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Manjit Inder Singh in conversation with Ajay K Chaubey

Ajay K Chaubey, National Institute of Technology, Uttarakhand, India


Professor Manjit Inder Singh (MIS) has been Professor and the Head, Department of English, Punjabi University, Patiala. His teaching and research career spans well over forty years, in which he has specialized in numerous literary, critical and theoretical fields, among them, Modern literature and theory, Postcolonial writing and Literary Studies, Literary Theory, Indian Writing in English, Translation Studies, Diasporic literature and interdisciplinary approaches to Diasporic Studies, Punjabi literature, etc. Professor Singh has travelled and published widely, with over eight published critical volumes on above-mentioned areas and dozens of research papers in prestigious journals and anthologies and the most popular of them are: V S Naipaul (Rawat, 1998) and Contemporary Diasporic Literature (Pencraft International, 2010). After teaching of literature for such a long span, he has moved to Diaspora Studies; he is presently Coordinator, UGC Centre for Diaspora Studies, Punjabi University, Patiala (Punjab).

Professor Singh spoke to Ajay K Chaubey (AKC) via e-mail on multiple theoretical contours of diaspora not only in the backdrop of literary studies but also in the critical framework of socio-anthropological perspectives.

AKC: Since Man’s arrival on earth is a consequence of his dispersal from heaven, How far do you agree that man bears the seeds of Diaspora since its genesis?

MIS: Well, the world and civilization have been driven by this biblical myth; man’s estrangement from God and his ‘fall’ can be called the starting point of his search for place and identity, through millions of years, though I don’t think this exodus of man can be defined in diasporic terms, for diaspora is concerned with scattering or dispersal of not one, but whole communities and groups.

AKC: Is migration of people within their own country regarded as a category of Diaspora? If “yes”. How far? And if “No”. Why not?

MIS: Diaspora as a term and expression has, as is well known, acquired all sorts of meanings and connotations in or outside a nation. What is now understood as internal diaspora results from migration/movement from one place/location/state to another. What is more, this is often voluntary or made out of choice, looking for better employment and material gains. In a country like India (as in others too) this kind of mobility has been related to the overall, collective definitions of what a diasporic experience implies. Biharis, UPites, Oriya people etc. are as alien to say, Punjabi language and ways of life as diasporics abroad. Therefore, it can be conceded that this is an offshoot of the larger international immigrant experience, wherein one has to undergo different and sometimes alien experiences compared with his ‘native’ identity.

AKC: The pre-colonial diaspora was labour diaspora, what Robin Cohen classifies in his magnum opus, Global Diasporas (1997). The ancestors of Naipaul were also sent across black sea in the same pursuit. In what context do you see the migrants and their modus operandi in post-colonial Diaspora? How far the modus operandi of postcolonial Diaspora differs from the pre-colonial Diaspora?

MIS: Labour diaspora, as is commonly understood, was a form of forced migration from distant hemispheres to colonized spaces. I do not agree it can be addressed as ‘pre-colonial’ for this transplantation of poor, uneducated labourers (as with Naipaul’s ancestors) was certainly manipulated by Europeans, specifically, English colonizers-to make use of natural resources in spaces like Caribbean. Secondly, this form of diasporic experience was marked by exploitative strategies and was meant to create an alternate force after the abolition of slavery. Of course, the post-colonial Diasporas are qualitatively and characteristically different from the older forms. The post-colonial ensembles of populations, of course, have very complex connotations—the spread of empires, military expansion, creation of sea-routes, choices given to the colonized to settle in the West after freedom of ex-colonies, etc. However, voluntary migration of, say, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Keralites, Tamils, Bengalis, Muslims are also part of post-colonial exodus across the world. The basic distinction remains—that post-colonial Diasporas since a century or so are directly related to material choices and professional opportunities abroad. However, the memories of oppression, slavery, victimization, among others—of Jews, Blacks, Palestinians, Armenians, etc.—remain – even on the present so-called ‘celebratory’ post-colonial diasporas, a part of attack by critics like Aijaz Ahmad and Homi K Bhabha.

