Diasporic Characters’ Desire to Take a ‘U-Turn’ in Selected Punjabi Short Stories
Dr. Sumneet Kaur, has been working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Guru Nanak Dev University for eighteen years and specializes in Feminism and Postcolonial Literature. She has recently authored a Coffee Table Book Amritsar & Guru Nanak Dev University: The Contours of Inheritance, and has also translated a Punjabi novel into English as, The Collateral Minds.
As the movement of people across borders has become a norm rather than an exception, diaspora has come to assume enormous significance in the literary studies of our time.Many postcolonial texts from decolonised countries and diasporic communities interrogate and expose, and give voice to the subaltern’s experience of being alienated and obscured. Generally, the works written in regional languages or not written in internationally acclaimed languages and by the writers holding a position away from the centrality remain absent from the dominant canon. Therefore, a few non-canonical Punjabi short stories have been chosen to be analysed in the present paper and the diasporic characters in the selected stories are subjected to a myriad of experiences. The present paper gives space to the characters who see the geographical movement as emancipatory and analyses how and why these voluntary diasporic characters have to grapple with a strong desire to take a ‘U-turn’ towards their homeland. The paper shows that divided between the persistent pull of the two centres, the immigrant minds are simultaneously subjected to contrary emotions and desires — progression and retreat, euphoria and despair, a desire to reclaim the past yet revolt against it, the yearning to go back forestalled by the inability to move out and the urge to show solidarity to the homeland but an unwillingness to threaten relations with the host country.
Keywords: Diaspora, Postcolonial, Canon, Geographical movement, Immigrant, Emotions and desires, Homeland, Host land, Yearning, Nostalgia, Emancipation.
Migration is not a recent phenomenon. The dominant metaphor to describe the migratory experience has been botanical, that of uprooting and transplantation. Migration and relocation have been conceptualised as cases of rupture and disjunctive crisis. The new comer faces the need to survive the cataplexy of uprooting and the shock of arrival. This is followed by an incessant struggle to surmount the obstacles to one’s assimilation into, or compatible adaptation to the new environment. When the once colonised or exploited gate-crash their way into metropolitan centres of the once glorious imperium, it gives rise to diasporic border zones that are rife with a wide range of problems, issues and concerns like the agony of dislocation from familiar environs and the necessity of relocation, adjustment on unfamiliar shores and the titanic differences between the two cultures, which causes cultural-shock and gives birth to memory, nostalgia and the feeling of homelessness. It has been observed that the diasporic psyche is necessarily marked by a double consciousness. Having known two worlds, it is the migrant’s fate to never find concrete moorings in anything unitary again. Doomed or blessed, the migrant is destined to constantly oscillate (most of the times psychologically and sometimes physically) between two cultures, two worldviews, two languages, two mind-sets and two different kinds of experiences.
As the movement of people across borders has become a norm rather than an exception, diaspora has come to assume enormous significance in the literary studies of our time. Many postcolonial texts from decolonised countries and diasporic communities interrogate and expose, and give voice to the subaltern’s experience of being alienated, obscured and peripheralised. It has generally been observed that “with the global literature publishing, distributing, establishing and canonizing industry shifting its focus somewhat from the European/white ‘centre’ to the ‘margins’ consisting of former colonies, an increasing number of authors and literary works, originally published or translated into colonial/neo colonial languages like English and French are gaining audience, recognition and appreciation in many parts of the world” (Romana 86). But the case becomes problematic when the migrant writers like Naipaul, Rushdie or Sidhwa “often earn most of literary reputation and celebrity status by writing about the countries left behind and, consciously or unconsciously, targeting as consumers of their work the reading public of their adopted countries and continents” (88). Therefore, the works written in regional languages or not written in internationally acclaimed languages and by the writers holding a position away from the centrality remain absent from the dominant canon.
Sometimes, the works and writers on the margins or periphery are brought into the centre, “by the hegemonic publishing and establishing industry [which has] its own economic and political agenda” (87). The hegemonic literary industry may not give relevance to the “aesthetic/thematic orientation or ideological/political significance” of the works by non-canonical writers in the “socio-cultural contexts”, yet they have “an appeal and significance in concrete socio-cultural environment they portray” (87).A few non-canonical Punjabi short stories have been chosen to be analysed in the present paper since it cannot be forgotten that “all cultural identities differ from one another in one way or the other[,] every perspective consciousness is rooted in its own socio-cultural, racial, class and gender identity [and the] ‘marginalised’ cultures tend to be further marginalised or ignored altogether with the governing interests determining what should be read and how” (90-91).We will see that the diasporic characters in the selected stories are subjected to a myriad of experiences. The difference can be located in the reasons for migration, in linguistic and caste affiliations, in varied levels of education, economic status, gender, age, employability in terms of value to the host culture and personal compulsions and sensibilities. And these different variables render each individual’s experience unique. The present paper gives space to the characters who see the geographical movement as emancipatory and analyses how and why these voluntary diasporic characters have to grapple with a strong desire to take a ‘U-turn’ towards their homeland.
