On March 17, 1928, the San Francisco Examiner carried a short article on the suicide of Vaishno Das Bagai, an Indian art dealer. Born in distant Peshawar, now the proprietor of a general store in San Francisco, Bagai’s life in America anticipated stereotypes we all know today—he was hardworking, prosperous and enthusiastic about all things American. The Supreme Court verdict in the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case of 1923, rendering “Hindus” ineligible for naturalized citizenship, had devastated Bagai. His suicide note addressed to the Examiner, now online at the South Asian American Digital Archive, makes for a difficult read:
They now come to me and say, I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy a home, and, lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children?…
I do not choose to live the life of an interned person: yes, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind.
Last fall, in an undergraduate seminar on “The Global South Asian Diaspora” that I taught at Harvard University, we discussed Bagai’s tragic life as part of a unit on the early history of Asian migration to the United States. It was a small class of just ten students, nearly all of whom were second-generation Americans of Indian, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan heritage. The day we read Bagai’s letter together was an unusually warm November day in Cambridge, and we were meeting outdoors, without masks, seeing each other’s faces for the first time that semester. Bagai’s diminished, stateless condition unnerved the class. There was something about his dilemma that seemed sad but oddly familiar, like an old movie shot in the neighborhood you now live in. His questions hung in the air. Now what am I? And what have I made of myself and my children? Of everything we read in that unit, it was the emptiness of Bagai’s letter that pricked us most sharply, and I find myself quoting it now almost from memory.
It was ironic but somehow appropriate that a class on the global South Asian diaspora be taught by me, a temporary lecturer on a temporary visa. This was the first class I was teaching after finishing my doctoral research, and at times it felt a little unreal, as if I were a pretend professor teaching a make-believe discipline. The heavy, Old Testament word diaspora has its roots in the Greek for “scattering” and “across”—as in the scattering of seeds in a plowed field, or refugees after a war. An estimated thirty million people of South Asian heritage live outside the Indian subcontinent today: Hindus and Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists, doctors and farmworkers, refugees and vice presidents. Except for a distant shared ethnicity, what could my students have in common with a Sikh farmworker picking strawberries in British Columbia, a Pakistani construction worker in Riyadh, or with me, for that matter? What exactly do we study when we study something like the South Asian diaspora? Or, to put it another way, what is the purpose of ethnic studies?
Most ethnic-studies programs in the U.S. were established during the civil rights era, in response to student demands, including the famous Third World Liberation Front strikes of 1968 and 1969 led by a broad coalition of minority student groups in California. In those heady days, student demands for Black studies, Asian American studies and Chicano studies married a new assertiveness on the part of racial minorities within the U.S. with a desire to forge new connections with the rest of the non-white world, in direct opposition to the instrumentalist logic of the Cold War that saw Asian and African countries as mere proxies in a global superpower struggle. The art that emerged from new “ethnic” programs—the films of Haile Gerima, Robert Nakamura and Julie Dash, the scholarship of Teshome Gabriel—reflected the heat and passion of this internationalist moment. Back in the Sixties, Jeff Chang tells us, “the word Asian American was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world.”
That was then, this is now. Today, ethnic studies finds itself in the uneasy position of being both a counterculture inevitably targeted by conservative critics as well as the semi-official ideology that governs America’s corporate human-resources departments, National Public Radio and the New York Times. Certainly, parts of the old revolutionary rhetoric can feel ossified now, at the onset of a new cold war. Every institution that used to be threatened by an assertion of minority identity, from college-admissions committees to the CIA, now ritualistically supports the most brittle performances of ethnic difference. As America’s white-collar elite grows more diverse, a greater focus on race and ethnicity is inevitable, and so is the increasing irrelevance of the traditional canon to humanities disciplines—or whatever remains of them after the next recession. But I remain ambivalent about the transformations in the political economy of higher education that are clearing a limited space for seminars like mine. A part of me does not want to cooperate.
V. S. Naipaul once described the memories of India that he grew up with in Trinidad as trapdoors that opened into a “bottomless past.” For Naipaul, separated from the drudgery of plantation labor by only one generation on his father’s side, the process of acquiring self-knowledge was not a benign, summer-school activity; rather, there was a sense of danger here, a fear of falling, the dread of being dropped into a dark airless room that smells of something rotten. In Naipaul’s world, history does not comfort or empower either victim or perpetrator. To open the trapdoor, one must be prepared for humiliation, be prepared to risk feeling lost and small and bewildered.
