Globalization, transnationalism, and identity politics in South Asian women's texts.
My paper examines the poetics of resistance to gendered identity formations in the texts of women of the South Asian diaspora and their connections to India and Africa. How are racial and ethnic identities constructed within such diasporic spaces in an era of globalization with its transnational cultural flows ? This in turn leads to a discussion of how such constructions impact the gender and national identity formation of diasporic Indian women.
First, however, one has to examine how nationalism constructs the modern Indian woman. Toward that end, this article delves briefly into the history of nationalism in India and the transformation of Indian woman into the "new" woman of modernity. It then looks at the South Asian diaspora in Africa and the West and the resulting cultural production or "work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of the modern subjectivity" (original emphasis in Appadurai, 3). My project considers films as well as fiction because "such media transform the field of mass mediation [by offering] new resources and new disciplines for the construction of imagined selves and imagined worlds" (Appadurai, 3).
As I examine Indians abroad through their cultural productions, I realize--as a woman of the Indian diaspora first in Burma, then India, and now in the United States--that Indians abroad, in fact, become, in some sense, more "Indian" than Indians in India. When Indians were taken as indentured laborers by the British colonizers to South Africa, they tried to retain their ideas of "Indianness," such as keeping up their languages and religions, in order not to forget. As their ideas of "home" became more and more remote, they found other means of keeping the ideas alive. One of the contributors to the construction of "Indianness," for example, is the Indian cinema, or Hindi films as they are commonly called. This genre is popular in many parts of the world, even with people who do not speak the Hindi language. (1) The ideas of "Indianness" and "Indian womanhood" as traditional and pure is disseminated around the world through the medium of Hindi cinema as well as through oral tradition. In the Indian communities abroad, for example, arranged marriages are still prevalent and many texts show women resisting this practice. They show that transformation and dislocation of gender identities, which are produced in resistance to patriarchal constructions, do take place in such spaces. Transformations, which become possible in the era of globalization, do occur but only in transnational cultural spaces of the First World. Such representations, however, become problematic in terms of postcolonial criticism where Indian women and gay men leave so-called oppressive home cultures for the liberating possibilities of other cultures. I contextualize the authors' communal as well as historical realities in order to understand why some characters appear to be able to transcend nationalism and its cultural constructions of gender identity.
In order to understand how the Indian women are defined in the diaspora, we must first understand the idea of "Indianness" within the Indian context and then examine the idea of Indian woman as it came to be defined during specific moments in history in India and abroad.
Nationalism in colonized India has had a significant impact on gender identity formation. The group that came to redefine the Indian woman based on traditional elements drawn from inherited caste ideologies modified and refined through contact with Western education was the newly emergent middle class. Nationalism deemed it necessary that women should be refashioned; however, at the same time their essential feminine qualities should not be changed. So, on the one hand, women had to be educated so that they would become more suitable for their Western-educated husbands, and, on the other hand, patriarchal control of women's sexuality became an added concern at this time because of women's changing consciousness in response to modernity.
The anxiety that modernization produced in the national consciousness is manifested in the reconstruction of women's identities. Partha Chatterjee, in his important essay "The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question," discusses how the figure of the Indian woman came to be located at the very center of a national culture defined by indigenous cultural elites (Chatterjee, 233-53). According to Chatterjee, nationalism reconciled the contrary pulls of tradition and modernity through its division of the spiritual and the material. The East was subjugated due to the superiority of the material culture of the West, with its technological and economic institutions and its modern statecraft. The native people, therefore, had to learn those "superior techniques of organizing material life and incorporating them within their own cultures" (237). However, it was in the spiritual domain that the "superior" self-identity of the East, which was believed to be far superior to that of the West, was made manifest. Chatterjee argues that nationalism formulated an ideological framework to cultivate the material techniques of modern Western civilization while "retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture" (238). Furthermore, in the discourse of nationalism, the material/ spiritual distinction could be compressed into the analogous dichotomies of outer/inner, public/private, world/home, while the space from which the colonized resisted colonial domination was the feminine space of the home (239). According to Chatterjee, "the home was the principal site for expressing the spiritual qualities of the national culture, and women must take the main responsibility of protecting and nurturing this quality" (243). While the men could be modernized in the public sphere and women could be selectively modernized, the latter "must not, in other words, become essentially westernized ..." (original emphasis in Chatterjee, 243). Thus, one can conclude from Chatterjee's argument that the whole cultural edifice of the nation came to be located, by a series of transformations, in the home and indeed on the physical person of the woman.
My main concern here is to show the position of the "new" woman in nationalist thinking and reconstruction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nationalism created a discursive space for the selective modernization of the domestic sphere and the liberalization of woman's place in it. Tanika Sarkar argues that when the essential values of society came to be embodied in the chaste and virtuous woman, the actual doors of the zenana (domestic space) could be unlocked (Sarkar, 2011).. As long as a woman remained essentially feminine--essentially virtuous--she could be refashioned to suit the need of a changing society (Sarkar, 2014). Thus, the patriarchal control of female sexuality changed from the coercive system of the zenana to the more modern form of contractual and companionate marriage. Therefore, traditional roles were reinscribed as less coercive and more consensual. The ambiguity produced by nationalism can still be seen in cultural representations of modern-day women writers. While the construction of femininity during nationalism was limiting to women in terms of social and economic empowerment, there emerged during this time middle-class women who could become their own agents in defining their subjectivities. This construction allowed the middle-class Indian woman, who was caught between two discursive ideological constructs, to negotiate her identity in conflicted spaces.
