Ocean Crossings

South Asian diasporic fiction from beyond the West

Most popular accounts of South Asian diaspora literature overlook writing on migrants to non-anglophone lands such as Mauritius, which is home to a large community of the descendents of indentured labourers from the subcontinent. COURTESY MAHATMA GANDHI INDIAN IMMIGRATION ARCHIVES
Most popular accounts of South Asian diaspora literature overlook writing on migrants to non-anglophone lands such as Mauritius, which is home to a large community of the descendents of indentured labourers from the subcontinent. COURTESY MAHATMA GANDHI INDIAN IMMIGRATION ARCHIVES
01 March, 2017

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.

More recently, when I transitioned from teaching francophone desi diasporic fiction to teaching anglophone immigrant literature from across the globe, I realised it is not just my desi or desi-American loved ones who perceived South Asian migration through a restricted anglophone lens. More cosmopolitan literati often seem equally guilty. Critics writing on immigrant fiction, especially in the West, often read about the desi diaspora in stories of South Asian migration to an anglophone West, from the mid-twentieth century onward, by writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amitav Ghosh and Jhumpa Lahiri. Occasionally, when conversations turn to desi migration from or to islands (beyond the imperial island of England), anglophone writings such as of VS Naipaul on Trinidad or Michael Ondaatje on Sri Lanka tend to lead the list. Either way, what passes for South Asian diasporic fiction is a body of writing where middle-class emigrants fly into an Anglo-American West without a serious threat to their material survival. While the emotional cost of geographical crossing—alienation, acculturation, assimilation, hybridisation or resistance—often takes centre stage in anglophone desi-immigrant fiction, these journeys are never as hazardous as those making repeated headlines in global news these days—the ones undertaken by refugees and undocumented migrants stranded in rickety boats or drowning in the ocean as they try to reach North American or European shores alive.

Centred on the Indian Ocean and rooted in historical research, Amitav Ghosh’s best-selling Ibis trilogy gave many a taste of the oceanic tales and migrations they had been missing. CULTURE CLUB / GETTY IMAGES

Yet, not so long ago, South Asians were also risking it all as they crossed the Indian Ocean in search of richer futures. For instance, if you were to visit the bay of Trou Fanfaron in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis, you would find the remains of an immigration depot called Aapravasi Ghat—formerly known as “coolie ghat”—that was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations agency UNESCO in 2006. According to UNESCO, it was in Port Louis that

the modern indentured labour diaspora began. In 1834, the British Government selected the island of Mauritius to be the first site for what it called “the great experiment” in the use of “free” labour to replace slaves. Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a million indentured labourers arrived from India at Aapravasi Ghat to work in the sugar plantations of Mauritius, or to be transferred to Reunion Island, Australia, southern and eastern Africa or the Caribbean.

However, these indentured labourers—whose experience recalls the situation of contemporary refugees or boat-people—were far from the first in the desi diaspora to cross the Indian Ocean. Gujarati traders have had a presence in the Indian Ocean region that predates European colonial history by centuries. The literature from Indian Ocean islands bears witness to these older histories of South Asian migration, in addition to more recent ones. These stories are just as rich and worthy of remembering as those of desis in the English-speaking West today. By taking ocean crossings into account, we can expand our grand narrative of South Asian migration beyond those posited by anglophone critics who continue to talk of “newer” immigrant stories through a limited Western focus.

CONSIDER FOR INSTANCE, the critic Parul Sehgal’s essay ‘New Ways of Being’ published in the New York Times Book Review last year, which talks about different narratives of South Asian migration. Here, she notes of earlier desi migrant fiction à la Rushdie and Lahiri: “The immigrant novel has tended to be optimistic by nature—stories of upward mobility tinged with nostalgia for the motherland and animated by the character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the family or community.” In response, she reviews two novels that were “part of a wave of recent books that cast a more critical eye on migration than usual”— Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, from 2010, and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, from 2015, both of which were shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. Both books, she writes, “recount the stories of Indians making a miserable transition to life in England,” who, once they “run out of money and overstay their visas” are “forced into the twilight life of sex work and hard labor.” Yet even this newer immigrant fiction has protagonists who migrate into the anglophone West by air—and Mukherjee’s protagonist initially wins a scholarship to Oxford, recalling the earlier wave of writing Sehgal points to, especially Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, which teem with characters educated in elite schools.