The term diaspora, derived from the Greek word diaspirein, meaning to disperse, and applied since the nineteenth century to the worldwide scattering of Jews, in more recent times is used to describe the numerous racial and ethnic groups living distant from their traditional homelands for whatever reasons. When we speak of the Indian diaspora, we generally refer to persons of Indian birth or ethnicity living abroad since earlier times, often as a result of induced indenture. In more recent decades emigration is usually by free choice and often for economic, artistic and/or social advantage. The Indian diaspora is the largest, with around 20 million Indians settled in different parts of the world. It began during the colonial period when the British Empire had spread its tentacles around the globe. Initially Indian labourers and then entrepreneurs followed the Union Jack from the Caribbean islands to Fiji and from Canada to South Africa. Thus, were established little Indias now inhabited by successive generations of the first migrants whom the Indian Government has today labelled as Pravasi Bharatis (Non-resident Indians). Among this group are also the diasporics of more recent postcolonial origins. There are millions of Pravasi Bharatis scattered around the world. They have considerable economic and political clout, and an awareness of this has probably led to the official recognition of this phenomenon and the offer of dual citizenship to Indians in diaspora. Postcolonial migration re-establishes the link between the colonizer and the colonized and is particularly intriguing and pregnant with unprecedented potential for academic exploration and research.
Migrants’ encounter with ‘the other’ may result in intercultural friendships and/or relationships or force racial discrimination and rejection upon him. The newcomers, usually, either succumb to the assimilationist pressures to merge in the mainstream culture or desperately attempt to preserve their ethnicity through ethnic-community formation. They are all seen struggling to grapple with bi-cultural pulls, coping and coalescing with the influences of the land of their birth and country of their choice, so that the central point at which their narratives meet is the double consciousness which assumes different shades and nuances. Living across boundaries may not be associated with the negative feelings of estrangement or the positive feelings of multilocality; but in either case, living across boundaries does not occlude the attendant anxieties and agonies of dislocation and relocation. Racked by the necessity to forge a new hyphenated identity, face bicultural pulls and meet the compulsion to perform tight rope walking and balancing between two diametrically opposite cultures; most migrants end up as victims of the in-between syndrome. Few are able to meet the ideals, yet complex demand of taking from diametrically opposite cultures and negotiating a new hybrid self over and above unitary or essentialist identities always looms large in their lives.
The diasporic/migrants’ belonging is split between the culture of origin and the culture of current location. The outcome of this interaction between the past and the present is the reworking of cultural identity, which is at once plural and partial. Diasporic populations inhabit interstitial spaces and their inter-subjective and intercultural experiences constitute them as hyphenated-hybrid subjects. A diasporic subject cannot opt for one extremity of total identification with his own country or the other of total acceptance of the alien country. Figures that are bi-focal and bi-local, deterritorialised or having complex and multiple belongings, necessarily live through difference. They have to develop tolerance for contradictions and ambiguities and in so doing acquire a plural personality. Radhakrishnan supports this project of “dwelling rigorously and passionately in the hyphen without succumbing to total integration on either side of ethnic hyphenation, i.e. sustaining along multiple axis without totalization” (Radhakrishnan 65).
The diasporic subjects can also be classified on the basis of age-group, gender, and their differential orientation towards motherland as well as the adopted other-land among many others. A major categorisation of immigrants depends upon whether they belong to the first, or second and third generation of migrants. Those who are born in one country and migrate to another as adults fall in the category of the first generation immigrants. The successive generations of these migrants that are born and bred in the new land, constitute the second and third generation immigrants. Placed alongside the first generation of immigrants who may tell the tale of loss, nostalgia and oppression and may yet be leading an ambiguous life of uncertain domicile; the second and third generations are comparatively at home in the country of their birth, despite the cultural hybridity, dual identity and mixed loyalty that have been foisted upon them. The first generation migrants display a strong sense of affiliation with the lost culture and resist assimilation in the host culture; and the second and third generation immigrants welcome the prospect of acculturation in the new soil rather than looking back longingly. Generally observed, the members of the first generation are underprivileged at home, they are forced to migrate by the fear of unemployment and starvation and for whom return, for the same reason, remains a remote possibility. Being professionally unskilled they merely manage to secure a working class status abroad and face racial abuse and rejection at the hands of the host society. They build a cocoon around themselves as a recluse from cultural dilemmas and from the experienced hostility in the new country. Faced with rejection, they cling to their ethnic identity. But their successive generations relate more positively to the culture of their adoption and seek a meaningful role in its political and cultural lives.
