader experience of the Indian Diaspora scattered across the globe, in such places as Mauritius, East and South Africa, Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore.
Miriam Pirbhai’s magisterial work, Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific is an attempt to address this deficit. Basically, its aim is to reinterpret (East) Indian experience by the light of imaginative prose writings that differentiate such experience according to place, politics, religion, race and ethnicity, caste, and gender in the far flung places of which we know very little.
The first thing to do is, perhaps, to let the author explain her choice of the term “South Asian Diaspora” when, in the West, we have been using the term “Indian Diaspora” to refer to all peoples who came from the Indian sub-continent, whether indentured or as free passengers: “The ethnicity of South Asian migrants has historically been classified by British colonial administrators as “Indian” in most locations of the Diaspora. This is also a culturally expedient label of self-identification to refer to an otherwise diverse collective.”
Pirbhai rejects this label and further explains: “Though the present-day countries of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and the Maldives comprise the Indian sub-continent, India, as the largest of these nations, holds greater political and cultural currency on the international stage. Divorced from its geographic designation, therefore, the use of the term “Indian” is all too often identified with the national entity, thereby imposing a monolithic ethnic and cultural identity on peoples who, prior to 1947 (the year of independence and the partitioning of the sub-continent) thought of themselves in regional, ethnic and religious terms, i.e., as Punjabis, Tamils, and Biharis, or as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs, to name only a few examples.
This would certainly have been the case for our early migrants who left their ancestral homeland one hundred years prior to Indian independence. For Goans, occupied by the Portuguese centuries before British colonization of the surrounding region began, and decades after it ended, cultural and political distinctness is a necessary condition that renders the term “Indian” meaningless in anything other than a geographic or statist sense.”
Most scholars to date nevertheless continue to refer to this Diaspora as “Indian” but Pirbhai has “opted to use the term “South Asian” rather than “Indian” so as to capture the historical and geopolitical breadth and complexity of a region which has undergone multiple reconfigurations, not only since European colonization but over a period of five thousand years. The term “South Asian” offers a more accurate reflection of the vast geographic area of the Indian subcontinent, and highlights the positioning of these peoples within the greater Asian continent . . . “
The opening pages of the work set the stage for Pirbhai’s investigation: “The movement and migration of South Asian peoples predates European colonial history and can be traced back to several millennia of intellectual exchange, inter-cultural contact, and vigorous trade that is most tellingly manifested in the imprint of Hindu, Buddhist, and, later, Islamic civilizations across the Asian continent. However, the largest dispersal of South Asian peoples within a finite historical period occurred under the auspices of the British colonial administration in a post-emancipation economy.
There was a burgeoning demand for manual labour on sugar, rubber, tea, and coffee plantations in the island colonies; for the construction and policing of such projects as the East Africa Railway; and for administrators, servicemen/ women, merchants and traders to the far posts of the Empire. This not only put into effect an unprecedented impetus for individual and en masse migration, but also gave rise to a new Diaspora of cross-continental range and global reach. No continent was left untouched by South Asian migration which spanned the greater part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and brought with it the panoply of languages, knowledge systems, religious beliefs, social mores, and cultural traditions of the diverse peoples of the Indian subcontinent.”
Whereas “the principal recipients of South Asian immigrants in unprecedented numbers were East and South Africa, the Caribbean region, South East Asia, Mauritius, and Fiji, the Indian sub-continent [itself] was also indelibly altered by the push and pull of migration at the time, the most significant example being Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) which received a staggering one million and a half immigrants of largely Tamil origins” for plantation labour but this critical work is devoted only to overseas communities of transplanted Indians.
While still a settler colony, Canada also saw an influx of mainly Punjabi immigrants around the turn of the twentieth century when Punjabi-Sikhs formed the first major South Asian community in Canada, settling in British Columbia where they worked mainly as agricultural labourers. However, this population remained negligible until the mid-twentieth century. South Asians were denied entry into Canada by 1908 and immigration remained strictly controlled until the 1976 Immigration Act.
In the United States of America, Asians were similarly treated: as early as the 1820s a group of Punjabi-Sikhs migrated to the south-western United States, where many of these migrant labourers eventually established prosperous farming communities. However, Asian migration was prohibited or severely curtailed up to the post Second World War era. Anti-miscegenation and anti-immigration laws culminated in the implementation of the Oriental Exclusion Act in 1924 that banned immigration from Asian countries.
The movement of people from India to Europe is as old as the British Raj itself (British presence in the Indian sub-continent lasted for over 400 years) and South Asians have been in Britain for almost 300 years as domestic servants and as students, chiefly in medicine and law. However, the period between the 1960s and the 1980s witnessed a substantial increase in South Asians into Europe and North America due to a shortage of industrial, skilled and professional labour resulting in the subsequent lifting of the immigration ban. In addition, the Middle East oil boom, during this period, opened a demand for South Asian labour in Gulf Arab states and this has since created another important axis of the South Asian Diaspora.
