Hitting the Wall in Diaspora Studies


Rajesh Kumar Sharma


Cut loose from Jewish Studies, the discourse of diaspora appears to have undergone an opening up and become a global space of difference and cultural democracy in the prevailing ideological climate. Mapping the uncharted diasporic territories is considered nowadays to be not only politically correct but also academically fashionable. In this stormy age when theories shift as if by default like the wallpaper on one’s desktop, quite a few souls find intellectual asylum, if not anchorage, in diaspora studies. And why should they not? Diaspora studies offer, in addition to intellectual and other kinds of fellowship, a sense of gratification that derives from the vanity of serving national and ethnic interests. That this service may be commandeered by a certain global cultural-political economy is a matter that is discreetly overlooked though.


Hence the rediscovery –after its passage through dehistoricization and semantic aggrandizement– of the term diaspora and its reception, which compares favourably with the kind usually reserved for the news of isolation of some elusive virus: the rediscovery brings a sense of euphoria and empowerment, as if to name were to bring under control. The fog appears to lift at once, and the dark territory seems to bare itself to light.


But I am afraid there has been a good deal of concealing in this revealing, so that the liberating articulation has also come to mean, in effect, a certain amount of disciplining and exclusion of the repressive kind.


I shall give my fears the rude shape of an unsophisticated question: Which kinds of diaspora find home in the diasporic literary and cultural studies in our departments in the prevailing environment?


The question is, by default, tagged to the burden1 of English, the language that is the chief gatekeeper to the discipline of diaspora studies in India today. While I acknowledge the opulent multivalence of the word ‘burden’ operative in the present context and indicated in the footnotes below, I would nevertheless emphasize that we need to take account of the disciplinary implications of English for the diasporic literary and cultural studies in contemporary India.


In terms of visibility, our diasporic literary landscape is disproportionately dominated by those who write in English. This is so in spite of the fact that English cannot be seen as being in possession of any special properties that should make it a privileged language for articulating the experiences of homelessness and hybridity. The (post)colonial link and the international publishing circuit are two obvious players implicated in the formation of this literary landscape, having contributed to the almost exclusive concentration of the phenomenon known as Indian diasporic writing in the English-speaking affluent West. But this has also come to mean, in effect, the invisibility of such writing elsewhere in the world. Fiji, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Africa, Malaysia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Italy, Greece – these and many other countries and regions also have a sizeable Indian diaspora (the Middle East alone has over three million Indians). Is the Indian diaspora in these parts of the world an entirely un-literate diaspora, without any creditable literary and cultural production? If it is, why?



The problem lies, I am inclined to be persuaded, with the geo-literary politics and economics in which our institutional structures are implicated and as a result of which they have little space for considering the diasporic literary production other than in English and from places other than the affluent English-speaking West. Since it is the departments of English that have acted as the major agencies of cultural studies in India and since the interface with other departments has been negligible (for reasons for which all sides are responsible), diasporic literary and cultural studies have failed to grow up as a cross-linguistic or trans-linguistic discipline.


To my mind, diasporic writing in Punjabi is probably no less prolific than that in English. Similar might be the case of diasporic writing in Hindi, Malayalam and Gujarati, if we could presume some link between the large diasporic communities speaking these languages and the odds for literary production in these languages. The privilege that the English language enjoys vis-à-vis other languages arguably derives from its uniquely strategic global position and imperial historical legacy, not from any extraordinary semiotic aura or competence. The privilege, moreover, is slanted in favour of writers from the US and the UK.


In addition to the favours of the contemporary historical moment, one needs to account for the privileges of class and of the written word that underwrite the predominance of a particular kind of diasporic literature. It is not without significance that the recognized and acclaimed writers should all belong to the ‘new’ diaspora as against the ‘old’, to use and extend the classification indicated in Vinay Lal’s work. They belong, in other words, to the recognized, pampered and articulate-in-English middle class diaspora of the modern industrial and post-industrial societies as against the disowned, elided and mute working class diaspora that has always barely survived on the margins. The latter diaspora includes not only the indentured labour of the former colonies and the descendants of those people but also the temporary diaspora of contract workers and the diaspora of twilight comprising those who constitute the staple merchandise of international human trafficking. The ‘new’ diaspora is pampered as it fits in usefully with the ascendant ideological and economic world order in which India’s ruling class is scrambling to find a berth: hence the uncontrollable urge to confer on this diaspora a dual citizenship even as people of the other diaspora languish in a no-law’s land as non-persons, legal non-entities in possession of “bare life” without the rights of personhood or citizenship (Giorgio Agamben).  The privileged location of the ‘new’ diaspora in the apparatus of international publishing and of awards and prizes makes the discrimination painfully clear. But how long the unacknowledged but essentially phony distinction between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ would be sustained does not need to be foretold: the bluff has already begun to be called. Sweatshops do not cease being sweatshops if they happen to be air-conditioned. Whether you work on a loom or a code does not change anything at a certain level.


