Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The coming of age of the Indian diaspora

The story of the Indian diaspora is like the circular cinematic narratives of Manmohan Desai, the master of the lost and found formula.

Though Indians have been venturing out to the neighbouring Asian countries for centuries, from as early as the 1st century AD, the story of the Indian diaspora primarily begins with the indentured labour system--a system that the would be British premier Gladstone would think of to supplant the needs of planters after black slavery was abolished in the early 19th century.

The first ship that set sail from the harbour of Calcutta in 1830s for the Bahamas, with a human cargo of 400 indentured labourers, could be that blur in history, that point, where the story of this great evil system started. Over the period, when the first batch of indentured Indians arrived in Mauritius in 1830s, to 1917, when the indentured system was brought to a halt, nearly 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage. About 240,000 Indians had been sent to British Guiana (now Guyana), 36,000 to Jamaica, and nearly 144,000 to Trinidad, to mention only some of the Caribbean nations.

That was the beginning of the story of the "desperate diaspora"--close to a million Indians driven by poverty and desperation, and hoodwinked by a power-drunk colonial power, found themselves sailing through the Kala Paani to unknown places to work, sleep, eat and work again for years, without any hope of returning to the motherland.

This diaspora was forgotten, until writers like V S Naipaul started chronicling their stories. Writers like Naipaul not only sought to write about the past, they also sought to renew their bonds with the motherland that had forsaken them, and the initial results were searing narratives like An Area of Darkness-- in a way Naipaul was perhaps giving vent to the sourpuss of memories and abuse that the forgotten diaspora had suffered in far flung island nations, oblivious to the Indians in a free India, and his dark readings of Indian society of that time, a mirror image of his sour palate of memories.

Then came the information technology revolution and that started a new exodus of technically educated Indians to the great capitals of capitalism, thus forming the beginnngs of the "dollar diaspora."

"Crossing the kala pani was considered a sin in the past," says Prof Brij Lal of Australian National University. "But now doing so became a badge of honour."

This dollar diaspora changed the image of the Indians all over the world, and when the internet bubble burst, many retrurned to the motherland to start businesses, to join those who had returned even earlier than them, people like then founders of Infosys. Indians became one of the forces to flatten the world, so to speak, in Friedmanian terms. With the globalization of national economies, the chutnifaction of cultures and Bollywood's increasing cultural appeal and reach, the new and old diaspora began to "converge and diverge" at certain points, in all, buoyant and rising with a rising India.

The circular narrative was coming to a close now, the circle was getting complete. And with the Parvasi Bhartiya Divas, held every year on the 9th of January to mark the return of the most famous NRI Mahatma Gandhi to India, the lost and found narrative of the Indian diaspora drew to a close. You might as well see "The End" written over the screen, with Amar, Akbar, and Anthony dancing and singing into a fading screen paradise, into a chiaroscuro of ever-after glory and happiness, joyous after reuniting with the primordial family.

To mark the return of the native, the rise of the consciousness of the Indian diaspora, the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Australian National University have come out with the world's first Encyclopaedia of the Indian Diaspora.

The idea germinated in 2001 in a seminar in Singapore and was nurtured by Singapore's President S R Nathan and others. Professor Brij V Lal of ANU was appointed the General Editor. Two years of hard work by 60 international scholars, mostly parvasis, yielded fruit on Monday 9 October, when President Nathan launched the tome in Singapore.

A nice Deepawali gift for the Indians, and the book has come not a day late. Published by Editions Didier Millet, the encyclopaedia follows the model of the encyclopaedia of the Chinese diaspora, whch they did sometime ago.

As the Indian diaspora is increasing in its significance, its reach and power is being acknowledged by the world. The phenomenon of the Indian diaspora is not new, but its history and achievement has come into sharp relief with the rise of Indian as an economic giant. The world is interested to know about this community now--close to 15 million Indians (some even put it at 20 million) are living in almost all countries of the world.

The 400 page encyclopedia has individual artices on 40 countries and its Indian communities. It has many startling facts, says Professor Brij Lal, such as, did you know that an Indian sparked off the gold rush in New Zealand but never got credit for it? and that there is hardly any country in the world that does not have an Indian community? But, he says, more than that it is about the lived experiences of Indians in these countries and their bitter sweet stories of successes and hardships that matter more than mere factoids.

With a lavish grant of Citibank and six other sponsors, the book has cost some S$1.6 million to publish.

Professor Brij Lal says, "It will give them (the diapsora)a sense that they're part of a larger mosaic. Maybe you are part of the Indian community in Mauritius but you are part of the larger community that came from a similar experience of indentured migration.

"So I think, in terms of giving these people a sense of identity, a sense of history, a sense of evolution, this book will play an important role in that regard."

Top Indian businessmen, like steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and Amtel's Dr Sudhir Gupta are also featured in the encyclopedia.

Professor Peter Reeves, Head, South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore, says, "We wanted a diasporic voice in the encyclopedia and we've got that - people writing about their own communities in the Caribbean, in South Africa, in Fiji, Mauritius and so Southeast Asia."

16,000 copies of the book have been printed so far. It will be available at bookstores islandwide at S$85 each.

With the Singapore launch done, the publishers are now gearing up for the book's worldwide launch in Delhi, New York, Sydney and Melbourne by the end of the year.

PS: Deepika just gave me the great news. Kiran Desai has won this year's Booker Prize, one more reason to celebrate the diaspora.


Anonymous said...

Sounds excellent, I definitely want to read this one. Good thing Christmas is not so far away, will have to put this title on my wishlist! :)

Thanks for the headsup, Zafar.

Zafar Anjum said...

You are welcome LR. This is definitely a landmark publication.

Id it is said...

An interesting and informative post.
India and Indians have 'arrived' on the global scene in more ways than one. Kudos to this peace-loving people that bore the 'mahatma', and are carrying his message even today.

Anonymous said...

Dear Zafar Anjum, Delighted to read the blog on the diaspora encycopaedia - many people will be getting this for Christmas as LR says.

meanwhile, I have a request- an urgent one: I dit a magazine called Index on Censorship. We are planning an issue to concide with the 1807 abolition of the slave trade by the UK gov. However, what few people now and care about is this:as the slaves were emancipate in 1833, the first indentured labourers set out - I would prefer to use the word were 'sent' often forcibly and with a level of deception to fill the gaps on the plantations that were left by the slaves.
I believe new reasearch on the subject, particularly by Indians, shows this to be the case: indentured labourers fro India wee frequently little more than lslaves, not being free to return etc etc...
Can you help me with finding a book that has been written on the subject, or someone who would write for me. You can look the mag up on the web if you want to.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks for your comments Judith. What you are suggesting, the indentured labourers from India replacing black slaves after the abolition of slavery, is definitely worth exploration. Can you send me your email where I can forward you the contacts of potential scholars who can write on this theme.

lin said...