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Reviewed by:
  • Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific
  • Arun Mukherjee (bio)
Mariam Pirbhai . Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific. University of Toronto Press. 2009. 256. $65.00

As Lakshmi Persaud, one of the Indo-Caribbean novelists discussed in Mariam Pirbhai's important book, Mythologies of Migration, Vocabularies of Indenture: Novels of the South Asian Diaspora in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific, said in her lecture at the University of Warwick's 2008 conference to celebrate the 170th anniversary of the arrival of South Asians in the Caribbean, 'Cultural liberty and evolution are vital parts of human development, because they enable us to choose our identity, to define our self, and to lead a full life. Unfortunately, there has long been a strong, pressing desire to marginalize and stifle the cultural heritage of Indo-Trinidadians and Indo-Guyanese.' Indeed, the scholarship on the Caribbean has generally painted an Afro-centric portrait of this region, erasing the contributions and tragedies of the South Asians. And the post-independence South Asian historians and cultural theorists have neglected to include the great migrations of people from the Indian subcontinent between the 1830s and 1920s to distant corners of the British Empire in their nationalist accounts of South Asia. Thus, after arriving in Canada in 1971, when I first set eyes on Indo-Caribbeans in the streets of Toronto, or tasted the culinary delights in their roti shops, I did not have an iota of knowledge about their history. My ignorance about the South Asian migrations, produced by Indian historical amnesia, would finally be shattered when I was introduced to the writings of pioneers of Indo-Caribbean-Canadian writers like Cyril Dabydeen, Arnold Itwaru, Ramabai Espinet, and Indo-African-Canadian writers Farida Karodia and M.G. Vassanji. Indeed, it has been the writers of this global diaspora, rather than historians, who are responsible for keeping the memories alive.

Pirbhai's book traces the trajectory of these nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century migrations from the Indian subcontinent to Africa, the Caribbean, and the Asia Pacific and analyzes the novels of some of the writers this global diaspora has produced. Drawing on the work of such pioneers in the field as Frank Birbalsingh and Vijay Mishra, she builds on and expands their insights, bringing a much-needed feminist dimension. The first chapter provides a very useful historical account of these labour migrations, and the second chapter introduces us to the heavily freighted and emotionally charged vocabulary that the indentured used to describe their condition: girmitiya ('one who signed the agreement'), jahaji bhai/behn ('ship brothers/sisters'), and kala pani ('black waters'). [End Page 370]

Pirbhai rightly states that 'the brush with which the diaspora is painted is still rather broad and unruly' (38). In the proliferating discipline of diaspora studies, we often come across a diasporic subject, forever 'exilic' and forever doomed with loss and displacement, lacking any historic or geographic antecedents. Pirbhai's book is a good antidote against this generalized diasporic cipher that can fit one and all. She historicizes the post-emancipation labour migrations from South Asia and distinguishes them from the contemporary South Asian migrations by calling them the 'old diaspora.' Now that the people of the old diaspora are on the move again, leaving the Caribbean, east Africa, and Fiji for the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where they mingle with recently arrived South Asians, Pirbhai distinguishes them by calling them 'the double diaspora.'

Pirbhai provides a great deal of interesting and useful historical and cultural information about this old diaspora. We learn about the dates of the arrival of the first ships that brought them, their conflicts with the indigenous and the earlier arrivals, and the imperial policies that controlled every aspect of their lives. The book is a highly useful compendium of in-depth information about the global South Asian diaspora.

This historical, geographic, cultural, and political information is provided as a backdrop to the fictional productions by the writers descended from the old diaspora. Pirbhai analyzes ten novels...


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pp. 370-372
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