It would be helpful to ask ourselves as students of diaspora studies a straightforward question: Can we cognitively distance ourselves from the currently predominant ideological and economic world order and take a more honest view of the subject of our study, and in the process also give a better account of ourselves? The enormous sweep of diaspora studies would induce trepidation, but the search for authenticity requires that we do not flinch. Uncomfortable preliminary questions have got to be asked. Areas of darkness have got to be lit up.


The foremost obligation is to question the privileging of literature and writing against other cultural production of the diaspora such as films, music, dance, fine arts, culinary arts, rituals and festivals, media, and even technology. We have to get over the bias which derives probably from the modern university’s received paradigm of scholarship that manifests in its preoccupation with reading and writing understood rather narrowly. Diaspora studies need to address the larger sphere of culture, including technology as cultural production. Indeed, diaspora studies have the potential to bring about a radical diasporisation of the disciplines themselves and a revolutionary restructuring of the academy. For the time being, however, it seems the promise is going to be wasted and diaspora studies will be co-opted by the conservative power arrangements in the academy.


Lest this be misconstrued, questioning the privileging of literature and writing does not mean trampling over literature and reducing it to the flat monotony of trivia so as to erase its specificity and refuse its power. On the contrary, even the distinction, howsoever faint to the structuralist lens, between literature and writing needs to be cherished, if only as a reminder that not all writing is literature and that there is literature that is good and that which is indifferent. Political correctness ought not to pervert judgement and obscure the perception of aesthetic splendour, cognitive power and wisdom (Harold Bloom’s three markers of the literary), nor should mere verbal flamboyance stand in for a profound awareness of language as problematic. Indeed, we would be inflicting no harm on literature if we reminded ourselves of the distinction Roland Barthes makes between author and writer, and acknowledged –without feeling guilty– that Arundhati Roy is an author, Chetan Bhagat only a writer.


It is essentially a question of situating the object of our studies relatively. Of situating literature in writing. And writing in cultural production.


That would, of course, require us to begin at the beginning: that is, prepare digital archives of diasporic cultural production. Without the archives, diaspora studies will remain piecemeal affairs, feeding off whimsical academic hypotheses like blinkered and hamstrung horses. In the absence of the archives, we cannot even contemplate the vastness of the Promised Land, much less catch a glimpse of it. An electronic network of the world’s universities, dedicated to diaspora studies, with the Indian universities forming the hub for Indian diaspora studies, is feasible today as it has never been before. But have we even begun to want it? Do we really care to explore beyond the shady hedge around our departments? Diaspora studies require disciplinary reconfigurations and trans-departmental alliances: the existing order of knowledge in the academy cannot accommodate the diasporic dis-order.


Then there are methodological questions fraught with politics but which ought to be, as academic propriety and freedom demand, tackled head on. Why should the scope of diaspora studies be artificially delimited? Why not also include the Aryan, Greek and Mughal cultural production? What stops us from reading the Rig Veda as a diasporic text? Or the Gandhara art as the exemplum of diasporic hybridity? Or Din-e-Ilahi as a statement of the politics of multiculturalism? Diaspora studies could range farther back, beyond the safe confines of the present and the recent, and examine the cultural production of both the diasporas from India and the diasporas in India. The dialogic code which is always already written into the DNA of the diasporic should invoke a double perspective.


Similarly, India’s subcontinental magnitude and cultural diversity dynamically activated by internal migrations across regions and from towns and villages to metropolises could be brought under the rubric of internal diaspora studies. It would be of interest not only to sociologists and economists but to all others as well who care about culture and its politics. The use of Punjabi by the migrant labour from Bihar and Jharkhand and the mutation, if any, in their native rituals and festivals are matters worth serious investigation. Likewise, the implications of the massive illegal Bangladeshi diaspora for the politics, economics and culture of the various regions of India need to be studied. The spheres of legitimate inquiry have to be determined by the academy, not necessarily on instructions from political authority.