For the first generation women immigrants, the element of choice in the fact of migration is limited since they often arrive in the West as appendages of men. Acceptance in the culture of adoption often necessitates a change in dress code and lifestyles which may attack their sense of identity. But since these add-ons have always been the preservers of traditions, they are expected to act as “a vital link in the continuation of the culture of the sending society” (Pandurang 90). They have not only to remember and hold on to their past but to reproduce it too. A strict moral code defines their area of freedom even abroad, since unlike men who are to negotiate with the external world, the women are to act as custodians of traditional culture even in the alien lands.
In another variation on the theme of exile, sometimes migration is viewed as an escape from the stranglehold of tradition, orthodoxy of religion and oppression in societal systems of the land of birth. For well educated, professionally successful and financially secure immigrants, movement is not an irrevocable act. Their better economic status allows them access to communication networks, enabling them to shuttle between continents rather than having to burn bridges with the past. It is also noticeable that these category of immigrants exhibit an urge to move away from (not necessarily giving up) their land, origins, filiations and connections. They embrace multiple locations, attempt to become transcultural and transnational denizens of the new world order, mooring themselves within the concept of a meta-home in a borderless state of existence. Likewise, this geographical movement into the first world also gives women an opportunity to go beyond her marginalised gender status and explore the possibility of the “agentive new woman” (Pandurang 90).
Bachni, the protagonist of Kailash Puri’s story with the same name, and Mira, a minor character in Vijay Lakshmi’s story “Mannequins” are marginalised, trapped in patriarchy and burdened with the responsibility of maintaining cultural traditions. The illiterate, working-class rural woman, Bachni, welcomes the opportunity to accompany her husband to England as a source of emancipation, an escape from destitution and a relief from the compulsions of living in a joint family syndrome. She sees this new place as an arena that does not lack personal space and where the submergence of the individual into larger social constructs that control and manipulate women like Bachni, and for that matter Pal Kaur in “The Twin Shores”, does not take place. When Pakhar Singh seems to have resolved his dilemma in favour of settling down in India, which he thinks is a “thousand times better” than a life of “insults” and “ignominy” on the alien shores; he has to face strong protests from his wife Pal Kaur (Neelgiri 18). Pal Kaur, discontent with the drudgery of household chores and field work, is “itching to go to England” in search of “a better life” (18).
Women live in such a different economic, cultural and social world from that of men that their reactions towards every other phenomenon, including migration and a diasporic existence, are markedly different from those of their male counterparts. Pal Kaur belongs to the class of Indian women who experience a double marginalization in their native location; one economic and the other gender based. Such women often look at migration as a means of liberation from economic dependence and gender oppression thrust upon them by the South-Asian patriarchal order. Immigration to an unorthodox western society allows them a better standard of living, social independence and a more central role in shaping their lives. Pal Kaur is understandably weary of her circumscribed existence. She is not prepared to be a “farmer’s spouse” and “load a basket of roties on (her) head” for the rest of her life (Neelgiri 15). She covets personal freedom and economic independence through relocation abroad. Apart from this reason, it is her refusal to lead a segregated marital life any more, which culminates in her insistence that the whole family be united via migration to England.
And, why not? Why would Pal Kaur not have such dreams of independence, emancipation and happiness when in “Bachni” we see the protagonist, who could be termed as the ego-ideal of Pal Kaur, spends quality time in decking herself up every morning. Before taking the bus, Bachni takes “great delight in dressing up with an eye on detail” (Puri 17). Savouring every bit of freedom that a life of self-employment in America offers against an innocuous and debilitating homebound existence in the village, she dons herself in “a close fitting shirt … high heels, and a scarf around her head” (17). She leads a liberated life that Pal Kaur dreams of. Bachni is independent and has no constraints of living in an extended family with her mother-in-law and other relatives. She feels more in control of her home and experiences a sense of empowerment that was culturally denied to her in the homeland.
Like Pakhar Singh’s stubble, Bachni’s “big and round bindi” and “a bun on top of her head” are the obvious markers of hybridity. Such a fusion and retaining of cultural markers signify the precarious balance created by migrants between honouring and breaking traditions. Bachni retains her culture in feminine values, while assimilating the western culture visibly in her dress and in her adoption of western ideals of freedom and individuality. She is one of those immigrants who “carve their own (hybrid) routes” while trying to enjoy the best of both cultures beyond the binary fixities of home/abroad instead of “lamenting over the lost roots”, and hence, there is seemingly no desire to take a ‘U-turn’ (Kaur 47). Pakhar Singh and Bachni belong to that category of hybrids who give up some of the cultural identity markers and, according to Narang, they
acquire corresponding category of markers from the mainstream of the society they are migrating into. These denote, in a way, the cultural visa stamp for entry into society. Some of these tokens, the immigrants are ready to shed easily and without much fuss while there are some others they give up only reluctantly . . .” (26-27)
Bachni finds the task of migration relatively easier since the average Indian woman located within the geographical space of the Indian nation-state already belongs simultaneously to a diversity of cultures. Spivak believes that women “carry internalised the lesson of exchangeability of home, as the basis of identity” (Spivak 252). The initiation of women into a multicultural society begins with their attempt to assimilate. The post-migration re-formation of the self in case of women is generally a working out of an intentional hybridity, an outcome of a conscious negotiation with and a contestation between the intersecting cultures rather than an imposed hybridity formed in line with the hegemonic ideologies of the adopted first-world.