AKC: What are the factors behind dynamics of Diaspora that have resulted in a progressive journey from labour and victim Diaspora to academic, economic, or technocratic Diaspora?

MIS: If we look closely at the Post-War situation, certain significant and transformative shifts come to the fore; for instance, the post-empire economic debacle in European countries, lack of labour and professional hands, and the pouring need of economic / industrial markets and labour. Secondly, in terms of the transition from capitalism to globalization, the world has obviously moved much ahead from what was known as Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. As I said above, labour and victim diaspora still exist as ‘dark’ spots in the otherwise markedly opulent diasporic communities and groups. Of course, the shift in academic and technical sense has a lot to do with multinational/transnational corporations spreading their tentacles everywhere, the escalation of service industries, stock exchanges, cartel movement, etc. Within these, fast growing changes since two or three decades what has come to be identified with contemporary Diasporas is the presence of techno-savvy new generation of skilled and educated men and women. Indeed, Diasporas today are driven by professional success and hectic competitive opportunities.

AKC: What type of paradigm shift has been caused by political treaties, compromises, multiple socio-economic deals and Military agreements in diasporic writing?

MIS: Diaspora writings do not necessarily deal with political writings, socio-economic factors. I mean literary texts do not overtly deal with these issues; however, their effects are indirectly reflected in some of them. For this, one has to go to the glut of inter or cross-disciplinary research on diasporas which has come out in recent years, and which has underlined the impact of political, economic and sociological shifts/effects on diasporic lives.

AKC: Today, settling abroad is a status symbol. Should it be promoted or discouraged, keeping in the view of brain-drain/ economic contribution to our nation?

MIS: Well, it is not always easy to answer this question squarely. Tell me, when was it not a status symbol? The only difference is that choices, values opportunities or the reasons for settling abroad were different. Indian writers for instance—Raja Rao, Kamala Markandya, Arun Joshi and several others—went abroad at a time prior to Cold War period. So did many artists and businesspersons. Today, we have reached a point in history where settling abroad is hardly considered a privilege—it’s so common, and easy that a person does or aspires to do. There is virtually no control over this sort of phenomena any longer. Brain drain was once a slogan to promote nationalism. Nevertheless, currently we have to think whether or own country provides similar opportunities to aspiring educated people? If you see closely, there is difference ‘within’ too—settling in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, etc. has become comparative by necessary smaller places offer discouraging facilities financially.

AKC: During my short span in the UK, I found that Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals were residing in disguise of Indians. Even, I found many Indian restaurants owned by them. What is the position of Indian Diaspora as compared to Pakistani and Bangladeshi Diaspora in the West after 9/11 insurgencies?

MIS: I think one has to think and understand the degrees and dimensions of the way an event like 9/11 has affected diasporic groups and ethnic communities. First of all, 9/11incident-big and with huge consequences, considering that, it happened in the US and not in any other country—had little to do with Asian immigrants there, for its nucleus was Al-Qaida and the Middle East. However, as we all know, many people from India—Sikhs, Muslims, Kashmiris, had to bear the brunt of ‘mistaken identities’ (Nayantara Sahgal’s fictional title) which keep on recurring. This way, diasporas in the West are directly impacted by wars, violence sectarianism, hate crimes etc.; for instance (I have seen myself in the US), Indian and Pakistani people in the West (especially Pakistani) carry the suspicion and inimical attitude under the shadow of the Kashmir problem and wrongly wish to maintain distance from those whom they think are ‘enemies’ of that country. It is not that Bangladeshis or Pakistanis are not doing well materially or professionally; however, keeping disguise and camouflaging themselves may be due to separate reasons.

AKC: Younger authors are also writing a lot about India like Rushdie and Naipaul but unlike them, they are slightly positive about India. How are they different from the other younger diasporic writers in the perspectives of India?