The “strange category” of diasporic writing, so lamented by Tabish Khair, might then shed some of its gratuitous strangeness and discover some honourable reason to be. The “critical space” of Khair’s desire cannot be spun out of pleasant-sounding but airy universalist categories; it can only arise from the spadework done on the terrain of history, prehistory and the present.


The telescoping of time in Surjit Pattar’s short poem Aaya Nand Kishore, for instance, yields its secret of pain only to a historically aware reading, before the poem begins to itself generate the critical space required for a closer reading. The poet’s native/nativist gaze registers the itinerary of the migrant Nand Kishore with complex irony, the only way available perhaps to simultaneously map the miseries and the infatuations of the diasporic other from a nativist position which is itself veined –as the Punjabi position is– with ambivalent contemporary mythologies of exile.


Moreover, the amorphous discipline of diaspora studies needs to grapple with the ongoing reinvention of the mythologies of exile, for instance in cyberspace. Chetan Bhagat’s One Night @ the Call Centre, otherwise a puerile work of junk fiction produced by the emerging fast-food publishing industry in this country, foregrounds a new diasporic subjectivity. This is the pseudo-hybrid subjectivity of the third world call centre agents who not only have to put on cybermasks to conceal their real identities but who are compelled to even reconfigure, howsoever fragilely, their embodiment in order to avert racist rejection and abuse. This is a strangely homeless subjectivity, homeless in space, time and culture, the schizophrenic offspring of the culture of real virtuality in a space of flows (Manuel Castells). And yet its sorrows, albeit tragically shallow and captured with matching superficiality, are heart-rending; and that is so probably for the reason that they are the betrayed sorrows of a brutalized, reduced humanity which has been rendered incapable of tragedy.


In other words, diaspora studies confront new complexities. Precisely for that reason perhaps, the peculiar amorphousness of this nascent discipline can be a source of strength. Diaspora studies have to cast a wide net and yet not throw discretion to the winds. The discipline cannot afford to become an academic indulgence or pastime, or part of an intellectual retirement plan. There is at the heart of diaspora studies a political commitment, a human obligation, a spiritual debt waiting to be discharged, so that homelessness that was, that is, and that is yet to be, can be brought home to all humanity. It is this which places the discipline in the venerable company of philosophy, civilization studies, human rights and futuristics, to name only a few of its interdisciplinary soul mates.




1burden n. Also (arch.) burthen. [OE byrpen = OS burpinnia, f. WGmc, f. base of BIRTH n.1] 1 That which is borne; a load (lit., or fig. of labour, duty, sorrow, etc.). b An obligatory expense. 2 The bearing of loads. Chiefly in phrs. below. 3 A load, as a measure of quantity. Now only the carrying capacity of a ship, as a measure of weight; tonnage. 4 In biblical translations tr. Heb. massa' (Zech. 12:1 etc.): an oracle, an oracular judgement. (Understood as) a burdensome or heavy lot or fate. arch.  5 a That which is borne in the womb; a child. b That which is borne by the soil; produce, crop. 6 The bass or undersong of a melody; the drone of a bagpipe. Now rare or obs. 7 The refrain or chorus of a song. L16. 8 fig. The chief theme or gist of a poem, book, speech, etc. (Excerpted from Oxford Talking Dictionary. Copyright © 1998 The Learning Company, Inc.).



Works Cited


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.


Barthes, Roland. “Authors and Writers.” A Barthes Reader. Ed. Susan Sontag. 1982; London: Vintage, 2000.


Bloom, Harold. “Breakfast with Brontosaurus.” Interviewed by Iewa Lesinska. <http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2005-10-07-bloom-en.html>. February 9, 2006.


Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Khair, Tabish. Whose identity is it anyway? The Guardian. November 12, 2005.


Lal, Vinay. “The Future of Indians in the Diaspora.” <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Diaspora/future.html>. January 28, 2005.


---. “Reflections on the Indian Diaspora, in the Carribean and Elsewhere.” <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Diaspora/reflect.html>. January 28, 2005.


Pattar, Surjit. Lafzan Di Dargah. 1999; Ludhiana: Lahore Book Shop, 2003.


Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala



Final editing: February 9, 2006