Vijay Lakshmi’s “Mannequins” deals with the issue of female self-determination in the postcolonial metropolitan centre. The protagonist glosses over her frustration before her children with a smile when she is told by her teenage daughter that she could not go to the PTA meet in a sari, “No way … you’ll have to dress differently Ma. I haven’t seen anybody’s mom in a sari at school” (Lakshmi 79). To her surprise, her little son had also interjected in her sister’s support, stammering, “it looks so odd … cons- cons- conspicuous” (Lakshmi 79). The children’s coaxing their mother to dress like an average American betrays a sense of apology at their being Indian but the mother also cannot help admitting to herself that “though (she) despised the idea of masquerading in an alien garb, (she) had begun to feel uncomfortable in a sari” (Lakshmi 80). In order to be accepted as a part of her foster society, to rule out rejection, to become inconspicuous in the crowd; we find the protagonist rummaging through a busy American bazaar. Her secret visits to the city centre have accelerated of late as the desire to transform herself to suit her environs has intensified. Her sari, the signifier of culture in the motherland is identified as cultural-marker itself in the other land.
It can also not be ignored that an average American in the street notices the protagonist’s “mascaraed eyes”, “red fingernails”, “soft glow on the face” and a “carefully groomed figure”(Lakshmi 180-81). She seems to have perfectly replicated her archetypes — fashion models, Barbie dolls or the mannequin in the city centre that has a “blue emerald gaze”, a “glazed smile”, and a “flawless figure” (180-81). The American ways of appearance and attire have been portrayed as liberating. To the protagonist, her body in a sari seems “plain … nor sleek, nor sophisticated”, while the mannequins in the western garb are “slim, elegant, sophisticated” (180).The sari is “coiled around her” and she pines to “move and flow … feel free and uninhibited” by adopting the American dressing (180). The protagonist’s discomfort in the sari and her desire to feel freedom in the western clothes is half forced and half willed which may with time become a completely willed desire like her cousin Mira’s who illustrates the subaltern’s notion of willed hybridity.
Mira re-invents herself on her own terms and uses to her own advantage the choices offered to her by a multicultural society. After great coaxing she comes to visit her only daughter in the States. But once she is here, she decides to stay on and even finds herself a job. Mira, an old destitute widow, is economically dependent and vulnerable in traditional Indian society. Like Bachni, she sees her dislocation as advantageous and undergoes the narrative of personal recovery and rehabilitation. Therefore, for Mira, identity transformation is not a cause of crisis. Thinking about Mira, the protagonist wonders:
In ten months my cousin Mira has learnt more about the American way of life than I have in three years … Plain, mousy Mira who had taken to wearing white saris, after she was widowed, flaunts all colours of peacock’s plume now. The woman who hardly opened her mouth, chatters with the children about the movies and basketball, even discusses stock market with Govind. (Lakshmi 180-81).
Mira exudes a remarkable sense of confidence in reinscribing and celebrating her identity and like Bachni she too does not show any desire to take a ‘U-turn’, while her cousin, the protagonist who finds herself “grappling with some obscure knots that never untangle” passes by the ‘U-turn’ half-heartedly and keeps turning her neck towards it intermittently (181). Mira takes like fish to water to the new location that lends sustenance to her individuality, whereas the protagonist, who still cherishes the self within, is trying to subsume her individuality to a sense of acculturation within the mainstream culture.
A desire to pass-by, avoid and ignore the ‘U-turn’ is very common in the second and third generation immigrants. They wish to relate more with the other culture and outgrow that of their parents who belong to the first generation. The culture at home, the food, the language, the moral values, attitudes towards sex and marriage, kinship patterns are all strikingly different from the culture abroad. The culture into which they are born is seen better and they are intensely involved in the process of going to the school with the children from the country of their birth and in negotiating the pressures of the peer group and relating to a different neighbourhood. The children born to immigrant parents enjoy better settlement and space in the country of their birth and that is why they do not want to retain a “sense of identity borne from living in a diasporic community (which) is influenced by the past migrant history of their parents” (McLeod 207).
