I REMEMBER MEETING my Gujarati-American spouse’s siblings for the first time, a few years ago, at a restaurant called Surati Farsan in the “Little India” neighbourhood of Cerritos, a city in greater Los Angeles. I was then teaching literature from the Indian Ocean region at the University of California, in Los Angeles, and as soon as I read Surati’s hybrid desi menu, which was peppered with Gujarati-inflected English, I was at home. Over African chevdo, chocolate dosa, bhaji quesadilla, ragda petish, bataka vada, mango lassi and masala chaash, my spouse, his siblings and I swapped stories about India. They had been brought up by parents who migrated from rural Gujarat in the 1970s to work in California’s motel industry, and had extended family in different parts of the world, including Canada, England, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Trinidad and Panama. Yet they were amazed when I recited my Indian Ocean islandtales to them, especially stories about an active Gujarati presence in the Indian Ocean’s trade routes and on the African islands, centuries before the British colonised the Indian subcontinent.
My relatives’ reaction at Surati wasn’t very different from that of my desi friend, who heard my island tales raptly when I met her in Mumbai, following a pre-doctoral research trip to Mauritius. My friend’s image of Indian Ocean islands such as Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles was derived mostly from romantic Bollywood songs, tourism brochures and celebrity honeymoons. When I told her about the people I’d met on my trip, including multilingual Mauritians of rural Bihari descent, she chuckled and said, “Seriously? Bhaiyas speaking Bhojpuri and French?”
I was peeved—as if Mumbaikars alone had a monopoly over multilingualism. Clearly, I had forgotten how dumbfounded I was when, as a graduate student in Philadelphia, I stumbled upon a novel whose characters included francophone Asians, and whose French was infused with Hindi, Bhojpuri and Chinese words. This was the Mauritian writer Marie-Thérèse Humbert’s A l’autre bout de moi—a 1979 novel that led to my discovery of a rich body of francophone writing rarely studied in Western classrooms, and my research commitment to the Indian Ocean.