Growing up in Kolkata, I had never wanted to be a teacher or scholar with an ethnic or diasporic focus. My bookshelf did not discriminate between Indian or foreign books; I consumed them all, with a single-mindedness that frightens me when I recall it now. The racial melancholia of diasporic Indian writers didn’t move me. The problems they wrote about seemed trivial; I preferred the grand scale of the nineteenth-century Russians. Even the Indian writers I liked best were lapsed communists, who had crawled out of Gogol’s overcoat themselves to write a new kind of Hindi and Urdu literature, both realist and modernist. I could not see a future for myself in the mediocre middle-class milieu I was raised in, literature was everything, life counted for very little. I murdered Alyona Ivanovna with a hatchet in her St. Petersburg apartment; I ran away from boarding school and walked down all of Fifth Avenue, afraid I would disappear before I reached the curb; I fell in love with Madame Arnoux in Paris, and saw it all come to a disappointing rat’s tail ending. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, the patron saint of all provincial intellectuals, I thought of nationality and language as nets that the world uses to try and trap your soul, the point being always to try and escape.
It is only now, in my thirties, after seven years abroad, that I have come to accept what should have been obvious from the beginning—none of us can ever truly escape the places where we grew up. When the lockdowns of 2020 made international borders insurmountable, the mystery of what I was doing in America, in a city of boarded-up shop fronts and masked strangers, began to seem more urgent than my doctoral research on modernism and disillusionment. I began dreaming of the strangest things from my childhood in Kolkata: a friend’s pet tortoise, the smell of mogra flowers, my grandfather’s booming voice at breakfast. I think I finally understand why so many young Americans of South Asian heritage have been demanding more “ethnic” courses in high school and college. New minorities like South Asians, raised in their own private Indias and Pakistans in unlikely parts of North Carolina, Michigan and Arizona, tend to have very thin roots in North America, no more than a generation or two deep for most families. And yet, despite the recency of their arrival, genuine affiliations with the old country fade quickly, leaving light traces on the next generation—a couple of favorite dishes, fragments of prayer in an ancient language, names inherited from the Qur’an or the Ramayana. To live without a sense of history—of your family, your community, your people, however defined—is to be cheated of something essential, to experience time as a shallow pond rather than a deep river.
One of my favorite Vikram Seth poems from the early 1980s, “Divali,” describes the speaker’s return to New Delhi after years in England. A hackneyed theme, but one that Seth handles sensitively, without oversentimentalizing the idea of belonging to a national homeland. “I know that the whole world / Means exile for our breed,” writes Seth, “Who are not at home at home / And are abroad abroad.” Seth wrote “Divali” from the perspective of someone like me, born in the subcontinent and settled abroad. Someone who can, on certain fall mornings, feel a strange mix of guilt and panic rising inside them, as if they’ve left the gas stove on or forgotten to do a very important errand. But I don’t think I am wrong to see a reflection of Seth’s “abeyant love” and “insensate dread” in all of us who teach and study ethnic histories, including young Indians and Pakistanis obsessed with America and American-born teenagers who supplement their STEM majors with courses on South Asia and the diaspora, both driven by a yearning they do not understand.
All this to say I have made my peace being a part of this diaspora, and with the fact that American universities are likely to remain the center of South Asian intellectual life, ensuring that we continue to derive our idioms and intellectual trends secondhand. But the prospect of teaching a new generation to think of their identity as founded on little more than a cameo part in American history is still quite dismaying. Though the scholarship on South Asian America is excellent and has uncovered the stories of many fascinating figures, such as the leaders of the San Francisco-based Ghadar Party, there is no desi community activist of the stature of Cesar Chavez or Malcolm X there, waiting to be rediscovered by a new generation, for the simple reason that there were never very many of us here until very recently; it is the nullity of Bagai’s letter that is a better representative of the absence waiting for us in the archives of American history. If identity-based courses are going to do more than satisfy a consumer demand, our curriculum must far exceed America, which means bringing into the classroom worldviews, texts, customs and traditions that remain stubbornly foreign, inspiring both dread and longing.