For all its carefully notated history of South Asian migration globally, the burden of the work is to illuminate South Asian experience through the novels that sprung out of those places where the bulk of Indian immigration had occurred: the Caribbean region during the post-Emancipation period, East and South Africa, the islands of Mauritius and Fiji, Malaysia and Singapore, between the 1830s and the 1920s.
It is worth mentioning that not all South Asians immigrants were indentured or contracted for plantation labour (girmitiyas). Some travelled as “free passengers”, for example, wholesalers and traders from the northwestern state of Gujarat populated the commercial centres of East and South Africa as well as South-East Asia, continuing a centuries-old tradition of mercantilism.
Mauritius was the first colony to receive contracted workers from the Indian sub-continent and it is interesting to note that the first group of indentured labourers to arrive there joined an older group of South Asian slaves who had served the French plantocracy as early as the 1700s.
The decision to divide the study into four parts allows the author to analyse and discuss pertinent works from each geopolitical area and permits the reader, too, to appreciate the “multiple voices” of Indenture History and the unique experiences of each, many of them are works that have been unavailable to us in the West and to which we have paid little attention.
Among the compelling narratives selected for analysis in Pirbhai’s study are: from Mauritius: Deepchand Beeharry’s That Others Might Live (1976); from Uganda and South Africa: Peter Nazareth’s In a Brown Mantle (1972) and Farida Karodia’s Daughters of the Twilight (1986); from Guyana: Rooplall Monar’s Janjhat (1989) and Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow is Another Day (1994); from Trinidad: Lakshmi Persaud’s Butterfly in the Wind (1990) and Sharlow Mohammed’s The Elect (1992); from Malaysia and Singapore: K.S. Maniam’s The Return (1981) and Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun (1991); from Fiji: Satendra Nandan’s The Wounded Sea (1991).
Together, these narratives offer glimpses of the stages of the migration and resettlement of the Indian while revealing the diversity and complexity of Indian experience. Deepchand Beeharry’s That Others Might Live, set in the post-mutiny period (1857), is a fictionalized historical account of the plight of labourers who chose to flee through fear of persecution against those suspected of involvement in the resistance incident. This was only one of the catalysts for migration in the atmosphere of political repression, social unrest, and economic exploitation under the British Raj.
Other “push” factors were the rigid hierarchies and occupational structures of the caste system that suppressed lower caste Hindus who formed the bulk of those recruited. Muslims made up only 14 percent of indentured labourers though they generally made up the larger body of “free passengers” who made the voyage to Africa, South East Asia, and Fiji as merchants and traders. However, the anguish of uprooting one’s self from the native land is captured by a character in Sharlow Mohammed’s The Promise (1995): “Leave India?” Rati whispered again. India was her home, the only world. It was not possible to think of leaving the holy land. Here it was all the gods lived: in the fields and in the air, and in the rivers” (p. 32).
Indenture narrative is enriched by such voices from the most repressive climate of anti-apartheid activism and reprisal, the most striking examples of which are Farida Karodia’s Daughters of the Twilight (1986) and Achmat Dangor’s Waiting for Leila (1978). The apartheid years also saw the publication of shorter works, the most renowned of which is Ahmed Essop’s short story collection Haji Musa and the Hindu Fire Walker (1988), one slice of a literary career that began in 1969.
We are somewhat more familiar with the South Asian Caribbean writers (if at all we in the Caribbean will adopt this term) such as Lakshmi Persaud, Narmala Sewcharan, Rooplall Monar and Sharlow Mohamed but the issues that Pirbhai’s work raises are greater than one can grasp at first hand, for example, the fact that exile has been a recurring motif in the lives of South Asians abroad, whether in Uganda or South Africa, or Guyana or Trinidad is dealt with, and other socio-political movements that have radically disrupted the lives and livelihoods of Indians in almost every (chosen and unchosen) place where they have resettled.
For this reason, this article can only be an introduction to a work of such depth. Hopefully, in a future article(s) we will bring you analyses of some narratives with which we empathise if only because they expand our consciousness of the nature of survival and existence of Indians globally, their quest for identity and a sense of belonging and community while increasing our own self-awareness and self-knowledge greatly.
The narratives of the South Asian Diaspora continue to be written and the author sets up some expectations, for example, of a younger generation of writers in Kuala Lumpur who must articulate the plight of the Indo-Malays; of writers in Fiji who are still to respond to the 2006 coup, or even the first 1987 coup against a newly elected multiracial government; or, for that matter, of writers in Uganda who must articulate the struggle against globalizing forces and the expelled Indians under Idi Amin. The expectations are no different in the Caribbean where the descendants of South Asians (the majority of whom are in Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago) labour under one form or another of betrayal, victimhood and hopelessness.
Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific remains a ground-breaking piece of scholarship that brings to the fore the Diasporic perspective and adds immeasurably to the historiography on the South Asian Diaspora globally.
The editor of The Arts Forum’s column, Ameena Gafoor, can be reached on E-mail: [email protected] or by telephone: (592) 227 6825.
THE ARTS JOURNAL is available at all leading bookstores in Georgetown or from the Editor or from Bernadette Persaud (592) 220 3337. The Journal’s Website: www.theartsjournal.org.gy
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