In another essay, ‘The New Wave: On the State of Indian Fiction in America,’ published by the online literary magazine The Millions in 2012, the critic Keith Meatto defines the “new wave” of the title as inaugurated by desi-British and desi-American writers such as Hari Kunzru, Rajesh Parameswaran and Tania James. Meatto acknowledges their debt to Lahiri, “who rocked the American lit establishment—and book clubs nationwide—with Interpreter of Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect short story collection that captured the domestic dramas and existential malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston.” Like Lahiri, Kunzru, Parameswaran and James’s “new” writings “address issues of Indian identity” too. Yet, departing from Lahiri’s recurrent emphasis on a Bengali-American identity, and “As if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors experiment with non-human characters,” Meatto writes. Be that as it may, Meatto—like Sehgal—locates the “new wave” of desi migrant fiction only in England and the United States. When it comes to Indian immigrant fiction and its reception in the West, the sun is far from setting on the English empire.

The writer Anu Kumar’s essay ‘Indian writing from Africa: the diasporic literature you didn’t know about,’ which appeared last year in the online publication Scroll, fares much better at dethroning the anglophone West in the imagination of South Asian migration. Here, she reviews contemporary Indo-African writers from Mauritius, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, many of whom have now made a home in the West—MG Vassanji, Abraham Verghese, Peter Nazareth, Yasmin Ladha and Jameela Siddiqi. Fiction by these writers highlights the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial presence of South Asians in Africa as traders, indentured labourers, railway workers and bureaucrats. The writers expose the fissures in Indo-African relations, particularly in the late twentieth century, and tell “stories of hostilities within one’s community, of yearnings and contradictions imposed by multiple identities within a single self.”

While Kumar focusses on Indo-African fiction in English, she acknowledges that the desi diaspora in Africa is multilingual—that its writers also produce work in French or Hindi, and are published beyond just the West, including in India. For instance, the Mauritian writer Deepchand Beeharry’s 1976 novel in English That Others Might Live and his compatriot Abhimanyu Unnuth’s 1982 work of poetry in Hindi, Kaiktus ke Daant—“The Teeth of the Cactus”—both of which recount stories of Indian indentured labourers on sugar plantations on the island, were published in India.

Kumar does not mention that Unnuth also published a Hindi novel in India—Lal Pasina, or “Red Sweat”—which was later translated into French by Kessen Budhoo and Isabelle Jarry as Sueur de Sang and prefaced by the Nobel winner and French-Mauritian writer JMG Le Clézio. Like Unnuth’s poetry and Beeharry’s novel, Lal Pasina depicts histories of desi sea-crossings on the kala pani—the “dark waters” of the ocean—and a gritty aftermath on sugar plantations.

the south asian american writer who has contributed most to enlarging anglophone readers’ perception of desi migration into non-Western and oceanic space is Amitav Ghosh. His Indian Ocean epic, the Ibis trilogy, published between 2008 and 2015, recounts the adventures of a motley cast of characters aboard the ship Ibis, including abiracial American sailor, a dishonored Bengali raja, a half-Parsi and half-Chinese convict, a widowed north-Indian opium farmer, a daughter of a French botanist from Calcutta, several lascars, and so on. The ship sails past India, Mauritius and China in the nineteenth century, against the backdrop of the Opium Wars, which were fought between China and Western colonial powers.

The trilogy’s first novel, Sea of Poppies, unveils a dark relationship between British colonial expansion in the name of “free trade,” the working of opium factories in India, and the hiring and the emigration of South Asian girmityas as plantation labour to Mauritius. River of Smoke, the second book, complements its telling of the journey of the Ibis with the stories of two other ships—the Anahita, an opium carrier owned by a Parsi entrepreneur from Bombay, and the Redruth, a nursery ship of horticulturists who aspire to collect China’s greatest botanical secrets. The three ships converge in Canton’s Fanqui-town, or “foreign enclave,” but soon thereafter, the emperor of China decides to close Chinese ports to the opium trade. Flood of Fire continues the standoff between East and West developed in the two prequels and ends with China’s surrender to European imperial ambitions and “free trade.”