I locate my chosen texts in this postcolonial and transnational space from which postcolonial feminists--themselves the bearers of hybrid identities, as they are formed by the oppositional rhetoric and discourse of colonialism and nationalism, modernity and tradition, home and world--translate and negotiate meanings and identities, particularly within the global context of resurgent debates of nationalism in the recent past. For Bhabha, the space of the "displaced," the "hybrid," is an empowered space which can produce counter-narratives of nations that challenge and displace fixed geopolitical boundaries (300). This hybrid place is also the place to strategize resistance and generate counter-discursive practices for many displaced and diasporic women writers. In subsequent discussion, I focus on the politics of gender in these discourses of resistance in order to discuss postcolonial women writers negotiating their national identity. Women's subjectivities and the indigenous patriarchal interpretations of "Indianness" conflicted, and this conflict is reflected in women's writings that are shaped in resistance to this process both in India (home) and the diaspora (world).
The film Mississippi Masala dramatizes the emergence of new cultural identities engendered in translocal or diasporic space. Harvard-educated Mira Nair, who was born in Orissa, India, directed the film, which was released in February 1992. The film is partly shot in Nair's Ugandan home. Mississippi Masala is a story of Mina, the Uganda-born daughter of an Indian family living in Mississippi, and Demetrius, an African American man. Mina works as a maid in a motel run by her relatives while Demetrius has his own carpet cleaning business.
The story unfolds in 1972, with the expulsion of Mina's family from Uganda when she is a child. Her Ugandan-born parents are descendants of Indian laborers who were imported by the British to build the East African railway in the late 1800s. Mina's father, Jaymini Loha, is a prosperous Kampala lawyer who thinks of himself as an African first and Indian second (although in the United States of America, as I will discuss, his "Indianness" reemerges when he sees his daughter's romantic involvement with an African American man). But under the harsh rule of Idi Amin, he--like thousands of other Indian Ugandans--is forced to emigrate, first to England and then to the United States of America. The narrative then unfolds and takes us to 1990 and to Greenwood, Mississippi, where Mina, now 24, is living with her family. She meets Demetrius by accident, literally and figuratively: while driving, she collides into the back of his van. They start dating secretly. Her parents and relatives are shocked when they find out that Mina had actually spent a weekend away from home with Demetrius. Her father is upset not only because Demetrius is black but also because he still remembers the treatment meted out to him by blacks in Uganda; Jay remembers the slogan "Uganda is for Africans--Black Africans" repeated to him by his childhood friend, Okelo. It is at this point that the divisions of minority communities in the United States are highlighted when Demetrius, fighting for his dignity and pride as a black man, tells Mina's father, "You and your folks come down from God knows where and be about as black as the ace of spades, and as soon as you get here you start acting white and treating us like we're your doormats. I know you and your daughter ain't but a few shades from [mine], that I know." Thus the dislocation/alienation of Indians here is interwoven with that of the African diaspora, whose identity formation in the West is complicated with the history of slavery and indentured servitude. Nationalism and the idea of an Indian and African diaspora and the cultural representations that they engender are hierarchized in the first world diaspora.
What is of particular importance here, therefore, is the response of the other male members of the Indian community when they catch Mina making love to Demetrius in a seaside resort motel. They assault him physically and have him arrested for assault and battery. Mina's cousin Anil shouts to Demetrius, "You leave our women alone." Their reaction is that of the clan taking control and restoring honor to the name of the family, thus maintaining patriarchal control and structure. Their idea of an Indian girl has been violated, and that must be redeemed.
While in earlier films and texts, such as Mukherjee's Jasmine, empowerment for Indian women was typically conceived in upward mobility toward the dominant group, when a South Asian woman goes off with a white man (Singh 2000: 422), it is within and across transnational diasporic spaces that change seems to be occurring in Mississippi Masala. There are not many textual representations of Indo-African sexual alliances in cinema. Mina questions the notions of "Indianness" and Indian womanhood in such a space as she asks her parents, "What about me?" when they tell her that she must adhere to Indian sensibility and not see Demetrius anymore. When they ask her where he is from and what his family background is, she answers, "This is America, Ma, nobody cares here," indicating the shifts in thinking in the new generations growing up in the West. Interracial relationships no longer mean showing black/white subjects only; such spaces are the transnational diasporic spaces in which new cultural forms are engendered and where new hybrid identities are being formed. These identities are no longer binary in the sense of black/white, or East/West. Set in both Mississippi and Uganda, the sound track--Indian music, Delta blues, and African drums--suggests that in diasporic spaces in the West identities are being reconstructed and are evolving into a new hybrid reality for the new immigrants.