Immigrant parents, generally partial towards their ethnic cultural heritage, are desirous of transmitting it to their next generation and to cushion them from the so-called corrupting influences of a decadent culture outside home. Parents insist that their wards follow their ethnic culture and most parents also want to help their children integrate into the larger mainstream society. Hence, generally the highly-educated or professionally well-settled parents who have made bargains with their pasts and future and who do not strongly desire a ‘U-turn’ allow some liberties like choice of dress, food habits, language spoken at home and even career choice and movement,to their children to aid their participation in the social life outside home.
The parents, Inder Singh and his wife, in Ravinder Ravi’s “The Road to Marriage”, wary of corrupting western liberties bring up their children solely in Punjabi way forcing upon them an unnatural alienation from larger western society. Like Bachni and Mira, both the parents are leading a happy and contented life for their children grow up to be exemplary children in the eyes of the Punjabi Community in Canada. They “learnt Punjabi, visited the Gurudwara … studied our culture … watched Hindi and Punjabi movies and brought special colour to the cultural gatherings of Bhangra, Gidda and folk songs” (Ravi 60-61). The Punjabi Community in Canada “encouraged their children to look up to Sohan and Mohini as role models” (60-61). Sohan and Mohini qualify as special children because they are untouched by the culture of their adopted country of domicile while the other Punjabi children in the West “took to smoking tobacco and experimenting with drugs. They swayed to the rhythm of western dances. They indulged in practices, which Punjabi culture deemed to be shameful and immoral” (55). In case of Inder Singh and his wife the over romanticisation of the past and a self-imposed ghettoization do not force them to look for a ‘U-turn’ to their roots since they see the same roots in their successive generation.
The parents in “The Free Society” by Swaran Chandan are cognizant of the fact that hybridity, impurity, intermingling and the transformation that comes with the new and unexpected combinations of human beings, culture and ideas are inevitable and inescapable in diasporic situation. Hence, they do not force their teenage daughter Seema to have an essentialist ethnic identity like Sohan and Mohini in Ravi’s “The Road to Marriage”. Mrs. and Mr. Dhillon rather allow their daughter to maintain a polymorphous self because it seems that Seema’s parents understand that the immigrants of the next generation are culturally closer to the mainstream; having being a part of the same system of education, speaking the same language in a similar accent, having similar dress codes and food habits, similar hopes and fears, similar aspirations and trepidations as members of what Edward Said calls the imposing centre. Their pride on having permitted their daughter exceptional liberties — she could cut her hair short, don modern dresses and also visit discos with her parents’ consent — is a reason enough not to think of returning home or taking the ‘U-turn’.
But the polymorphous self of Seema, however, is expected to operate within the boundaries of Indian codes of morality. Whereas Mohini demonstrates exceptional obedience and begins to appreciate some of the codes of Punjabi life, Seema does not budge from obsessively watching midnight movies even after her parents’ dire warnings and coaxing. The first generation parents, who immigrated primarily in search of better opportunities, place a high premium on scholastic success and good professions so that their children are less vulnerable to prejudices and discriminations. Seema’s interest in the movies is the direct influence of her peer group and she cannot afford to be left out of the animated discussions about the films. The inter-generational gap begins to widen when the hermetically sealed world of her parents is unable to respond to, or even understand her need. The removal of television from the house brings in Mills and Boons romances, an erotic novel by Harold Robbins and a variety of pornographic magazines. When under pressure Seema returns the erotic reading material, she starts spending all the time in her room — sulking, studying or sleeping — and later she begins to return late from her school. One fine day, Mr. Dhillon, who goes out in search of her since she had got very late, is flabbergasted to find her walking with her boyfriend who assures her that her father could not force her at all. Because of unreasonable pressure, restrictions, a desire to belong and to be a part of a group, Seema attempts to stave off her Indian influences to get assimilated seamlessly into the local white world or her host culture. The parents have hardly come to terms with the shocking discovery of their daughter’s boyfriend, when the next day Mrs. Ahuja, who as a responsible member of the Indian community considers it her duty to set aside the code of doctor-patient confidentiality, reveals that Seema “wants to be on the pill” (Chandan 85-87). The nightmarish revelation suffocates Mrs. Dhillon so much that she suffers a mild first heart attack.
