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Gems From Indian Expatriate Literature

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January 2004
Gems From Indian Expatriate Literature

AMITAVA KUMAR'S anthology cheery picks from, as well as nitpicks (in a constructive criticism sort of way) about the cream of the crop of Indian expatriate writers.

Review by POORNIMA APTE

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An associate professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, Amitava Kumar is rapidly establishing himself as the official chronicler of Indian expatriate literature. His earlier work, Bombay-London-New York was a memoir of sorts, diasporic in its embrace, and an introduction to the world of Indian writing in English. With his latest, Away, Kumar trains his sights specifically on writings by Indian expatriates.

Away is a collection of writings by many prominent authors and the selection reads like a who's-who of Indian authors: Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Pankaj Mishra, V.S.Naipaul, and more. Kumar divides his book into three sections. The first section features old writings by the earliest Indians traveling abroad. A particularly noteworthy gem is the series of writings by Dean Mahomed, a Patna-born businessman who opened "shampooing parlors" in England and Ireland in the 1820's. His advertisements for the parlors are great fun to read both for the archaic use of the language and for its place as one of the earliest writings by an Indian abroad. Readers will also enjoy the writings of many famous freedom fighters. Works by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, and even love letters from Sarojini Naidu to her husband, are showcased effectively in Away. For those of us familiar with more recent Indian writing in English, these early documents are treasured finds. Of striking impact is the Mahatma's chronicling of his discrimination at the hands of White South Africans in Durban. It is touching to see the more human (and mundane, if you will) side of our revered freedom fighters?Subhash Chandra Bose approving his nephew's education plans along with some fiery words about his own commitment to India's future.

There are of course numerous debates about Indian writing in English: can the expatriate serve as official ambassador of his country through his writing? Should such an enormous burden be placed on authors in the first place? Why is it that many Indian expatriate authors choose to romanticize the more "exotic" aspects of the home country? The cynical answers of course lie in the nature of the markets. If exotic material sells why mess with a good thing. Kumar addresses these and many more relevant points in a brilliant introduction to Away.

Another oft-repeated complaint about Indian expatriate writing is that the prose is too steeped in nostalgia?the stories are consistently set in India disallowing fellow Indians abroad, windows into the immigrant experience. Perhaps the explanation for this lies in the fact that Indian expatriate writing is still a fairly new phenomenon. It might take a few more years (or maybe a generation or two) before these authors become able chroniclers of the immigrant experience. One of the characters in Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons, enquires why her son, based in Canada, never writes about his life there: "It puzzles me," she said, "why he writes nothing about it, especially since you say that writers use their own experience to make stories out of." Then Father said that this was true, but he is probably not using his Toronto experience because it is too early." One of the writers who efficiently straddle the here-there divide is Bharati Mukherjee. Her wonderful essay (that appeared in the New York Times Magazine) on the difference between an immigrant and an exile is also included in the book.

Away serves as a wonderful introduction to the world of Indian expatriate writing in English. The book has many tasty nuggets by stalwarts of the language now household names in markets abroad. Many an Indian abroad will agree with travel writer, Pico Iyer's famous statement: "Our dreams of distant places change as fast as images on MTV, and the immigrant arrives at the land that means freedom to him, only to find that it's recast by other hands." That may be, but in the company of gifted writers, the Indian expatriate abroad can at least seek solace in their writings. If one perseveres, Kumar shows us that we could even glimpse a satisfying definition of what it means to be truly "home" at last.


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