A text transcript of the keynote speech given at QISSA 2022, the first ever student-led literature festival hosted by the Department of English at Sophia College (autonomous), Mumbai. The theme was “diaspora, culture, and identity.”
Thank you for that lovely introduction. And I want to especially thank Swati Jena and Soumi Mitra and the entire team for including me in this first edition of the Qissa Literature Festival. It’s my honor to be among you all today.
Decades ago, after I’d finished my tenth board exams in Bombay—as it was called then—I fought with my parents to let me go into the arts. I desperately wanted to study at Sophia College, which is where all the cool and smart and bindaas girls went. My parents decided that an arts education was impractical and I didn’t need to travel across the city from the suburbs. So I went to study Science at Mithibai College. I didn’t last even a full year there but that’s another story for another time.
I did, however, move to the UK to join the many diasporic Indians there and became an international engineering student. I developed a greater understanding of cultures beyond the Bambaiyya one I had grown up in. And, as I worked my way around the UK, Europe, the US, and even back in India, my sense of identity evolved beyond “Gujarati woman” to much more.
All that said, I’m still a “diasporic” Indian. I will always identify with India as my “homeland” even as I live outside of it. And I am part of a huge diasporic population. According to an Indian Ministry of External Affairs report in 2021, there are 32 million diasporic Indians residing outside India. That’s 3.2 crore people and they comprise the world’s largest overseas diaspora. Every year 2.5 million (25 lakhs) Indians migrate overseas, which is the highest annual number of migrants in the world. Whether due to forced or voluntary migration, these 32 million diasporic Indians are all balancing a longing for their homeland with belonging in their new home.
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Diaspora, culture, and identity are the main themes of this festival. There are so many ways to look at how diasporic communities have shaped societies all over the world. As this festival’s brochure points out, diasporic cross-cultural interactions have impacted food, languages, cinema, literature, art, politics, education, socioeconomic systems, and much more. In fact, it is hard to see how any society can change or evolve without the help of diasporic cultures.
Now, when I was approached to give this keynote address, Swati and Soumi said they had been following my work with Desi Books, a global multimedia forum I founded in 2020 to spotlight South Asian literature from the world over. They said they believed that my insights, both as a member of the Indian diaspora and a literary translator, might help students gain a better understanding of diasporic communities and their lived experiences.
So I thought long and hard about what I could share about my Indian diasporic experience—because I can only speak for myself—that will also speak to the themes and topics of this festival. And I asked myself what was my most burning question about Indian diasporic communities that I wanted to explore further.
Let me start with the first question: my Indian diasporic experience as it pertains to my sense of culture and identity. I think of this overall experience now, with the luxury of hindsight over the last three decades, as a three-phase process: Immigration; Assimilation; Diasporification. And, while the first two are straightforward enough to comprehend, the third one is a more complex and layered phase. Every immigrant has a particular time in their life when they feel settled enough in their new home to believe they’re no longer an immigrant working to assimilate but are now a part of a diasporic community. This could be when they’ve achieved some of the necessary cultural markers of their new home or when they’ve loosened enough ties—both physical and psychic—with their homeland.
For me, this last phase happened, oddly, after I’d gone back to India in 2014, lived there until early 2020, and then returned to the US just before the global pandemic began. Those several years of living again in India after having been away for more than two decades made me realize many things. First, returning after a long time away and as a midlife woman, I saw the country and the people with a fresh, new perspective. I saw both the good and the bad without the blinkers of nostalgia or romanticism that I sometimes had while living in the west as an immigrant. Despite the fact that the country had changed dramatically from when I’d left as a teenager before globalization, I also felt a greater sense of communal identity because I had a stronger sense of my individual self.
And, most of all, I had a new, acute awareness. So much so that both my first two books were written entirely during my time back in India. They could never have been written without that immersion back in the homeland. My writing before these books was typical of a lot of Indian diasporic literature: nostalgia, alienation, displacement, etc. But, writing while I was back in India, I was focused more on the intersectionality of, for example, the daily discrimination I saw all around me across the class, caste, gender, and religious hierarchies. The world felt both familiar and foreign enough that I could write about it with close, attentive care and a detached distance at the same time.
The brochure of this festival mentions how diasporic cross-cultural interactions have impacted food, languages, cinema, literature, art, politics, education, and socioeconomic systems. Of all those, if I could pick the one that has been most significant to me, it would be language. Food was a close second, of course. But, when I was back in India, language was what I paid the closest attention to 24/7. Languages mingled merrily all around me daily. I’d inherited my recently-passed mother’s small personal library of Gujarati books and I began reading them as a way of remembering her and her storytelling. The multilingualism of this existence for me as an English writer, a Gujarati reader and translator, and a Hindi and Marathi speaker from a young age in Bombay—all of it enriched me now in ways that hadn’t happened when I was growing up there and speaking and reading all these same languages. With Gujarati, in particular, despite having spoken it and read it most of my life, translating it made me more appreciative of its idiomatic riches and textured musicality. And because I was translating from the classic Gujarati literary canon, I found myself doing a lot of research into Gujarat’s cultural and political history, discovering aspects of my own communal past that I’d never known.
