During the Kolkata launch of my new book, the knowledgeable Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee (ex-director of the National Book Trust) posed a very pertinent question. “So are we saying diaspora literature is soon going to be obsolete?” he asked, during a delightfully literary conversation at the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street last week. Outside, the city’s skyline was swollen with rainclouds and the evening was a wet, glistening shade of purple. An enthusiastic audience had gathered to hear us discuss the novel, which is set in India and the United States, and traces the journey of two women travelling between the historical past and contemporary present in search of home and identity. Nirmal-da had read the novel with great care, and was expertly relating its themes to larger themes within literary studies on one hand and my experiences of living abroad on the other.
The notion of home, whether understood as material dwelling places, geographical locations, socio-psychic identities, or other real and imagined categories of belonging, has long fascinated writers and critics. Many of us have analysed diaspora literature, its creative engagement with shifting borders and the poignant themes of difference and assimilation it engenders. Once, during a university classroom screening of The Namesake, a film based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by the same name, I noticed some of my students stealing surreptitious glances at me. Not the look of familiarity usually reserved for me, but a glance of doubt, sudden astonishment, incomprehension, even guilt. “Did you feel lost like Ashima when you first travelled to the West?” a student asked me over coffee later, compassion in her eyes. In The Namesake, Ashima, the character played to perfection by Tabu, has an arranged marriage in Kolkata and accompanies her academic husband to America, struggling to fit into her adoptive land, feeling increasingly alienated from her children who identify as modern Americans. “Not as much,” I confessed. Travel is always complicated business, but women travellers of our generation rarely have the luxury of feeling lost. One identifies with Ashima’s visceral insight into the opacity of cultures and all that is lost in translation. That said, the experiences of single, modern women are different from those like Ashima, who migrated with their families in earlier generations and experience a higher degree of discomfort with food and forms of dress, a stronger sense of anomie amidst different cultural norms.
Lahiri’s novel about the South Asian-American experience was preceded by several other authors who had also written about the diaspora, gender relations and the East-West cultural encounter. For instance, Kamala Markandaya, who made Britain her home after Independence, received critical acclaim for her novel Nectar in a Sieve (1955). Nayantara Sehgal’s Rich Like Us (1985) juxtaposed a British immigrant’s struggle to find a sense of home in India alongside an Oxford-returned Indian civil servant’s own search for home against a backdrop of the political upheaval of the Emergency. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short story collection Arranged Marriage (1995) and Meena Alexander’s Manhattan Music (1997) were later additions to South Asian diaspora literature, exploring culture clash, hyphenated identities and divided loyalties.
Though hybridity of matter and form is usually the norm in literatures of the diaspora, the diaspora by definition presupposes a homeland, an adopted land, and a difficult dialogue between the two. What makes the question of the continuing relevance of diaspora literature so interesting is that it is sustained by a clear distinction between the nivasi (resident)and the pravasi (expatriate), as well as a series of other unproductive binaries such as the creative versus imitative, English versus vernacular. But such distinctions can no longer hold to the same degree, I contend. This is not to say that diaspora literature will cease to serve as a useful analytical category within literary studies, but that literary representations and analyses will increasingly reflect more complex, contemporary realities pertaining to travel: the reality of globalisation, of evolving economics, mutating geographies, massive multi-way global flows of ideas, goods, people. As a character in my novel says, “Diasporas are a thing of the past, the ancient homeland versus the land of exile. Now the globe is shrinking so close we all need to be travellers, at home anywhere in the world.”