I began the class last fall by pulling us away from the familiar landscape of post-1965 America, beginning instead in a place that was about as far away from Harvard as we could go—the ports of Calcutta, during the famine-scarred nineteenth century, the starting point for close to a million Indian peasants who left their ancestral homelands to work as indentured laborers (“coolies”) in colonial sugar plantations. The documents we looked at during the first few weeks of class included British abolitionist pamphlets that described the indenture system as a continuation of slavery by another name; letters from soldiers fighting World War I, full of unexpected praise for European customs; and travelogues describing the journeys that brought thousands of Asians to East Africa in search of trade, prosperity or just a steady job building the Ugandan Railway. Through anonymous photographs, misspelled emigration passes and censored letters, we came face-to-face with the men and women who set out from the port cities of the British Empire to serve as a reserve army of labor for an indifferent world, as ayahs, coolies, lascars and sepoys. What, if anything, could they mean to us, and us to them?
Barring a student whose parents were from Suriname and Guyana, no one in the class had heard of the old nineteenth-century labor diaspora before (I took a poll). The word “coolie” is still used in India in a degrading way, to refer to manual laborers who use their muscles to do jobs that are mechanized in more prosperous parts of the world; it was not reasonable to expect young Americans to comprehend the sheer physical effort and grind the word could connote. Yet, to my surprise, it was this section of the course that prompted the richest classroom discussions and the most imaginative leaps of empathy, as we scoured colonial reports for clues that might help us understand why an unlettered nineteenth-century peasant would agree to undertake such a long and difficult journey, and debated whether this kind of migration could be described as voluntary at all. In a moving essay we read together, about an Indo-Fijian man’s search for the village his grandfather had emigrated from, the scholar Brij V. Lal came to the troubling conclusion that, despite the myriad forms of abuse that awaited the coolies at their destinations, most of those who emigrated were actually more fortunate than those left behind in the stagnating villages of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Could this really be true? For the students, most of whom had never been to a subcontinental village before but had seen older family members come to terms with the first-generation migrant’s mix of gratitude and regret, this was a difficult claim to accept. They were less willing than I was to grant Lal the authority to speak on behalf of his grandfather.
Three weeks into the semester, we finally read one of the few surviving documents written by an actual girmitiya (indentured laborer, from a corruption of the English word “agreement”). First published in Hindi in 1922, “The Story of the Haunted Line” is an autobiographical essay by Totaram Sanadhya, a Brahmin from the United Provinces who served as an indentured laborer in Fiji in the 1890s. Suffering and pain were the defining features of Sanadhya’s 21 years in Fiji, and yet, to me, there was something off-putting about his religiously tinged prose; Sanadhya’s appeals to honor, patriotism and chivalry seemed to contain the seeds of the more muscular and unyielding form of Hindu nationalism that I knew intimately. The students were far more sympathetic to Sanadhya’s search for God in the alien world of the plantation. A Muslim freshman was moved to tears by Sanadhya’s faith, as was a Jain senior. Prompted by them, we kept finding stubborn traces of religion everywhere, sometimes overshadowing race as a marker of difference—in a soldier’s confusion about whether it was permissible for a Muslim to fight for the British against the Ottomans, in a sailor’s testimony about the difficulties of holding true to halal rules in voyages around the world, in a British captain’s bemused description of how his illiterate passengers would clean and clear the deck for prayers, every morning and evening, during their confusing voyage from Kolkata to Port of Spain, Trinidad. My academic training had led me to see race, economics and immigration law as more real, more foundational than religion. To understand life in the coolie lines, I needed to unlearn my training, to see what my students could see so clearly—that almost every aspect of South Asian culture was either touched by a striving for God, or by a god-shaped hole. This was a real insight, an opening, but not the one I had expected to find.
By week six, we had shifted focus to the large Asian diasporas of East Africa. For all their jokes about “yt people,” I could tell that the class was unused to thinking about colonialism as more than a relatively simple narrative about good and evil embodied in black and white skin. The in-between place of South Asian merchants in the racial pyramid of colonial Africa confused and disappointed them, as did the explosion of anti-Asian racial animus that eventually led to the forced exodus of the community from many parts of Africa in the Sixties and Seventies.