As Appadurai states, "Mass media and traditional media ... transform the field of mass mediation because they offer new resources and new disciplines for the construction of imagined selves and imagined worlds" (3). While discussing the work of the imagination in today's multimedia-influenced world, Appadurai states that the "creating of social imagination has moved from the realm of social life where forceful leaders used to implant their visions for great revolutions to ordinary people who deploy their imaginations in the practice of everyday life" (5). This fact, he adds, is "exemplified in the mutual contextualizing" of what he calls "motion and mediation" (5). He separates the groups into "diaspora of hope, diaspora of terror, and diaspora of despair." African Americans as well as Indian Americans, among others, constitute these groups. Appaduria elaborates:
The differences between migration in the past and migration today is that now they create new mythographies for new social projects.... Those who wish to move, those who have moved, those who wish to return, and those who choose to stay rarely formulate their plans outside the sphere of radio and television, cassettes and videos, newsprint and telephone. For migrants, both the politics of adaptation to new environments and the stimulus to move or return are deeply affected by a mass-mediated imaginary that frequently transcends national space. (6)
People are forced at every level of social, national and global life to migrate or "choose" to migrate in order to make a living. "They move and must drag their imagination for new ways of living along with them" (5). While Mississippi Masala can be seen as the story of diasporas of terror and despair, as is Bhajion the Beach (as I will show later), there are moments in all these texts when we see characters moving toward empowering spaces or becoming a diaspora of hope.
Mina moves away with Demetrius to another city, possibly Los Angeles, where Leroy, Demetrius' cousin, lives. Representations such as these in Mississippi Masala reflect the reality of movements across ethnic and racial lines in translocal diasporas instead of upward to the dominant cultural spaces. Many cities--Los Angeles, for example--have spaces that encompass multiple nationalisms, such as the Ethiopian community on Fairfax Street where one sees an intermingling of races. As postcolonial subjects, Mina and Demetrius appear to be able to subvert the symbols of modernity. One can read Mina's and Demetrius' act as two transnational diasporic subjects' subverting the social authority imposed upon them by modernity; such acts point to "forms of social antagonism and contradiction that are not yet properly represented, political identities in the process of being formed, cultural enunciations in the act of hybridity, in the process of translating and transvaluing cultural differences" (Bhabha, 252). Nair's narrative suggests that "cultural difference" between African Americans and Asian Americans as represented by Demetrius and Mina is no longer fitting into the mainstream's definition of diversity; the meaning of this new Indo-African merging suggests intercultural transactions, where cultural meanings are no longer "transparent." In the new cultural space, Demetrius and Mina are no longer seen as having left cultural and communal identity behind; they are "dragging" them along. They are, in what Bhabha calls the "indeterminated third space," where their acts must be read anew and integrated within the new multiracial category that is emerging in the United States. They represent the "diaspora of hope."
Bhaji on the Beach
Let us now look at another example of transnational spaces and the construction of a new imagination for immigrant communities who are forced to migrate. In 1994, a young woman from Britain named Gurinder Chadha directed and released her first feature film, Bhaji on the Beach. The director grew up in a largely Punjabi neighborhood in West London after her family was forced to move from Kenya when she was three. The film explores the lives of nine South Asian women spanning three generations during one day at a seaside resort in Blackpool. The film traces the stories of Ginder, who has taken refuge along with her five-year-old son from her abusive husband at a women's hostel; Hashida, who finds she is pregnant by Oliver, her black, West Indian boyfriend (a relationship she has kept secret from her parents); three "aunties," Bina, Asha, and Pushpa, traditional, older Indian women; two teenage sisters, Ladhu and Madhu, carrying a boom box and intensely interested in white English boys (since, as they point out, Indian boys are too busy with white girls to notice brown girls like them); Rekha, a modern, rich visitor from Bombay, who is dressed in fashionable Western clothes; and Simi, the trip's organizer, a feminist, who believes in women's sisterhood and community solidarity.
The film touches on many aspects of gender identity formation and negotiation for women of Indian descent. Simi, who is a politically committed community worker and who talks about "the double yoke of racism and sexism" wants the women to just have a good time at the Blackpool seaside resort away from their duties as women. Ginder is ready to go back to her spineless and abusive husband if only he leaves his oppressive family; she believes the in-laws are the problem. Asha seems to be a sweet and friendly woman; however, she suffers severe headaches and escapes into fantasies, which are constructed like dream sequences from traditional "Bollywood films"--Bombay film melodramas. Most of her waking dreams--or nightmares--are about duty, honor, and tradition. Though college-educated, Asha is duty bound as a good wife and mother and has a growing sense of dissatisfaction with her life. She appears consumed by the act of serving her family while working in her husband's newsstand and video shop.
Later in the narrative, as they are having fun at the seaside, the "aunties" inadvertently discover Hashida's pregnancy and they become instantly abusive toward her. They almost act as one in denouncing her behavior as bad, all except Rekha, who tells the English Indian women that they are twenty years behind in their social and cultural attitudes. Hashida's dishonor is complicated by the fact that her boyfriend is black. While Asians are also categorized as black in Britain, they resist the use of the term as they see it as racist; earlier, however, it was useful for political mobilization against racism in specific historical period. Mixed race relationships are taboo in the Indian community due to the caste consciousness that many still grapple with. Here, as in the earlier films, we see the diasporic reality of blacks from the Caribbean as a displaced and disenfranchised group in the United Kingdom becoming complicated with that of the Indian diaspora as in the earlier film. When the women find out that Hashida is pregnant with Oliver's baby, they lament the loss of their culture that the fetus represents.