The Ibis trilogy is not the first time Ghosh has delved into non-European diasporic networks in the Indian Ocean. His 1992 book In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale is an innovative blend of travelogue, fiction and cultural criticism, and may be read as a precursor to the Ibis trilogy. The book dexterously weaves two main narratives: one recounts Ghosh’s research trip to contemporary Egypt as an anthropology student; the other traces the journey of an Indian slave, Bomma, and his master, Ben Yiju, a Tunisian Jewish merchant from Cairo, as they travel between India and north Africa in the twelfth century. This medieval narrative further unravels a rich cultural commentary on Afro-Asian maritime trade routes and precolonial cultural contact between the two continents.

Both In an Antique Land and theIbistrilogy tell different stories of the desi diaspora than those the twenty-first century anglophone reader is generally accustomed to. The Ibis trilogyis also particularly innovative because of Ghosh’s relentless play with the English language. In it, he deploys a vocabulary that borrows not only from Indian languages—Hindi, Bengali, Bhojpuri—but also from French, Creole, kitchen-Hindustani and Lascari, a motley shipboard language. Ghosh masterfully and simultaneously stretches the historic, geographic and linguistic borders of Anglo-Indian immigrant fiction, while revealing how much was at stake for non-English speaking, rural migrants who are not flying into the West for white-collar or ivy-league gigs.

The entire population of Diego Garcia—mostly people of Indian, Malay and African descent—was forcibly removed to make way for an enormous US military base. TEVEN L RAYMER / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC / GETTY IMAGES

Anu Kumar, in the Scroll piece mentioned above, sees Deepchand Beeharry’s novel That Others Might Live as a precursor to Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, since both recount desi migration across the kala pani and its aftermath. There is, in fact, a much broader, multilingual literary lineage to Ghosh’s Indian Ocean epic. His stories of maritime migration need to be seen against a rich body of contemporary francophone South Asian diasporic literature, which Kumar’s essay makes only a passing reference to.

The African island of Mauritius has a long history of French and British colonial presence, which led to the arrival of slaves, indentured labourers and traders from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and China. While most islanders share Mauritian Creole as their main spoken language, French remains their dominant language of literary expression. Moreover, as two-thirds of the islanders share a South Asian origin, Mauritius has become one of the richest hubs of francophone South Asian diasporic fiction today. Its writers regularly win prestigious literary awards in the greater French-speaking world.

Following on from Beeharry, Unnuth and Ghosh’s stories of sea-crossing, ships and ports, contemporary novels by francophone Indo-Mauritians expand further the historic and geographic borders of South Asian immigrant fiction.

Nathacha Appanah’s 2003 novel Les Rochers de Poudre d’Or—“The Rocks of Gold Dust”—chronicles the ship Atlas’s journey across the kala pani, carrying rural Indians hired to work on French sugar plantations in British colonial Mauritius. Her 2007 novel, Le Dernier Frère, translated in 2011 as The Last Brother, layers on top of this history of Indian indentureship that of the Jews who came to the island on the ship Atlantic, fleeing Nazi persecution during the Second World War.

Shenaz Patel’s 2005 Le Silence des Chagos, or “The Silence of Chagos,” tells of the forced displacement of people—mostly of Indian, Malay and African descent—from the Chagossian island of Diego Garcia, and their life as refugees in Mauritian ghettos. During the negotiation for Mauritian independence in the 1960s, the United Kingdom split the Chagos archipelago, including Diego Garcia, from Mauritian territory in order to create British Indian Ocean territories and lease out Diego Garcia to the United States. Today, Diego Garcia is one of the biggest US military bases and plays a key role in exercising control over west Asia.

Le Silence des Chagos is filled with poignant descriptions of the harshness of refugee life. In one harrowing scene, one of the protagonists, Désiré, who is born during the crossing to Mauritius, is forced to take up employment on a fishing boat in Port Louis. He hopes to succeed effortlessly on the first day of his job; after all, he was born on a ship. Instead, over nine pages, we are shown Désiré’s maritime impotence as he succumbs to claustrophobia, panic, seasickness and vomiting. He stands in stark contrast to the American and British sailors whom he overhears in the port as they brag about island hopping.