Similarly and shockingly, the otherwise obedient Mohini refuses to get married to a stranger from India who would be chosen for her by her parents. One day she tells her father how she and her brother pine to participate in and be accepted by the mainstream life outside, how they wish to do “everything that the majority of children in this country do” (Ravi 59-60). She tries to tell her father, who lives by a rigid, ritualistic observance of Indian ways and neither chooses to assimilate into nor to integrate with the host society, that they never tried to connect with her. She says:
Canada is a multi-lingual and multi-cultural country. People from every country of the world have made it their home. Each immigrant has a separate and distinct identity. Nevertheless, as Canadians they also have a collective identity. You have never tried to see us as part of this collective consciousness. We were born in this country. We grew up and studied here. The larger circle of life in Canada is a part of our individual lives. (Ravi 60-61)
Mohini asserts her right to “marry the man of her choice”, and Inder Singh, still living by antiquated Punjabi ethics, cannot accept the low-caste Joginder Singh as his son-in-law (59).
Joginder’s father, Sunder Singh is a liberal and sensitive individual who voices the writer in denouncing Inder Singh’s attitude. He represents the few immigrants who are never forced in any manner to take the ‘U-turn’ for they do not reject an alien way of life, display respect for difference, refuse to make hopeless attempts at keeping an old self intact and are open to the intake of positives from an unknown culture. Inder Singh is traumatized when he is caught up in the confrontation between the deep-seated eastern ideal of communal honour and western values of individual freedom and personal happiness. He is completely devastated when he loses his daughter who undertakes with Joginder the fertility test (customary for couple prior to their marriage in some Kenyan tribes, to test whether the prospective bride can bear children) of some Kenyan tribes. Inder Singh, the man, who in fourteen years had not taken leave of absence from his job for even one day, gives up work and out of sheer despondency and a sense of shame “becomes a captive in his own house” when he learns that his daughter had lost virginity and become pregnant before marriage (Ravi 54).
Generally, the diasporic journeys of the first generation create narratives of dislocation, displacement and uprooting. Their expatriation is a complex state of mind and emotion which results in a wistful longing for the past. Even after re-location, Inder Singh and Mr. Dhillon stubbornly hold on to their home-grown code and thus, their mental space remains unaltered. Inder Singh’s wife and Mrs. Dhillon are also inept to connect with their respective daughters and are unable to understand that home for the second generation immigrants is where they are born which widens the drift between the first and the second generation and increases the desolation of the first generation immigrants and they would soon look forward to a ‘U-turn’. Likewise, the other diasporic women characters discussed above to whom the multicultural world seems to offer a range of choices and privileged positions are often smitten by a sense of alienation and despair.
We notice that Bachni is willing to bond with the land to which her husband has brought her and can love both homelands, but conflict and confusion are inevitable to a bicultural existence. We see her suffering ineluctable disruption as for the last couple of days her “heart was heavy” and her body felt “battered” and “bruised” and the “tension in her mind had increased manifold” (Puri 22). The racist invectives hurled at her by her white colleagues at the factory and “Enoch Powell’s speeches” against immigrants, directing them to “go back to their own countries” (24) had “settled into the innermost recesses of her heart” (34). The British government was unable to curb racial, ethnic and gender discriminations against immigrants despite its official policy to promote multiculturalism, and Bachni feels, “men and women looked at immigrants in the workplace with such hostility as every morsel in their mouths was the rightful share of an Englishman or woman” (24).
If globalisation has facilitated the diasporic exodus of the black or the non-white populations to the developed world, it is only to serve ever-increasing variable needs of industrial capitalism. Be it the phenomenon of colonisation or the reverse, present inflow of migrants into the western metropolis, economic exploitation of the subaltern and the social ignominy flung at them have remained constant. Bachni argues logically, “the whites kill us with murderous looks. They behave as if we have no right to the money we have earned through hard labour” (Puri 26). She is accosted by the possibility that “they might have to sell their house in England and return to their village in India” (34). A beautiful house lush with all modern comforts, fat pay packets earned by the couple with only two small children to look after, have made life in England so handsome that it was, “time to be happy, to feast and to enjoy” (Puri). The prospect of returning to her village appears harrowing:
Living in the village was worse than living in hell … she remembered … dressed in loose and oversized clothes, hidden behind long ghund … the endless chores of the household that tied her down to the hearth and the home. (Puri 25-26).
Bachni shudders to imagine how would she “bridge the gap between the person she was in England and the person she will have to become in the village” (26). But, if her return to her roots entails an identity crisis and a cloistered existence in poverty, it is also the only escape-route from the senses of hate and insult suffered in an alien country:
At least the village will have no Enoch Powell, Rosemary or Eileen to look at me with their sullen and angry eyes. How proud and self-respecting are the people of my village and my country. (26)
Rekindled by racial abuse, her national consciousness resurfaces to disrupt her happy acceptance of the foreign land, leaving Bachni in the divided state that is home to the diasporic psyche.