As can be seen in the following example, women of Indian descent who grow up in the West carry a double burden of being women and Indian. When a white proprietress/server behaves in a racist manner towards Pushpa and Bina, the two middle-aged women, because they brought their own ethnic food into the restaurant, Pushpa simultaneously takes out her rage at racist oppression and loss of culture by making snide comments to Hashida, grieving that England "has cost us our children." For some women of the Indian diaspora, such as Pushpa and Bina, insisting on Indian cultural tradition becomes a tool for combating racism. Politics and culture complicate the outcome for the new generation of Indians in Britain. Because Indians are seen as traditional and sexist, legal institutions intervene by enforcing cultural change. It is because of such sentiments that the United Kingdom has now mobilized legal actions against Indians who are "forcibly" kidnapping their daughters and marrying them against their wishes to Indians in India or elsewhere. The pressure to remain Indian mounts as a reaction to such interference into Indian culture.
How do Indians who have never been to their "home" country imagine and feel their "Indianness" together? Appadurai explains: "Part of what the mass media make possible, because of the condition of collective reading, criticism, and pleasure ... [is] a community of sentiment ... a group that begins to imagine and feel things together" (Appadurai 1996, 8). Groups that have never seen each other start to imagine themselves Indians, or Sikhs, or Burmese, or as Indian women, Sikh women or Burmese women. However, even though transnational spaces can become oppressive as can be seen by Pushpa's and Mina's reactions toward Hashida, there are also possibilities for the construction of new mythologies for social action, as can be seen by the resolution of the narrative of Bhaji on the Beach. Chadha shows how cultural construction and mass mediated solidarity can become the basis for social action, while the "aunties," though they enforce oppressive cultural norms, also appear to transcend and move toward new mythologies in this space. The movie ends with the "aunties" understanding Hashida's decision to be with her boyfriend, if not completely accepting of it. Asha, who had believed that Ginder must have done something bad to deserve her in-law's abusive behavior, finally stands up to Ginder's husband and berates him for his violent treatment of his wife when he follows her to Blackpool and tries to abduct their son. In fact, Asha slaps him and protects Ginder from his physical assault. As the movie ends, we see the women returning to London while the silhouette of Hashida and Oliver against the setting sun portends hope as a mix of bhangra and reggae music--a hybrid of English, Caribbean and Indian pop/folk songs--plays on the soundtrack, highlighting the fusion and hybridity of cultural forms in transnational spaces. New music in the diasporic spaces blends styles and genres representing the fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. For example, Chadha takes Cliff Richard's song "Summer Holiday" from the movie Summer Holiday, rewrites the lyrics in Punjabi, and adds Bhangra beats to it. New cultural identities are being formed while the old ones still have a hold in transnational diasporic spaces. While the ending of the film signifies female solidarity, what becomes abundantly clear is that although new identities are forming, the old ones are simultaneously reinforced through the media and the videos that Asha sells in her shop.
We see examples of the "diaspora of despair" as well as the "diaspora of hope" in both the films that I have examined. Both directors are careful in depicting Indians and "Indianness" in the diasporic spaces as part of the continuum of displacement and alienation. They realize that although Indians were taken to many places of the world as indentured laborers and had to live in abject poverty and face racism, through hard work, finding sustenance and strength in their own cultures, they have somehow managed to sustain themselves while giving their children a better future. In the reconfiguration of identity for the diasporic Indian woman in a postcolonial space, the idea of the "authentic" Indian self is produced sometimes by the Indian community and sometimes by the dominant community (as in England, where Indians are seen as enforcing oppressive "arranged marriages" due to the Indian patriarchy's backwardness). This reconfiguration occurs because Indians are situated in nation states that pride themselves on having a homogenous national identity; such nation states also celebrate diversity and multiculturalism (Bhabha), yet the new space of empowerment, Bhabha's ambiguous space, or third space, is where new cultural ideas, forms, and identities are being articulated.
Jesus Is Indian and Other Stories
In some of the short stories in Agnes Sam's collection, Jesus is Indian and Other Stories, the author posits resistance to assimilation in some of her short stories. In the face of resurgent debates of national identity and national belongings in recent decades, such questioning of national identity and resistance as Sam's becomes doubly important. After the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the urgent need to hold on to an essential national and cultural identity, while at the same time celebrating diversity, is becoming extremely problematic and contradictory in the United States and the rest of the world for transational and diasporic people.
Agnes Sam, who was born in 1942 in South Africa, is the great-granddaughter of an indentured laborer. She was brought up in Port Elizabeth and attended university at Roma, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. She was exiled from South Africa by the government and went to England where she studied literature at the University of York. Many of her stories revolve around the theme of love and marriage among South Asians, although she does also write about the struggles black South Africans faced under apartheid. As the author herself indicates in her introduction to Jesus is Indian, what is new about writers like her is that they are tackling issues of choice that are of profound and paramount importance in terms of what modernity promised (post)colonized women. Sam writes, "Migration and exile are not new phenomena.... What is new reflects women's changed perception of themselves; it signals independence and status as individuals in society; the postmodern woman makes the decision to migrate--in her own right" (12). As Sam herself lives in England, she sees postmodern feminism as a space of liberation for women. Sam claims that
Today's woman migrant may follow a profession, be skilled, and have her own capital. She may travel to a new country as an employee of a company, with a voluntary organization, for her own or a foreign government and then decide to remain where she is employed. (12)
Yet Sam is profoundly aware that keeping "mother tongue" and cultural traditions alive are acts of survival for many of her ancestors. Her stories investigate the notion of "love" versus arranged marriage in complex ways as it intersects issues of gender, race, class, caste, and religion. The hybrid space and hybridity of the postcolonial subjects who can move into transnational diasporic spaces in order to transcend national identity are problematized in terms of First World and Third World diasporas.
