Litro #156: India: Letter from Editor: The Indian Diaspora
No other country has anything like it—an annual jamboree of its diaspora, conducted with great fanfare by its government. India has been doing it, with great success, for thirteen years now, timed to recall the return to India of the most famous Indian expatriate of them all, Mahatma Gandhi, who alighted from his South African ship in Bombay on 9 January 1915. Each January, a selected Indian city overflows with expatriate Indians celebrating their connection to their motherland at a grand Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (Expatriate Indians’ Day).
India is the only country that has an official acronym for its expatriates—NRIs, or Non-Resident Indians. In my book India: From Midnight to the Millennium, I suggested, only half-jokingly, that the question is whether NRI should stand for ‘Not Really Indian’ or ‘Never Relinquished India.’ Of course, the nearly 25 million people of Indian descent who live abroad fall into both categories. But the nearly 2000 delegates who flock to India from over sixty countries for each Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (or PBD, as our bureaucracy has inevitably abbreviated it) are firmly in the latter camp. They come to India to affirm their claim to it.
The ease of communications and travel today enables expatriates to be engaged with India in a way that was simply not available to the plantation worker in Mauritius or Guyana a century ago. To tap into this sense of allegiance and loyalty through an organized public gathering was an inspired idea, which India continues to build upon each year.
Sometimes the real value of a conference, however, lies in the conferring. Indians have learned to appreciate how much it means to allow NRIs from all over the world the chance to share their experiences, celebrate their commonalities, exchange ideas, and swap business cards. Because when India allows its pravasis to feel at home, India itself is strengthened. I can think of one more meaning of NRI: the National Reserve of India.
Emigration – both of transported colonial-era prisoners and indentured labour, as well as some voluntary fortune-hunters – created an Indian diaspora in South-east Asia, Africa and the West Indies. The experience of passage was not pleasant. To be an indentured Indian labourer transported to the Caribbean on British ships was to enter a life-and-death lottery in which your chances of survival were significantly worse than to be a shackled African slave. The cultural result of this tragic experience, though, was the creation of a common sorrow-filled bond between slavery-induced and indentured labour. The ‘Brotherhood of the Boat’ became the subject of poetry, shared folklore and above all music that persists to this day. Literature has at last followed.
This expatriate “reserve” has also added profoundly to the rich storehouse of Indian literature, as Indians in the diaspora have written in various ways of their connections to their homeland and their new lands. The diaspora in the US and the UK have already become well-enough known, ever since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981, when a new and ancient land imposed itself on the world’s literary consciousness — a land whose language and concerns have stretched the boundaries of the possible in English literature. A generation of post-colonial Indian writers has brought a larger world — a teeming, myth-infused, gaudy, exuberant, many-hued and restless world — past the immigration inspectors of English literature.
But those writing in and of the global South have received relatively short shrift in our focus on diasporic Indian literature. It is time this was redressed, and that is why this issue of Litro focuses particularly on India and the global south. In short essays, stories and poems, Indian writers dislocated from their national and cultural moorings explore aspects of the expatriate experience.
They are, I suppose, NRIs with a difference – Newly Readable Indians.