Similarly, the craving of the protagonist of “Mannequin” to refashion herself and shun the ethnic identity would amount to transformation that the protagonist is determined to achieve today by selecting a western dress and taking her family by surprise:
I want to see the wonder on my children’s faces and admiration in my husband’s eyes as I walk into the room and stand before them like a mannequin — slim, elegant, and sophisticated — totally transformed. I want to show them that I too can cast off the old wrappings and become a brand-new person like my cousin Mira. (Lakshmi 180)
The protagonist’s desire to accept change is an extraneous imposition. Unlike Bachni, it is not a self-designing — the promise American deceptively holds for the newcomer (for the truth is “you can’t live in America and not dress like the American”) — but an act of postcolonial mimicry on one hand, and a surrender to an imposed hybridity on the other. The woman wishes to ape the average American lady in the street (“to be like the thousands of women who are walking down the streets at this very instant”) or the mannequin (which is an embodiment of American beauty) or her cousin Mira (who has taken to the American of life with ease and alacrity). Apart from the pressures to pursue these feminine idols, the demands of the male gaze dictate her to re-design herself. Her husband, Govind’s, persistent admiration for Mira (“Mira’s quite a woman …. She seems to have adjusted so well to this part of the world”) also goads her on to westernise herself (Lakshmi 181-82). The protagonist thus, is subjected to a compounding censure of the male gaze and the racist stare (Rai 204-06). The coloured protagonist is colonised twice over — by both imperial and patriarchal ideologies since her performance of hybridity is not a conscious fusion of the negotiating cultures and on the contrary requires a complete erasure of her past.
All the characters analysed above seem to be suffering the same dilemma and trauma as Pakhar Singh in “The Twin Shores” by Tarsem Singh Neelgiri and Kuldip in “Disowned” by Shivcharan Gill are. Pakhar Singh a member of the rustic, farming Punjabi community is tempted out of his home by better economic prospects abroad. But disrupted by the feelings of loneliness and nostalgia, and victimised by social discrimination and racial abuse, he is forced to take a ‘U-turn’. Consequently, he ends up leading an ambivalent life of settledness and unsettledness like the other protagonists. On entering his village after “nine years of captivity in England”, Pakhar Singh thoughtfully runs his hand over his stubble, “you were the first causality of the assault by the English” (Neelgiri 2). Immigrants, who refuse to shed their cultural-identity markers like headgear and long beard especially in case of Sikhs, are unable to assimilate and homogenise fully into the mainstream culture. The memory of the gory incident, which accelerated his return to his homeland, time and again flashes back in his mind when, “two months back … going home after a late night shift in the bakery, two skinheads had waylaid him and ripped his stomach apart without reason or provocation (9). The racial, the socio-political and even the community based antagonism between migrants and natives in the metropolitan West is one of the most incendiary issues in the process of adjustment in today’s mixed, multi-racial reality of existence.
For Pakhar Singh, unlike Bachni who did not want to return to her village at all, “it was the finest day of his life … the urge to return to his roots was at last fulfilled … a weight upon his heart lifted” (Neelgiri 2-3). For the marooned, unanchored and misplaced Pakhar Singh who yearned “to eat a meal cooked especially for him by his wife”, and for whom “there was nothing but scrambled eggs to eat, saag was certainly out of the question”, memory and nostalgia often acted as asylum (7). A migrant’s life is defined by dual pulls – alien and indigenous – and while anticipating return, Pakhar Singh wonders if he can embrace, against a life of material well-being but social indignity in England, a dignified existence coupled with labour, poverty and hunger at home. Though rent apart within himself, he is unable to transfer his knowledge to his unreceptive family, which is overwhelmed by the prospect of settling abroad. As the story approaches its end, we find Pakhar Singh racked, on one hand, by his wish to settle down anew in his village and on the other, by his family’s passion to fly to England. Split into a man hanging between two contrary prospects, Pakhar Singh gives out a cry of deep anguish:
I cannot just live in England but the future of Ginda and Nimma (his sons) doesn’t let me live in India. There is also Bapu’s hunger for the better life. What should I do? Where should I go? (Neelgiri 18)
Caught between the compulsive (primarily economic) demands of his family and the nightmarish experience of fulfilling them in another land, Pakhar Singh easily typifies the sense of in-betweenness that characterizes the life-situation of hundreds of immigrants.
Like many professional Indians who “in the waves of the early 60s” went abroad “as part of the brain drain”, Kuldip Singh, in the story “The Diasowned” by Shiv Charan Gill, goes to England in pursuit of higher studies and the prospect of settling down with security and respect. He rejects “thirty fertile acres of best land” and “a government job” in hiscountry and becomes “an officer in the pantry division of British Airways” (Gill 92).