In a "Bag of Sweets," for instance, Khadija, a Muslim woman who marries a Christian by choice for love--"wanting the right to choose whom she should marry" (41)--is seen as someone who has destroyed the family due to her actions. When Khadija comes to pay an unexpected visit to her sister, Khaltoum, in their family shop after three years of marriage, Khaltoum is unmoved by her sister's plea for understanding and forgiveness. While looking at her sister's hands resting on the glass counter, Khaltoum thinks of the "potential for unimaginable flights" that the hands are capable of. In fact, she sees them as hands that have given her sister the freedom, yet she also realizes that "in doing so they destroyed the people we loved" (40). Thinking of the gossip and shame their family had to endure, she resents the natural way Khadija is acting with her "as if she still belonged to us; as if she had done nothing to hurt us; as if her bid for freedom had not destroyed the family" (40). Khaltoum and her brothers cannot forgive her for her actions; she remembers, "it was the consequences of that freedom that we could not forget. Our parents died within months of each other" (41). Although Khadija says she is married to a wonderful man and they have a beautiful baby, she still seeks to return to her family and community; her husband's community does not accept her because, although she married a Christian, she chooses to remain a Muslim. Sam's own stance is that one has the freedom to make those personal choices; her stories reflect that, even in the diaspora, which should be filled with hope for new beginnings and endings, old diasporic spaces such as South Africa remain diasporas of despair as many Indians there are still constructing their identities in a cultural space whose location is India. Khadija leaves her sister's shop, never to return. Identity is constructed here in terms of religion and nationalism; Khadija is unable to transcend her Muslim identity; she may have married a Christian, but as an Indian Muslim woman, she really has no "choice" in terms of whom she can marry, particularly if she still wants to have social interaction with her "home" community. The idea of a "good Indian Muslim woman" is strictly enforced in such spaces, as religion takes on added cultural undertones and women become bearers of cultural and national identities.
However, in "The Well-Loved Woman," Sam complicates gender oppression with the modern notion of love and choice by textualizing race and not religion. As discussed earlier, most so-called love stories about choice are represented in terms of sexual relationships between Indian women and white men; if women can transcend nationalism, it is because they are moving up in the hierarchical space where the hegemony of whiteness prevails. Only recently have we started to see the exploration of such racial intermixing in terms of black and Indian as empowering or transcendant.
What happens when an Indian girl falls in love with a black South African Muslim man? In this story, Chantal, a very young Indian woman, is falling in love with an African Muslim man, who "appeared one day as if from out of the blue to lean against a pillar" of the shop where he worked (45). Chantal thinks that not too many people know about this man: "How had she never seen him before? When had he come? Or had he always stood there without her noticing him? Where did he disappear to at night? Why did no one ever speak to him? And why did he stand there like that? As if he were waiting--without hope" (41). When her friends find out about her interest in him, they admonish her, "Don't you go falling in love with him! He's a skelm" (which in South Africa means someone who is dishonest, crooked, or a blatant liar) (46). Here we see racial biases against black South Africans by Indians in a land oppressed by apartheid and race classification. Most of Chantal's questions regarding the unknown black African man remain unanswered as she fantasizes about him; it is only later when her older, married sister, Kamilla, comes to visit from England that she begins to understand. According to Chantal, her sister is the most loved woman in the community. She had come to South Africa to find someone to take care of her children while she went to the university; while the community is shocked at her decision to go to school, they can do nothing about it because her husband endorses her decision, and "everything rested on him" (49). The young people in the community look up to her because she has status as a married woman, and she tells them they can be whatever they choose to be: "She suggest[s] the unmarried girls in the family should have a chance to go to university, college, run the family business, be mechanics--whatever the goal--they should pursue it" (49). Such ideas create a "rumpus" in the community. "The women trembled to leave their daughters alone with her" (49). However, no one in the community dares to ignore or ostracize her, as she is a "well-loved woman."
Women in the community discuss the merits and demerits of educating girls; they are afraid men would not marry educated women. Kamilla suggests finding husbands who do not want to be heads of households and who want to marry educated women. She makes bold statements such as "Let our girls choose their husbands. Instead of sitting at home while brave young men come forward with proposals, let our girls come home with a young man and say--this is the man I want to marry" (50). However, Chantal wonders why Kamilla should speak in such a way when her marriage is arranged or so she had thought. She asks Kamilla about love, and Kamilla assures her that she will know when she falls in love because she would want to touch the man. When finally Chantal acts on her impulses and speaks to the man, the family is shattered by the news, and it sends "shock waves through the community" (50). It is not that she talked to a man; it is that he was an African man. By that, they mean a black African man. They still consider themselves Indian, of course.