Patel’s Port Louis is a far cry from the cosmopolitan cities—Mumbai, London, New York, San Francisco and so on—that dominate in anglophone desi fiction. The glamour of the coastal city vanishes when it is viewed through the eyes of an economically disadvantaged fisherman-refugee. Patel’s depiction of Mauritius is equally far removed from the stereotypical image, rife in Hollywood and Bollywood films, of postcard-perfect tropical islands, with hospitable natural surroundings, crystal-clear waters and virginal beaches.

The focus on proletarian migrants is a distinguishing feature in much of South Asian francophone fiction from the Indian Ocean. One exception is Amal Sewtohul’s 2012 novel, Made in Mauritius, which won the prestigious Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie—the francophone prize of the five continents. The novel is a political satire that recounts the journey of its Sino-Mauritian hero, Laval, who was raised in a cargo container imported from Hong Kong in Port Louis’s Chinatown. After growing up, Laval migrates to Australia to study art, hiding his Muslim-Mauritian friend, Feisal, in the cargo container within the ship he travels on. Laval’s sea-travel is comfortable here, relative to that experienced by blue-collar migrant workers, and is closer to the circumstances in which middle-class characters travel, often by air, in anglophone desi-immigrant fiction. Sewtohul’s story further expands Indian Ocean fiction’s diasporic imagination too, as the novel depicts not only Mauritian migrant communities—Indians, Muslims, Chinese, Creoles—but also other ethnic communities on the bigger island Laval moves to, including indigenous Australians and European opal-mining workers in the outback.

When seen thorugh the eyes of its residents, Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, belies the stereotypical image of the island as a tropical paradise. KANUS / ULLSTEIN BILD / GETTY IMAGES

The diasporic imagination in Mauritian novels also reveals how many islanders see the place they now call home. The characters in Ananda Devi’s 2006 novel, Ève de ses décombres, translated in 2016 as Eve Out of Her Ruins, and a winner of the Prix des cinq continents too, come from a range of socio-economically marginalised communities—factory workers, unemployed or juvenile delinquents, cyclone refugees, sex workers—and live in Troumaron, a ghetto neighborhood at the margins of Port Louis. They experience the port city as a closed, static island within the island, which allows them little escape beyond occasional flights of imagination. The theme of spatial and economic immobility is a staple here, as in much of Devi’s fiction.

In some of her other work—the 2007 novel Indian Tango, translated under the same title in 2011, and her 2015 story collection L’ambassadeur triste, whose title story ‘The Sad Ambassador’ I have translated into English online—Devi places her characters in contemporary India, thus offering a fresh perspective on the “motherland” through the eyes of her francophone diaspora. Similarly, Barlen Pyamootoo’s 1999 novel Bénarès, published in English with the same title in 2004, which won the Prix du roman francophone—the prize of the French novel—recounts the experiences of two friends who pick up prostitutes in Port Louis and swap stories as they head back to their Mauritian village Bénarès, commenting often on an imagined, “original” city of Benares in India.

Anglo-American desi-diasporic fiction often borrows from a subcontinental legacy of stories—including epics, local folklore and Bollywood—as well as a realist Euro-American and Russian literary tradition, drawing influence from writers such as Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, John Cheever and Raymond Carver, among others. In comparison, francophone South Asian diasporic fiction draws from a more motley aesthetic legacy—Hindu mythology, the French romanticist Jacques-Henri Bernadin de Saint-Pierre’s Indian Ocean classic Paul et Virginie, Baudelaire’s modernist poems, Yiddish and Bhojpuri folksongs, island folklore, French Caribbean writers including Aimé Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau and Édouard Glissant on hybrid island cultures. This is not to claim that francophone immigrant fiction is stylistically richer than its anglophone counterpart. However, given the way the Indian Ocean connects continents, and the layered migratory history that it has engendered over time, its diasporic imagination does show a more transnational, multi-ethnic aesthetic influence that reaches beyond Eurasia and America to include Africa, Australia and the Caribbean.

According to the International Migration Report 2015, published by the United Nations, the Indian diaspora is the largest diaspora in the world—with 16 million members. This figure would increase greatly if we were to count the diaspora from other South Asian countries, including smaller islands. A deeper global interest in stories from non-anglophone, non-Western and non-continental spaces can truly enlarge our understanding of the South Asian diaspora—one that is as heterogeneous as the people of the subcontinent.