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  • Intimacies, Relationships and Socialities:South Asians and Racialist America in the Early Twentieth Century
  • Ahmed Afzal (bio)
STRANGER INTIMACY: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West. By Nayan Shah. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2011.
BENGALI HARLEM AND THE LOST HISTORIES OF SOUTH ASIAN AMERICA. By Vivek Bald. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2013.
COOLIE WOMAN: The Odyssey of Indenture. By Gaiutra Bahadur. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 2014.

Much of the scholarly research on South Asian Americans has focused on the post-1965 period. The landmark U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act of [End Page 59] 1965 abandoned prior legislation that had used race as the basis of immigration to the United States. The 1965 legislation also discarded the national origins quota system that had favored European immigration and severely restricted Asian immigration to the United States until the end of World War II. Following the passage of the 1965 Act, Asia became a major source of immigration to the United States.1 Interdisciplinary studies about the South Asian experience have documented diasporic and transnational community formations and illuminated issues such as racism, class, gender roles, sexuality, and religious and national belonging.

Pre-1965 South Asian immigration to North America has received comparatively little attention. Anthropologist and historian Karen Leonard’s Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (Temple University Press, 1992), historian Joan M. Jensen’s Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America (Harvard University Press, 1988) and anthropologists Norman Buchignani and Doreen M. Indra’s Continuous Journey: A Social History of South Asians in Canada (McClelland and Stewart, 1985) are among the few book-length studies that have documented the South Asian immigrant experience in North America in the early twentieth century. This scholarship has focused on the mostly Punjabi agricultural workers in rural California, the U.S. Southwest, and Canada.

The three books reviewed in this essay build on the above pioneering scholarship and also greatly expand our understanding of the diversity and breadth of pre-1965 South Asian immigrant experiences. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013) by comparative media studies scholar Vivek Bald elaborates the experiences of the mostly Bengali Muslim men who were peddlers and merchants in New Orleans and ex-seamen in New York during the early decades of the twentieth century. In Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (2011), historian Nayan Shah explores the everyday life of South Asian farm workers in Canada, California, and the American Southwest. Journalist Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (2014) documents the experiences of male and female indentured laborers who traveled to the Caribbean and South America for work on sugar and rubber plantations.

These three exemplary and eminently readable books are essential contributions to the literature on South Asians in the Americas, critical race and gender theory, and early twentieth century American history. The meticulous research yields a multitude of surprises and rewards for the reader. These books provide important insights into the political economy of international population movements in the shadow of severely restrictive, if not prohibitive, racialized immigration policies.2 Indeed, the two empires—Great Britain and the United States—provide a critical historical backdrop for understanding the economic circuits that structured South Asian migration. This scholarship shows how race, gender, sexuality, and the law were complexly intertwined in shaping pre-1965 South Asian immigrant experiences. [End Page 60]

In spite of such important interventions, it is the exploration of intimacies, relationships, and socialities that makes these books deeply compelling, thoroughly engaging, and richly textured. In this review, I focus on this troika found in the three books as a lens for illuminating South Asian immigrant experiences in the late nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century. In so doing, the discussion here focuses on the production, transgression, and contestations of attachments, engagements, and community interactions that developed among mobile populations, and were shaped by a range of “verbal and gestural cues, ethnical codes, and cultural frames” (Shah 55). As Nayan Shah notes in Stranger Intimacy, “migratory work and transportation crossroads produced environments of compulsory sociality, but...


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