Book Review: Jasbir Jain’s The Diaspora Writes Home

diaspora writes home cover

By Ajay K Chaubey

‘Home’, ‘Memory’, and ‘Nostalgia’ are the distinctive features of diasporic writing, which in turn are linked to an author’s identity, which is based on a sense of belonging to a nation, religion, or ethnicity. The features of diaspora narratives are also intrinsically connected with one another. The writer is engaged in recovering memory, history and reflections from unfathomable depths. It is the skillful combination of these ingredients that characterizes the vast body of literature authored by Indian writers from the nineteenth century onwards, who while removed from their countries of origin remain emotionally connected. Their ‘routes to roots’ construct a multiple trajectory of locations in their creative writings.

Jasbir Jain, a seasoned scholar in the field of diaspora and postcolonial literature, cinema and feminism, has used the aforementioned terms as tools in writing a measured critical analysis of selected diasporic narratives in her recently published monograph, The Diaspora Writes Home: Subcontinental Narratives. The monograph, consisting of eighteen critical essays (five of which have been re-published), argues the literary taxonomy of “subcontinental narratives,” which belong to the major nation-states of South Asia—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The chapters are based on the rubrics of well-known theoreticians of postcolonial literature, like Abdul R. JanMohamed, Homi K Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Edward Said, among others.

The introduction establishes the ‘multiple locations’ of authors such as Nehru, Gandhi and Tagore who “remained grounded in India” Jain examines the novels written by Shantha Rama Rau, G V Desani, Nayantara Sahgal, Kamala Markandaya and Raja Rao, the well-known Indian writers of the mid- twentieth century, who set their locales abroad and presented the idea of India through their characters. The delineation of ‘homeland’ in such works is “placed at the centre and around it are assembled the various acts and modes of remembering” (Jain, 78).

The chapters that follow the introduction entail the concept of memory, poetics of exile, colonial mimicry, identity discourse, certain psychosomatic issues that followed the aftermath of the Kanishka crash, the Civil War of Sri Lanka, Muhajirs in Pakistan and some international issues that are prevalent in South Asian nations. Jain’s treatment of these issues reflects her deep knowledge of critical theory. Her dissection is not confined solely to the Anglophone corpus of literature but also to the wider array of texts, which have been translated into English from vernacular languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi among others. She takes Giriraj Kishore’s novel Pahla Girmitiya (The First Contractee) written in Hindi, Sajjad Zaheer’s Urdu work London ki Ek Raat (A Night in London) and Punjabi writers Harpreet Singh Sekha and Harbhajan Hans for in-depth analysis  as these works are linked to the “umbilical cord” of the word ‘homeland,’ according to Jain.(62).

‘Memory’ is overtly and covertly connected with ‘nostalgia’, ‘culture’ and the ‘past’ of the homeland. It is also associated with the recapping of colonial experiences as well as freedom from the colonial yoke. Jain claims that, “Memories work through spatial images as wide-ranging as houses, landscapes, battle fields and innerscapes” (12). Nostalgic longing for one’s homeland, cultural space, one’s roots, and even the memory of the very particular fragrance of the soil are key factors which are realized in Naipaul’s novel, A House for Mr. Biswas.  A few chapters of the book are based on the idea of ‘homeland,’ covering the crucial importance of the memory of ‘home’ in an individual’s life, thereby reflecting the cultural moorings of protagonists like Mr. Biswas—who not only desire but also deserve to have a home in the hostland.

The other essays transact the enigma of cultural interpretation through ‘dislocations’. The essay entitled “Routes of Passage” studies the works of Dabydeen, Bissoondath and Naipaul. Both Dabydeen and Bissoondath have rejected the literary legacy of Naipaul and the way he has ‘enigmatically’ presented India in his Indian Trilogy. Jain is of the opinion that, “they (Dabydeen and Bissoondath) write (about) an inherited past as well their contingent present” (106). They preferred to migrate to Canada rather than to England and they replaced English with French. The basic reason for avoiding the ‘self’ of Naipaul is to overcome the fear of their own disappearance from the literary scene as well as the establishing of their own identities in the literary world. Jain informs us that: “one of the tasks I have set myself is to work…through the concept of self and heritage” (ibid).

Jain’s brush with cinema is not a new academic venture. Previously, she has written a plethora of essays, books and chapters on cinema. And, she is once again drawn to it in the present book. In the penultimate chapter, she has studied the Indian diaspora through cinema, and especially the filmmakers who themselves represent the Indian diaspora in the West.  The most well-known are—Deepa Mehta, Meera Nair, and Gurinder Chadha who themselves have  portrayed the Indian diasporic communities in their films, viz. Bollywood/Hollywood, The Namesake and Bend it Like Beckham, etc. and the overt  desire of their protagonists for ‘return’ to their indigenous culture.

Additionally, the book clarifies the various nuances of “diaspora criticism” against the backdrop of migration, voluntary or forced, re-settlement and exodus, Freudian id and ego, all of which are seminal in the contemporary milieu of international insurgencies and the plight of migrants after their flight from their homelands. In this context, the jacket of the book beautifully signifies the swans heading towards the ‘west’, which signals that ‘returning’ home is not a solution.

Summing up, the author has tried her best to cover the multiple theoretical tools as applied to the texts of dozens of authors of the Indian diaspora, yet fails to cover many authors under a single umbrella of the diaspora canon. The author herself postulates in this regard, “…no single volume can …cover the immensity of …ontological issues…” (9). The present volume is no exception, and, perhaps more volumes will be forthcoming…

Jasbir Jain. The Diaspora Writes Home: Subcontinental Narratives. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2015. ISBN: 978-81-316-0711-4. Price: ₹ 850/-.

Ajay ChaubeyDr. Ajay K Chaubey is an Assistant Professor of English at the Dept. of Sciences & Humanities, National Institute of Technology, Uttarakhand, India. His key publications include V. S. Naipaul (Atlantic, 2015), Salman Rushdie (Atlantic, 2016) followed by South Asian Diaspora (in three volumes) to be released by Rawat Publications, Jaipur by the end of this year.

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