MIS: This, I think, is a very significant and relevant issue in writing. Post-colonial literary discourse (if we look back to literature more than 50 years) has always contained expressions and memories of home, place, cultural identity, nationalism and of course, colonial-imperial history. That’s what has made writers like Naipaul and Rushdie, both truthful, significant and remarkably, ones who have ‘written back’ or have lamented the dismal lack of tradition in societies like the Caribbean, yet have been also, highly controversial. Their stance towards India has indeed undergone a shift in the last couple of decades, and their worldview is marked by greater sensitivity and tolerance, if also as in Rushdie’s case, is sometimes accompanied by intellectual belligerence at the inadequacies in politics and morality. The younger set of diaspora writers (diasporics in particular) began writing at a time when looking at one’s native place/nation allowed greater idiosyncratic response and open critiquing. Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Shauna Singh Baldwin—to name a few—have not been on the ‘right’ side as far as India is concerned. Their works show an obvious critical response generated by differences and directions, inequalities and political masquerade that they associate with Indian social and cultural structures, whether it is Partition, colonial-Raj period, post-colonialism, subaltern identities or speaking for minorities and the voiceless.

AKC: The prevalent conditions of “New Diaspora” are very much different than that of “Old Diaspora”. What difference do you find in both the Diasporas?

MIS: What one tends to define as ‘new diaspora’ entails an awareness of what exigencies, mobilities or ‘routes’, this form of diasporic experience contains. For one, the post-80s mobilities across the developing and developed world reveal radically altered conditions for movement of people for any number of reasons. As I said earlier, the ‘climate’ that new diasporic ensembles has as its background, the shift from earlier factors that took communities and groups for leaving one’s home and place; now in the more open, cosmopolitan/transnational configurations marked by such terms as ‘post-industrial society’ and late capitalist environment, more and more people strive for place in the advanced technical sector which beckon younger generations to participate in the West-oriented business and highly competitive professional occupations. As compared with old/labour agricultural based diaspora presided over by colonial connections or shaped by familial links, the new diasporas are relatively free of this earlier forms of journey-pattern, in that now individual, subjective choices irrespective of gender or class are attracted to lucrative opportunities abroad.

AKC: There are many authors like Arundhati Roy, Aravind Adiga, Jeet Thayil who live in India but they have pen-pictured the “exotic tales” of dark side of India. What is your assessment of this type of writing? (a) Politics for prize-winning (b) desire to seize popularity by being negative about the nation or (c) because of being more realists?

MIS: I think a class of writers and intellectuals has emerged—not only in India alone but elsewhere too—who have acted as ‘critical insiders’ and have an ideologically contestatory sensibility. If one talks about Roy and Adiga, one can immediately gauge their trenchant critiques of India’s underclass and their de-privileged situation, as against the powerful political lobbies or capitalist forces out to crush and violate freedom and identity. Look at Mistry, writing from Canada as a Parsi, but later in a novel like A Fine Balance, launching a scathing attack on Indira’s and Sanjay Gandhi’s, interrogating dark periods such the Emergency. Personally, I feel Roy’s non-fictional works contribute to political insights into India’s glaring drawbacks when it comes to getting aware of the all-encompassing US policies and programmes to control the world order, in whatever way possible. I do not think this kind of writing is targeted at Bookers or overseas audiences alone; the internal schism or flux in a country like India generates a natural response. But, of course, we must understand these are also works of ‘art’ and not a mere documents

AKC: There are many South Asian authors who prefer to settle down in the “other” world rather than in the First world viz. Uma Parameswaran, Vassanji, Mistry, Ondaatje and Shyam Selvadurai in Canada; Suneeta Peres da Costa, Yasmine Gooneratne and Chandani Lokugé, Samantha Sirimanne Hyde in Australia; Amulya Malladi and Tabish Khair in Denmark; Sujata Bhat in Germany; Manjushree Thapa and Taslima Nasrin in India and Shehan Karunatilaka in Singapore. Do you think that that the First Worlds-the UK, the US and France and etc. are not safer in the backdrop of 9/11 attacks in the US, 7/7 in the UK and, of late, Charlie Hebdo attacks in France? Please comment.