One of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's many complaints against Indians is that they kept to their idea of racial purity and superiority by not marrying black Ugandans; in fact, in the film Mississippi Masala, Jay, Mina's father, acknowledges Indians' preoccupation with material wealth rather than with taking a meaningful role in Uganda. He says, "Most people are born with five senses. We are left with only one, [the] sense of property." Indians' preoccupation with "making it," either in Uganda, the United States, or South Africa, while trying to retain their cultural identity, is amply demonstrated in these texts. The Indian community's response to Chantal's action is, "No one in this city will marry you now! We'll have to send for a husband from India for you!" (50). They are emphatic that she not marry him, and when she asks, "Can't an African marry an Indian?" her brothers beat her and ask her where she would live if she married an African man. She would have to move to a "coloured" community. The idea of national and racial identity here is implicitly and explicitly expressed. He is African and she is Indian. She cannot marry him. Kamilla explains that the earlier generations had it hard as they had to conform to societal roles, but as they challenge the roles more and more, changes are occurring. She suggests that sometimes, in order to gain freedom, one will have to marry, as she married someone from England, and move to a location where a woman can "choose" to go to school. She sees her further education as a means of getting a better-paying job, but it is a matter of choice. She does not see it as a Third World/First World issue, where economic prosperity as well as the demand for workers in the corporate labor force have opened up "choices" for jobs. When Kamilla mediates between her parents and her brothers regarding Chantal's punishment for speaking to a black African man, Chantal is amazed that she can talk in such a way: "How could she speak so intimately of an African man and not be divorced by her husband?" (52). It is only later that she understands. Kamilla, along with Chantal, takes the newest baby to town and walks into the shop where the black African man works; Chantal sees the wordless communication between her sister and the man as her sister touches his face and says softly: "Maqhmoud, this is my son, Maqhmoud" (52). Kamilla had sacrificed her love for her family's and community's honor and she was rewarded with acceptance and love. One is reminded here of the adulation of Chatterjee's "new women" in India with "spiritual" qualities of "self-sacrifice, benevolence, devotion, religiosity ..." (233). Such ideals are regularly disseminated throughout the world via Hindi films and oral tradition. Therefore, while Kamilla hopes for new choices for the newly educated generation, the Indian way of life, which has stood unchanged for decades, persists and dictates what it means to be an Indian woman in the diaspora, particularly in third world spaces.
While Kamilla's story takes place in earlier decades and shows that changing gender roles are problematic in transnational diasporic spaces of the Third World, in Farida Karodia's "Crossmatch," we see translocal and multiple migrations impacting gender and national identity formations for women and gays in metropolitan South Asian diasporas in both the First and Third Worlds. Farida Karodia, a South African writer, was born in 1942 and grew up in the small town of Aliwal North in Eastern Cape. Karodia's father was a Gujarati Indian who had settled in South Africa in 1920 and married a woman who was coloured. Karodia, however, considers herself an Indian even though her mother was coloured. Her idea of herself as Indian is confirmed by her comment that she feels most at home in India (Versi, 40). She herself was married to an Indian Muslim and has a daughter, but her marriage did not last. She taught school in Johannesburg and in Zambia; in 1969, she immigrated to Canada, as she was not allowed to go back to South Africa for political reasons; there she worked as a teacher and as a radio writer.
"Crossmatch" is set in an Indian township called Lenasia, just outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. The story revolves round the younger Makanji daughter, Sushila, a successful stage actress residing in London, who has come home to visit her parents and her older, unhappily-married and pregnant sister, Indira. Her father is a successful businessman and her mother an elegant stay-at-home morn. The subtext of the plot shows a post-apartheid South Africa, with the newly rich families, of which the Makanjis are one, with rampant poverty and crime in the larger community. Mrs. Makanji complains that she has to wear fake jewelry and not her substantial stash of diamonds and gold, as "thugs just walk by and yank them right off. If they come off easily, you are lucky, otherwise they drag you by the chain until they break either the chain or your neck" (171).
The story begins with Sushila reading a script for a play called Love under the Banyan Tree, in which a young wife is trapped in a loveless marriage. Sushila looks at her older sister and realizes that her sister is unhappy in her marriage. Indira has a little daughter and is expecting again. Her mother insists that she loves her first grandchild, even though she is a girl, but definitely hopes for a grandson this time (174). It is only later that Sushila finds out the reasons for her sister's unhappiness: her mother-in-law as well as her husband had insisted that she get an amniocentesis to ascertain the sex of the child. Ravi, Indira's husband, told his mother that if it was a female, he would persuade her to abort it in the United States. She refuses, which causes her husband in effect to abandon her; he goes "jetting around" to the United Kingdom and India in order to punish her. The idea of daughters as a curse seems to follow Indians into the far reaches of the diaspora.
In the next episode, the two sisters are having a discussion regarding Sushila's relationship with Kevin, a white Englishman. Indira had found a picture of her sister and her English boyfriend and declares that "there'll be hell to pay" if their parents see the two of them "practically doing it for the camera" (164). Sushila realizes that the "mere thought of her living with a man, let alone an Englishman, would drive her parents crazy" (164). She is particularly certain of her parents' reaction, for they are trying to arrange her marriage with a suitable boy, Dilip Vasant, a chemical engineer teaching at Stanford University in California, who also happens to be visiting his parents in South Africa. Sushila is twenty-eight years old and Dilip is thirty-six. While living in Africa, the Makanjis and the Vasants have constructed their cultural identities as Indian through maintaining what they consider Indian cultural traditions. Mrs. Makanji decries the fact that they have lost Sushila, a good Hindu girl, to a decadent life in England. She asks her husband about her work on the London stage, "What kind of life is that for an Indian girl from a good home?" (169). How do they keep the ideas of "Indianness" alive? Their house is decorated with "prints of Krishna playing the flute with the gopies dancing around in their colorful skirts, [and] pictures of Lakshmi and Ganesha" on the walls (171). They listen to "The Ghazals," a Hindi music tape of popular Indian songs, bought by Mrs. Makanji in London (172). The Makanjis "[consult] with an astrologer to fix an auspicious date and time for the meeting" (175) with a suitable boy. Mr. Makanji brings his wife the "finest silk saris money could buy" from his trips to India and Taiwan. These are all part of the imagination that they had "dragged" with them across continents to create their imagined Indian community.