Nothing we read that semester disturbed them as much as V. S. Naipaul’s representation of this hyperracial African setting in A Bend in the River, which I insisted on teaching, despite the misgivings of all my friends. For Naipaul’s narrator, Salim, a Shia Muslim from western India whose family has lived on the Swahili coast of Africa for generations, ethnicity is not a source of strength or solidarity but of muted existential terror. Salim cannot understand what he is doing in a decaying colonial town in the middle of nowhere, but he also senses there is no future waiting for him anywhere else, whether in Kisangani, London or back in his ancestral village in Gujarat. The ugliness of the book’s setting ultimately degrades everyone in it: black, white, brown.
The class was entirely unprepared for the modernist loneliness of the book, its contempt for the half-made societies that replaced colonial regimes, its misogynistic sexual energy, its refusal to be righteous (“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it”). As Salim discovers toward the end, when his business is nationalized by the government, the fantasy of being a citizen of the world is one thing, the reality of being a person without a country, a people without a flag, something else altogether. It strikes me now that this was probably the first time that students in my class had been assigned a conservative book by a “person of color” (Naipaul, with his prickliness about the vulnerability of minorities in a decolonizing world, would have surely hated the flattening quality of the term). As much as the students resented the book for what it took from them, I don’t think they will forget the experience of reading it.
I was relieved to be done with Naipaul after two difficult weeks, to return to sensibilities closer to our own, from countries where the post-1945 struggles for multiculturalism and tolerance had yielded partial wins. As Thanksgiving approached, we moved on to a more contemporary selection of authors from America: Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Fatimah Asghar and Agha Shahid Ali. I had last read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000, when I was in high school, with no frame of reference for life anywhere outside of India. I thought that reading this much-taught collection with a group of Americans would be the easiest part of the semester, the most stereotypically relatable. But most of the class insisted they had little in common with the genteel upper-class Boston milieu that forms the backdrop to Lahiri’s first book. “No Bengali I grew up with celebrated Halloween, that’s absurd,” said a freshman from Detroit. (I suspect she meant it was haram.) “I can’t relate to how white and polite the setting of these stories is, how race is never explicitly mentioned here,” another student, a senior from New York, observed. “The people I grew up with were not white, and we were always cracking jokes about each other’s ethnicity.”
The final story in Interpreter of Maladies is about an Indian man who moves to Cambridge to become a librarian at MIT, eventually settling down in the suburbs and raising a family—a banal life narrative, no adventure here, told without flair in the first person. “I know that my achievement is quite ordinary,” writes the narrator:
I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the first. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.
The students wondered: What could we learn from a story like this, without conflict or resolution? Wasn’t Lahiri’s collection of stories, in its own way, an endorsement of the oppressive model-minority myth?
The search for relatability turned out to be a dead end. Things made more sense, however, when we turned away from questions of representation to questions of style. What was it about Lahiri’s prose, or about Fatimah Asghar’s freewheeling poem “If They Come for Us,” that made them distinctively American? How could we trace their artistic lineage? Paragraph by paragraph, we grew to appreciate Lahiri’s unsentimental prose, and I gained a new respect for her refusal to romanticize the ennui of the upwardly mobile ethnic intellectual, to let discontent sit in its place without turning it into a theory of how the world works. To read Lahiri’s early work is to age ten years, in a home whose architecture makes you queasy, dreading a midnight phone call from back “home,” never getting to know your neighbors, remaining a foreigner all the while, living your life in the third person. If the melting pot was a literal pot, and not an overused metaphor, Lahiri’s early short stories would be the kind of hard residue you could get only after years of merciless boiling.
We ended the class with a return to the contemporary iteration of the coolie, the unprotected migrant laborer on the margins of the world economy—a figure of the diaspora who doesn’t appear in television ads or college brochures. At our final meeting, we looked at photographs of Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan “guest workers” in the Middle East, posing in front of airplanes and skyscrapers, and read Benyamin’s Goat Days, a contemporary Malayalam novel about a migrant laborer’s miraculous escape from near-slavery in the Saudi desert.