MIS: No, I do not think it is right to attribute writers settling down in other western and non-western countries, purely due to ethnic tensions, political violence, East-West conflicts, or suicide attacks of the kind of 9/11 or 7/7. In the trend of writers settling down or choosing nations and spaces other than their own, there are several historical, cultural and economic reasons as well. Writers like Vassanji, for instance, indirectly belonging to India and having been born in Kenya, have taken a long route via US to finally settle in Canada. Mistry’s case is another one; having gone to Canada as a voluntary decision, he took up many jobs before deciding to be a writer. Like other people, writers and intellectuals also have options to move and find a place conducive not only for their families and economy but also for work. However, as the specific case may be, they do become part of immigrant literary productions. I guess it makes them better equipped (at least sometimes) to look at realities, human relations and one’s sense of belonging or un-belonging more sharply and with greater sensitivity.

AKC: What role does Bollywood construct in gaining prevalence in abroad and re-uniting the Indian diaspora at the global forum? Do you think that Indian Cinema is more accepted in the West than any other film industry of neighbouring countries of India?

MIS: Cinema, of late, has become another cultural construct of diaspora, for it relates experiences of communities abroad and screens those for both people there and back home. Bollywood is a huge commercial phenomenon, but as we know, this kind of cinematic productions connecting India with the West started around 1960s with several musical entertainers with popular star casts. However, Indian cinema has a more meaningful aspect too—films by Merchant Ivory, the famous one on Gandhi, literary adaptations, etc. have contributed quite distinctly to promote patterns of Asian experiences abroad, and in turn, presenting exotic as well as magical settings in Europe, America, Australia, Middle East and so forth. In this respect, what is noticeable is another facet; vernacular cinema such as Punjabi going cosmopolitan and being produced in Hindi, purely due to the commercial prospects abroad, considering the huge Punjabi/Sikh presence as diaspora across the world. I think Bollywood cinema is selectively popular abroad but films like Monsoon Wedding, Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice, Bhaji on the Beach and others produced in the West, have a better viewership and acceptance due to obvious reasons—their medium being English.

AKC: When you are on tour to abroad or settled there for a long time, what do you think of your homeland? Do you realize the contours of Rushdie proliferated by him in his tour de force, Imaginary Homelands (1991)?

MIS: This is a difficult question to answer because everyone’s experience of going and settling abroad is subjective and is conditioned by what one does there and how he or she lives. My own view is that diasporic life is not always full of attractions and total satisfactions. It is erroneous to think that there are some grand possibilities waiting for everyone on going there; grim struggle, hunting for profession, economic confusion, huge debts on housing and vehicles, children’s education, racial insecurity are part of it. You can be fired from your job as early as you get it. Marital problems, divorces and forlorn and abandoned wives is another disturbing development that has escalated with growing promiscuity and gender insecurity. Writers of course are very special people. When Rushdie wrote Imaginary Homelands, he reflected on several of his personal experiences, very relevant at that time but he did predict the intellectual thought process of many others in its wake. I think if you go over his latest, Joseph Anton, a lot more is revealed about the kind of troubles, death threats and disillusioning personal relations he had to confront. However, all these have, as we know, brilliantly became part of his work, recalled over a long period of time.

AKC: To what extent do you agree that present economic and political fluidity has converted the “nowhere presence” of Diaspora into “omnipresence”?