Mrs. Vasant is "a traditional Indian woman who always wears a sari" and who serves traditional Indian food at home--"relishes, chutney, pickles" (176). Mr. and Mrs. Vasant expect their son to carry on the Indian tradition and have an arranged marriage. Mrs. Vasant cried when she had found out that her son, "a Hindu boy," was eating meat (177). She is portrayed as a simple traditional Indian woman, whose "too tight a bodice ... exposed the upper rise of her breasts. Around her midriff, pinched folds of skin were visible. Her hair hung loose to her waist" (176). How could one refuse to accommodate such parents, who seem to have sacrificed so much for the children's future? Dilip has even taken out his ear stud to appease his parents; guilty now, and eager to appease his parents further, he agrees to meet the girl (177). Sushila, too, agrees to see the boy to get her parents off her back, although she refuses to wear a sari to the meeting; Mrs. Makanji was afraid that Sushila would turn up in her usual garb of "[t]hose tight, tight, pants.... You can see the shape of everything. Has she no shame to go around in public like that?" (166). She declares that "a nice Hindu girl" should not dress in such indecent clothes (166).
However, as Sushila and Dilip are introduced to each other, they realize that they are putting on a show for their parents, that really they are quite comfortable in each other's company and chat easily about their parents' "crazy" expectations. Sushila later tells her sister that Dilip is gay; Indira is confused, as she cannot imagine a gay Hindu boy. Later that night, Mrs. Makanji gets up to get a glass of milk and inadvertently discovers the photo of Kevin and Sushila in an embrace, with the words, "To Shushi. My lips, my heart and all those important parts, love you forever! Kevin" (192). She is devastated as she moans, "Such a curse! ... Oh, my God! ... Oh, my God," clasps her bosom and writhes in agony (192). In the meantime, Sushila wonders how Dilip is ever going to tell his parents about his gayness; she would eventually have to tell her parents about Kevin, but she wants to do it slowly.
Sushila and Dilip appear to transcend their "Indianness" in the cosmopolitan spaces of San Francisco and London, but Indira is unable to transcend nationalism because she is in Johannesburg, which should have cosmopolitan privilege but remains simply a local third world diaspora. In such representations of Indians abroad, one can see art and the media (paintings of Indian gods and goddesses; taped Indian music from London) contributing to the "complex cultural politics of reproduction in an overseas Indian community" and leading to "an understanding of the globalization of Hinduism" (Appadurai, 57) and "Indianness," which together combat social and cultural colonization.
In a transnational and deterritorialized world (for example, the South Asian gay community in San Francisco), what is the role of the imagination in the "complex, partly imagined lives" (Appadurai 1996, 54) of the South Asian diaspora? The South Asians in South Africa are Indian not only because of "natural facts" such as "language, blood, soil, or race," but more because they are a "quintessential cultural product, a product of the collective imagination" (Appadurai 1996, 161). Sushila, in her quest for identity, is incapable of thinking beyond what it means to be Indian. Her refusals to wear a sari or her thoughts about oppressive, loveless, arranged marriages are tied to the idea of "Indianness." She gets such ideas from reading texts such as Love Under the Banyan Tree, and she seems "to embrace the very imaginary [she] seeks to escape" (Appadurai 1996, 116). Though she seeks to escape gender oppression by choosing to have a sexual relationship with Kevin, she cannot, as a black woman in England, escape racial and gender stereotyping and oppression. She cannot avoid exoticism and eroticism, as she most certainly will play the loveless wife of the script she is reading. On many levels, she remains the other. Appadurai suggests that because of changes or flux in the "global conditions of life-worlds," there is no longer a "givenness" about place; place or locality "has to be painstakingly reinforced in the face of life-worlds that are frequently in flux" (Appadurai 1996, 56). It seems that Sushila and Dilip can move to a postnational diasporic space--"the journey from the space of the former colony to the space of the postcolony"--that Appadurai calls the "heart of whiteness" (159). This place is, for Dilip, America, a "postnational space marked by its whiteness but marked too by its uneasy engagement with diasporic peoples, mobile technologies, and queer nationalities" (Appadurai 1996, 159). This space is in flux due to global conditions, and negotiations for empowering identity for the migrant or non-western becomes problematic because of the emphasis on assimilation through multiculturalism, which ultimately reinforces the authority of the center (Bhabha 1994, 252). Sushila and Dilip, by taking advantage of their privileged social status and transnational mobility, are seduced by the false idea of "plural belonging" (Appadurai, 170) in the West, and can ignore community and cultural identity; but there is a price to pay. As Appadurai explains, we "find ourselves racialized, biologized, minoritized ... our special diacritics become our prisons ... and the trope of the tribe ... sets us off from an other, unspecified America, far from the clamor of the tribe, decorous, civil, and white, a land in which we are not yet welcome" (171). (2) Therefore, although Sushila constructs her identity as a woman who has choices in terms of love, she remains "Indian" as a stage actress, performing stereotypical roles of loveless Indian women who are "forced into marrying someone [they] despised" (163).