Not for the first time, I was reminded of Chekhov’s unassuming masterpiece, “The Student,” a short meditation on history and memory told from the perspective of a young clerical student in late nineteenth-century Russia. Walking home from his classes, in a bitterly cold evening on the eve of Easter, Chekhov’s student stops to chat with two peasant women who are warming themselves by a fire. To have something to talk about, he tells them the Biblical story of the Denial of Peter. As he narrates the episode, he is surprised to find his listeners in tears. All at once, Chekhov’s student realizes that the past is linked to the present by an unbroken chain of events, proceeding one out of the other. And in that moment, he had caught a glimpse of both ends of the chain; when he touched one, the other quivered. As we listened to the folk music that Indian peasants carried with them to Trinidad and Guyana—Radha pining for her dark-skinned, divine lover during the monsoon season, tassa drumming rhythms that recalled the seventh-century Battle of Karbala—I felt like we had all become Chekhov’s student, witnessing two ends of an unbroken chain quiver.
The cynical side of me keeps returning to the late Aijaz Ahmad’s observations on the sociology of postcolonial studies in America, nestled in his famous critique of Orientalism. For Ahmad, who remained a Marxist of the old sort all his life, the popularity of postcolonial studies in the Eighties and Nineties did not mean it had become a serious discipline; it remained, in essence, a vehicle of professional advancement for a new generation of immigrant intellectuals in metropolitan countries, who needed narratives of oppression based on race rather than class in order to secure, as Ahmad bluntly put it, “preferential treatment, reserved jobs, higher salaries.” Thirty years and hundreds of monographs later, Ahmad’s critique has not lost its sting. What I take away from Aijaz Ahmad is not a wholesale dismissal of postcolonial studies, but a suspicion of the more radical claims made on behalf of the discipline by some of its loudest adherents, as well as a reminder that what begins as intellectual rebellion can end as a cryptic form of assimilation. We cannot justify our scholarship in purely political terms—there is no predetermined reason why a serious study of the South Asian diaspora would make a student more progressive in their politics than the study of ancient Greece or modern Europe.
Yet, as I prepare to teach my course on the global South Asian diaspora again this year, I feel genuinely hopeful about the prospect of approaching the subject in a cosmopolitan way, without treating America—and its fractured histories of citizenship and race—as the final concentric circle that contains all others. Migration, exile and the fear of deracination are themes at the core of most modern literature, and in that sense, a class on the South Asian diaspora presents an opportunity to read literature first published in Hindi, Urdu or Malayalam alongside American and British Booker Prize winners, and to find the continuities and disjunctions between them: Totaram Sanadhya and Benyamin and Salman Rushdie. Instead of being constrained by the national myths that typically frame undergraduates’ curiosity about their identity, programs and courses like these can build on the strengths of existing area-studies departments to encourage a more rigorous interest in foreign languages, religious traditions and longue durée history—shaping that curiosity into empathy rather than narcissism.
It is the discomforting vision of ethnic studies alluded to by Naipaul’s trapdoor metaphor that I want to teach and study, without his bigotry and meanness—ethnic studies as an invitation to knowledge, worldliness, literature, life. The Bhagat Singh Thind case, the Komagata Maru incident, the bloody Partition of British India and more. Jhumpa Lahiri and Mohsin Hamid, sure, but also the Baburnama, The Buddha and His Dhamma and the novels of Qurratulain Hyder. Braj, Pashto and Pali. A summer in the Himalayas, getting to know the smell of “wood-smoke, hot cakes, dripping undergrowth, and rotting pine-cones” that captivated Rudyard Kipling, a winter retracing Sher Shah Suri’s Grand Trunk Road. The ektara, dirty wedding songs in your grandparents’ mother tongue, Malaysian roti canai, and the chutney soca music and creole cuisine that the Trinidadian linguist Peggy Mohan once described as the “space-age” version of North Indian peasant culture.
One of the key concerns that animated Asian American scholarship in its foundational moment was a desire to prove that Asians in America were not perpetual foreigners but real communities with a real American history of their own, a history that included achievement despite discrimination. Today, as the insights from that generation of scholarship become more widely disseminated, it is just as essential that we do not let contemporary American racial categories set the limits of how we think about ethnicity, migration and culture. In facing the bottomless past, we must not give in to the temptation to lock the trapdoor beneath us.
Art credit: Suchitra Mattai. Bodies and Souls (2021), kameez from artist’s family and community, fiber trim, sari, vintage frame; collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. An Origin Story (2021), nineteenth-century print, fabric, zipper and gouache. Photos by Wes Magyar. All images courtesy of the artist.