Yet, despite all of that, I also realized that India will forever be my homeland but it could not be home anymore. As Warsan Shire has written, I felt “too foreign for here // too foreign for home // never enough for both.” Before the return to India, I thought I was pretty good at code-switching in the US: I could perch on either side of the hyphen between Indian and American easily enough depending on the company I was keeping. In India, though, there was no way to flip perches like that quite so easily. People sussed you out in minutes even if you were wearing a salwar-kameez and speaking properly in an Indian language. Something about the way I looked someone in the eye or carried myself always gave me away. This is when, I believe, my diasporification happened. While I was back in the homeland, if you can imagine it. We are all the sum total of our life experiences. And I had accumulated enough life experiences outside of India by this point. So that’s the real key to diasporification, I think: when you’ve collected enough life-defining experiences outside of your homeland than within it. For better or for worse.
Anyway, thankfully, that almost-seven year stint back in India cured me of the nostalgia and alienation and displacement narratives for good. Both in terms of writing and reading them.
Which brings me to the second thing I had mentioned earlier: a burning question about Indian diasporic communities that I want to explore further.
I started Desi Books in April 2020 as a global, multimedia forum to spotlight both diasporic and homeland literature. I don’t believe these have to be for different audiences. In the end, we are all connected by common homeland cultures, whether that homeland is real to some and imaginary to others like Salman Rushdie, who has famously written: “It may be that writers in my position, exiles, or emigrants, or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutilated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do it in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost, that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”
So what has always fascinated me is how the arts, especially the literary arts, can be tools of informational social influence for and by diasporic minorities living in majority cultures. There’s a whole science about minority influence theory and I’m not going to get into that here. But I’m curious about how we diasporic writers can make a meaningful cultural impact through our writing while we’re also working hard to assimilate, conform, and survive by avoiding conflict, ridicule, and rejection. I’m not talking about the diasporic books that are clearly pandering to the majority gaze because they’re still very much about assimilation, conformance, and survival. Or the ones that are mostly about the expected tropes of displacement, poverty, nostalgia, or alienation. I’m talking about diasporic literature that doesn’t seek to comply or conform or confirm but seeks to confront, convince, and convert. (Sorry about all the alliteration there.) Books that are still about the diasporic experience but not as much about trying to find one’s place or identity—given that both are fluid and evolving for diaspora folks—as about appreciating the many layers and depths of our pluralistic and transnational culture. Books that don’t reinforce the stereotypes and biases about India but disrupt expectations and create uncertainty, doubt, and inner conflict so that a reader will question their own views and beliefs.
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I’m at an age where I spend an equal amount of my present time looking at both the past and the future. Which is to say, I’m your average middle-aged desi aunty who looks to the past to put the present in context, looks to the present to avoid the future, and looks to the future to escape both the past and present.
So I’ll close with an old folktale I heard and read often growing up in India. There are many ancient and allegorical Indian folktales about Emperor Vikramaditya, who was renowned for his generosity, wisdom, bravery, and patronage of the arts and the sciences. One of these is about his famous descendant, King Bhoj. This luminary encounters a poor Brahmin priest-turned-landowner behaving erratically—as a generous soul when standing at a particular location and as his usual miserly self* the rest of the time. When Bhoj has that curious spot dug up, they find his ancestor Vikramaditya’s grand, bejeweled throne. Mystery solved. The Brahmin, unbeknownst to even himself, had been influenced by the legendary Emperor’s generosity when standing right above that throne. The story goes on with Bhoj having the throne brought to his court so he might sit on it. But the thirty-two goddess-like statues carved all around the throne dance to life and warn him to not do so. Unless, they trill at him beautifully, he has done many Vikramaditya-like virtuous and magnificent deeds. Otherwise, the intense energy of that famous throne will be, they caution, too much for a mere mortal. Stunned, Bhoj admits to not knowing these legendary past deeds and asks to be educated so that he might better understand the enduring power of the past on the present.
In that same vein, and based on my personal subjective experience as a diaspora writer, it’s important for me to have this kind of deeper understanding of the homeland and the past that has shaped it. So that I can put my present into an appropriate context and aim to do what I said earlier: create work that will be, potentially, a tool of informational social influence, despite being from a minority writer, by confronting, convincing, and converting minds rather than complying with, conforming to, or confirming the same old, same old.
All of which is to say that I aim to be a different kind of diasporic writer. Someone who’s truly transnational, who has immersed themselves in and studied both worlds of their hyphenated identities. A writer whose art can speak for both their peoples. A writer who can honor what they’ve left behind while also embracing what they call home now.
And with this, I’ve come to a close. I would like to, again, extend my deepest gratitude to Swati Jena and Soumi Mitra and the entire Qissa team for the opportunity to share my experiences and concerns as an Indian Diasporan living in America. And I thank everyone in the audience for their interest. I now invite questions and dialogue from all of you out there. Thank you.
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