MIS: Yes, diaspora has now acquired the contours of life and existential pattern likely to be retained and witnessed in this century. The point is that with the erosion of Nationalist feelings or pride in belonging to a native landscape, fluidity of one’s identity has become more and more prominent. However, economic or political uncertainties or their accompaniments in the abstract sense, are not always the factors geared to diasporic shifts and mobilities. For instance, Gujaratis and Punjabis are driven by an irresponsible desire to settle abroad, whatever the consequences, dangers or challenges. This is due to what they have witnessed as ‘success stories’ of earlier couple of generations, though things are far more complex now. Travelling, settling down and then returning temporarily have become compulsive constituents of diasporic ‘omnipresence’ not only abroad but at home as well. Such is the tremendous flow of populations across the world that they sustain the Air industry like never before. If you are at any international airport in India, the exodus as well as return is a regular phenomenon. In Punjab’s Doaba area in particular, every third house has a member living abroad; and this is nearly true of villages as well, not to speak of cities.

AKC: ‘Useless fool is now transcended into powerful tool.’ How far this statement is justified in relation to labour/victim diaspora and Brain Drain?

MIS: This is another facet of emergent diaspora—the industry-oriented workers, mechanics, masons, labourers, required more in the gulf countries and in the Middle East. A few months back, we were intrigued by the long absence of our gardener without any leave, only to discover that he had quietly slipped away to Dubai. But I think it’s right to connect this form of mobility with the other Indian/south Asian diaspora: who cultivated sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean? Who laid down railway tracks in the wilds of Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya in late 19th century?; who went as agricultural workers to the huge vacant vast lands in USA?; who landed in New York via Britain to work on ships and ancillary industries there around the First World War? But one has to distinguish closely between labour/victim diaspora. Victimization has many other connotations: Refugeehood, exile, criminal extradition, acts of violence, illegal travel and wrong marriages, etc.

AKC: What role has South Asian Diaspora played in deconstructing the Orientalist view of the Occident?

MIS: One has only to read Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, or Under The Last Sky or The Question Of Palestine—all Said’s famous works—to know the damaging and negative construct of the orient alternatively thrust by the West. But all that seems to be archival, if we look at the present scene. Among others, South Asian diaspora, at least in the USA, is highly regarded for their entrepreneurial skills, professional competence, hard work and competitiveness. I have seen Bengalis, Keralites, Tamils, Marathis, and of course, Gujaratis and Punjabis contributing to national set-ups, economies and social fabric as well as culture wherever they are. But at least in America, as I have seen, they are still behind the Japanese, Koreans, Thais, and Chinese, who have an unmatched competence, and skill level. The myth of the lazy, sexually loose, barbaric Oriental is no longer tenable, but what it entails is deconstructing one’s own psychic frame of belonging to a particular past; for instance, lastly, the lingering memories of British colonialism do surface at times to remind that the ‘Goras’ had dehumanized us, made us disoriented as colonized people, a damaged past that some people still carry as an emotional burden or a scar.

AKC: Thank you, Prof. Singh! It is an enlightening discourse not only for me but also for the pan-Indian scholars and academicians.

MIS: Thank you Ajay! I look forward to receiving more responses from the readers and all the best for your forthcoming volume on South Asian Diaspora.

Ajay K Chaubey (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of Sciences & Humanities at the National Institute of Technology, Uttarakhand, India. His recently published book, V S Naipaul: An Anthology of 21st Century Criticism (Atlantic, 2015), is followed by another volume on Salman Rushdie which is under publication from the Atlantic itself. He has co-edited two volumes on the Literature of the Indian Diaspora—Transnational Passages: An Anthology of Diaspora Criticism (Vol. I) and Discursive Passages: An Anthology of Diaspora Criticism (Vol. II) which are likely to be released by the Yking Books, Jaipur. He is a Life Member of the research organizations viz. IACLALS, AESI and Sahitya Academy, New Delhi. He has guest-edited a special edition on the Indian Diaspora for the LITERARIA: An International Journal of New Literatures Across the World (ISSN: 2229-4600) published by Bahri Publications, New Delhi. He has attended, participated and presented research papers in the conferences, workshops and symposia held in India and overseas including York St. John University, York; Nottingham Trent University and University of Leicester during June 2014. Presently, he is working on South Asian diasporic literature, theatre and cinema in three volumes.