- The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Between Theory and Archive
diasporic imaginary, Indian diaspora, postcolonial literature, V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie
The literature of the Indian diaspora constitutes an important part of the burgeoning field of anglophone postcolonial literature. Some of the better-known authors in this archive include V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, M.G. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, and Kiran Desai. The growing international visibility of these authors has gone hand in hand with the popularity of postcolonial criticism and theory in academe. Vijay Mishra’s scholarly work on Bollywood cinema, Indian devotional poetry, Indian diasporic literature, and postcolonial theory and criticism has contributed greatly to our understanding of this important area of writing.1
Mishra’s scholarship on postcolonial literature is distinctive for two reasons. First, unlike most other Indian-origin cultural critics, he belongs to a social formation called the Indian indenture diaspora. One suspects that this fact has dictated, to some extent, his literary interests as well as diaspora-centric critical outlook. It is important to recall that between 1879 and 1916, colonial headhunters in north India recruited upwards of 60,000 men and women to work as indentured laborers in the sugar plantations of Fiji (Cohen 1997, 60).2 The recruits were then shipped to Fiji, where they lived and worked in appalling conditions under a system some historians have compared to slavery (see, e.g., Tinker 1974). The memory of that traumatic ordeal still remains fresh in the Indo-Fijian community, to which Mishra belongs, just as the indenture experience has remained a source of unrelieved sadness, even [End Page 243] trauma, in Indian diaspora communities elsewhere. Second, Mishra’s scholarship has tracked postcolonial literary studies since its rise to prominence in the late 1980s. Two of his better-known essays, “What Is Post(-)Colonialism?” and “What Was Postcolonialism?”—co-authored with Bob Hodge—have sought to identify the core interests of postcolonial criticism and theory. His subsequent work has enlarged the scope of postcolonial literary studies considerably.
The most noteworthy aspect of Mishra’s latest work, The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary, is its attempt to locate Indian diasporic literature within the theoretical matrix provided by the indenture diaspora experience and post–World War II migration and displacement. Mishra seeks to tackle a number of important questions in this context, including: What does it mean to study Indian diasporic literature within a diasporic rather than a postcolonial theoretical frame? Which narratives of diaspora (as it turns out, there are many, labeled generally with classical, early modern, and post- or late modern rubrics)3 speak most vitally to the Indo-diasporic cultural archive? How should we go about theorizing the so-called diasporic imaginary, and why should we care about this nebulous concept? Also, concurrently, how does the literature of the indenture diaspora develop a poetics different from the one embodied in later diasporic works? In a manner that sometimes appears counterintuitive, Mishra’s book engages these questions within its 312 pages, even as it presents a historically grounded reading of “diaspora poetics” exemplified in the work of more than a dozen Indian diasporic writers, including V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie.
The introductory chapter, “The Diasporic Imaginary,” sets up the terms of his theoretical intervention in some detail. The opening sentence invites attention to itself by a playful mimicry of the famous opening sentence from Anna Karenina: “All diasporas are unhappy, but every diaspora is unhappy in its own way” (Literature 1). Apart from drawing attention to the acts of writing back to, or rewriting of, Western canonical works so common in postcolonial literature, the statement also raises a pertinent question: Why is the experience of unhappiness so crucial in our understanding of the Indian indenture diaspora and, by implication, other diasporas as well? It turns out that, for Mishra, the lived experience of modern diasporas, both early and late, cannot be thematized outside of the vocabulary of unhappiness and loss; indeed, his terms of diasporic discourse analysis, for...