Being in a position of agency, Kuldip does not experience racismor non-acceptance at the hands of the white society. He is held in awe by his white colleagues and juniors who not only carry gifts for him but also seem to recognise the worth of this “Black Englishman” (Gill 90). Whereas Kuldip is addressed as Sir, Pakhar Singh is assaulted as “Bastard Paki”, “Bloody Nigger”, andBachni is ridiculed for being racially different. Interestingly,Kuldip is not addressed as an “Englishman” but as a “Black Englishman” because the host society may accept him as ‘an almost white’ but never ‘a white’ (Neelgiri 18, Gill 90). Owing to the inter-racial marriage of the protagonist, the postcolonial encounter between the immigrant and the native, restricted to the social sphere in the other stories analysed here, enters the familial domain in the present one. But during the course of the story one realises that the harmony worked out between two individuals of two continents is fragile.
As opposed to Kuldip and Marriane whose home is disrupted by “no peace” and a “tense atmosphere”, the couple in “The Twin Shores” is bonded by a deep sense of attachment despite enormous barriers of time and space (Gill 92). The situation that develops with the arrival of Kuldip’s father, Joginder a retired Revenue Officer who has an unconscious grudge against the English, affords a glimpse into the clichéd East-West encounter involving conflicts such as tradition versus modernity, Indian conservatism versus liberal West, spiritualism versus rationalism and their alarming effects. In cross-cultural encounters, the apparent order created by individual adjustments often turns into chaos because of familial intrusion. An exasperated Joginder, who refuses to budge from his obstinate stance and becomes a source of complication, psychological tension and interference in the life of Kuldip’s wife and children, returns to his village and then keeps sending disconsolate letters to his son asking him to get rid of his white family and return to start anew. Kuldip’s relations with Marianne who no longer loves him and his kids,who are ashamed of a “black father”, grow sour and before Kuldip can decide, both the parties disown him (96). His father in India bequeaths his land and property to a distant relative and his wife divorces him. The story ends with his painful cry that succinctly sums up the Trishanku state of diasporic individual, “disowned, everybody disowned, you disowned, I disowned too” (99).
One may, thus, say that the immigrant experiences of almost all the diasporic characters in the stories analysed, despite individual differences, neatly fall under either of the two categories. The characters are either on their way towards a ‘U-turn’ if they have yet not succeeded in simultaneously belonging to both worlds; or they have a strong desire to bypass the turn and belong wholly to one world. Bicultural pulls and the psychological movement from one state of mind to another causes dilemmas and nostalgia; and a sense of displacement and loss. The diasporic subject is on the one hand haunted by the memory of his past, and on the other, traumatised by his confrontation with a chaotic present which is pregnant with hard realities of discrimination and exploitation. For an immigrant neither dislocation nor absorption is complete. Many a time, it is observed that despite specificities and peculiarities in every immigrant’s bicultural experience, a similarity lies within the bounds of the double mindedness that characteristics the immigrant psyche. The feeling of “not-at-homeness tends to be seen as characteristic feeling of a non-acceptance or alienation within the host society. At-homeness, in turn, is tied up with the continued identification with the ancestral society, whether it is through memories of the actual homeland, or through a range of evocative ‘objects, fragments of narratives that keep in their heads or in their suitcases’” (Mishra 68). The strain of the loss of home and the past; and the absence and the nostalgia always pull the migrants to the same past and the flustered characters then abide by communal identity to exist in the metaphorical national boundaries constructed in foreign lands.
Men enjoy a privileged position in the phallocentric Indian set-up and so the impact of racial discrimination is more acutely registered on men than on women. Almost all prominent male characters illustrate the hanging man or Trishankustate of the diasporic subject while women and the young second generation immigrant characters come close to becoming multi-culturally evolved global citizens who endeavour to live embracing their alternate realities. At times, migrants, especially women, may find themselves ill at ease in the native culture as well as the alien one or attempt the tightrope challenges to embrace both worlds. They may belong neither here nor there or try to become universalised citizens soaring above and beyond fixed boundaries. Divided between the persistent pull of the two centres, the immigrant minds are simultaneously subjected to contrary emotions and desires — progression and retreat, euphoria and despair, a desire to reclaim the past yet revolt against it, the yearning to go back forestalled by the inability to move out and the urge to show solidarity to the homeland but an unwillingness to threaten relations with the host country. This results in the much talked about double vision of the diasporics. Sunder Singh, a minor character in “The Road to Marriage”, stands out as an exception. He adeptly reconciles his twin allegiances and strides the two worlds successfully. His instance confirms that if being placed on the isthmus of a middle state can be expensive, it can be empowering too; if transnationalism results in negative feelings of estrangement, it can also lead to positive experiences of multi-locality. He possesses the mestizo consciousness that implies the development of a hybrid identity or culture as a result of synchronization of the inherited and the adopted culture, without privileging either side of the hyphen. His case provesthat the idea of a universalised migrant who lives everywhere, soars beyond all traditions and resides in the spaces between culture and nations isn’t really a myth after all.
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