While it appears that Sushila and Dilip might derive privilege from their hybridity and the hybridized spaces of metropolitan centers, the reality, as Appadurai posits, and Bhabha points to, is that pluralism in such spaces is premature (139-170). While it is true that there is a large visible South Asian gay community in the San Francisco Bay area, it too has to combat various issues of racial as well as other forms of oppression and marginalization. Even within the larger gay community, South Asian gays are "othered" and tokenized during gay film festivals, where a single film from the so-called Third World is inserted in the program. If in their hybrid stages Dilip and Sushila appear to erase difference through their sexuality, the reality in the West is that the erasure has not come to a point where East/West binaries, as Appadurai explains, are no longer deployed. (3) Yet because of their multiple positioning, many characters in all my chosen texts do undergo identity transformation for empowerment. As can be seen from my discussion, because of shifting contexts and the dynamic relationship between old and new, between what are considered traditional and modern, there are possibilities for the articulation of new identities in transnational diasporic spaces, however limiting.
Thus, even though cultural identities seem unalterable or bound within culturally constituted categories, there is hope for diasporic groups in reconstructing identity by making political and social choices. Placed in an in-between space, as many diasporic Indians are, they may be the ones to reconstruct the national/gender/racial/sexual identities as portrayed in these cultural productions. As Appadurai posits, diasporic public spaces are the postnational political order, although "in the short run, as we can already see, [that order] is full of increased incivility and violence" (23). However, in the long run, free from the constraints of the nation-state, this postnational political order is an exciting space, for it portends cultural freedom and sustainable justice (23).
(1.) I remember watching "bioscope" in Burma in small, rural theatres; I spoke an antiquated form of Punjabi. The Hindi I spoke as a child is called "Bombaiya Hindi," a bastardized fusion of various Hindustani dialects that 1 had picked up from the local working class Indian community. We all flocked to the theatres every Sunday to learn about new fashions and keep India alive in our memories even though none of us had ever seen India before, expect for my grandparents who had left it as children. My Burma-born parents, wearied by the Japanese occupation in Burma and encouraged by my grandmother to go back to their "Mulukh" (desh) and the ancestral land, journeyed to Rawalpindi (now in Pakistan) in 1946. A year later, they had to escape from there in one of the trains that narrowly missed becoming a "ghost train" (their train was stoned and a mob did attack some of the passengers) when India was partitioned in 1947. They escaped all the way back to their land of birth, Burma. We were still raised Indians, taught to fear Pakistanis (in spite of the fact that many Muslim friends helped my parents' family escape the riots), and learned Punjabi at the Sikh Gurudwara school every evening while imbibing popular Indian culture from Hindi films. My mother, though practicing many concepts taken from Buddhism such as "right conduct" and "right speech" from the Eight-fold path to enlightenment, constantly drilled in us the concepts of modesty, honor, and shame proper to daughters of Indian descent. We learned modern behavior from the convent school that we attended.
(2.) For a discussion on the trope of the tribe used to describe successful Indians in the West, see Appadurai's Modernity at Large: "As I oscillate between the detachment of a postcolonial, Diasporic, academic identity (taking advantage of the mood of exile and the space of displacement) and the ugly realities of being racialized, minoritized, and tribalized in my everyday encounters, theory encounters practice" (Appadurai 1996, 170). The author goes on to elaborate Joel Kotkin's theory in Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy, published by Random House in 1993. Kotkin's five tribes--the Jews, the Chinese, the Japanese, the British, and the Indians-represent primordialism with a high-tech face. Appadurai posits that "[h]owever diasporic we get, like the Jews, South Asians are doomed to remain a tribe, forever fixers and dealers in a world of open markets, fair deals, and opportunity for all" (170).
(3.) The problem of being racialized as a minority that is not quite accepted into mainstream western society can be seen by the recent murders of Sikhs and assault on South Asians immediately following the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September of 2001. For a detailed account of ongoing hate crimes against Sikhs and other South Asians, see The Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Taskforce (SMART), a national Sikh advocacy group founded in 1995. A SMART press release from Sunday, September 16, 2001 immediately following the hate crimes against Sikhs and other South Asians can be found in the article, "Sikh Americans Condemn Hate Crimes and Urge Nation to Unite; Demand Protection from Police and Public Officials."
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BHABHA, HOMI. "DessemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation." Nation and Narration. London: Verso, 1990.
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KARODIA, FARIDA. "Crossmatch." In No Place Like Home and Other Stories by Southern African Women Writers, edited by Robin Malan, 163-92. New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers, 1999.
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SAM, AGNES. Jesus is Indian and Other Stories. Berkshire: Heinemann: 1989. "Sikh Americans Condemn Hate Crimes and Urge Nation to Unite; Demand Protection from Police and Public Officials." The Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Taskforce (SMART). Amerasia Journal 27:33 (2001)/ 28.1 (2002): 283-5.
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JASPAL KAUR SINGH
Northern Michigan University
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|Author:||Singh, Jaspal Kaur|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2003|
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