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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2019



In Another Country: Gendering Exile in the Work of Some Indian Diasporic Writers

Meenakshi Malhotra, Associate Professor in English, Hansraj College, University of Delhi , Delhi


Themes in Diasporic Writing

The themes  and  tropes  of  much  diasporic literature  by both men and women,  focus on questions of place and displacement, location and dislocation, movement   and  migration, alienation and exile in the works of writers located outside the country.   It also attempts to explore the notion and concept of exile in  at  least two  ways: exile in the sense of physical dislocation and displacement, movement and  migration  and what  it entails for women  undergoing that experience; second, exile as a chosen standpoint  for women writers to question the  social structure and matrices of culture and domesticity, and sometimes hetero-normativity.

This paper would seek to position/locate  itself  within the field  of literary and cultural studies  which focuses on diaspora, questions of nationalism and assimilation, movement and migration and issues of gender and culture within that. The diasporic author/s focused on is Jhumpa Lahiri, however  the paper also cites  diasporic writers like Amitav Ghosh and Suniti Namjoshi.

Some of the issues discussed have been cogently and succinctly articulated by the editors of the anthology Theorizing Diaspora:,
“While cultural and literary critics have been increasingly concerned with how to rethink concepts of nationhood and national identity, such critical analyses should also interrogate contemporary forms of movement, displacement, and dislocation –from travel to exile..(Moreover)Diasporic traversals question the rigidities of identity itself -religious, ethnic, gendered, national; yet this diasporic movement  marks not a postmodern turn from history, but a nomadic turn in which the very parameters of specific historical moments are embodied and-as diaspora  itself suggests-are scattered and regrouped into new points of becoming.” (Braziel, Mannur, 2003:3)

The idea of “new points of becoming” can be used to reread concepts of travel, dislocation and exile, particularly in relation to questions of gender,  emergent  identities  and subjectivities in new transnational contexts . The novels of Jhumpa  Lahiri foreground the almost dichotomized perceptions  of home and abroad , travel, journey and exile and  relates these questions to the fractured  subjectivities that  emerge in the struggle between mourning for the lost country that is left behind by the migrant  and alienation that results from being  unassimilated into the present one. Clustered around these themes are questions of changing identities, regrouped communities and fragile relationships both to place and time. Lahiri’s style is redolent with a sense of wonder that the characters in her stories have travelled so far away from the land of their forefathers. Her story ‘The Third and Final Continent’  anthologized in The Interpreter of Maladies, is  steeped  with  a sense of wonder and enchantment  at the distance travelled, the oceans crossed, journeys undertaken ,that too by the previous generation. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, the protagonist, Gogol Ganguli is shown the Alps on his way to India:
They fly first to London, and then to Calcutta via Dubai. When they fly over the Alps, his  father  gets out of his seat to take pictures of the snowcapped peaks through the window. On past trips, it used to thrill Gogol   that  they were   flying over so many countries; again and again he would trace their itinerary on the map in the  seat  pocket  below  his tray and somehow feel adventurous. (Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake, 80)

This sense of wonder and enchantment also characterizes many of Tridib’s  experiences as narrated   in Amitav  Ghosh’s  The Shadow Lines, which  seems to look  at travel and distant places and place-names as possessing a magical and talismanic value. Ghosh further critiques nationalism from the point of view of the cosmopolitan intellectual whose apparent  rootlessness   has to be atoned for and redeemed, ironically as it were, by martyrdom.

Far from being deracinated or disenfranchised, we see Tridib’s cultural  imaginary  as shaped  around a matrix which is as Bengali as it is “western”. The fascination experienced by Bengalis apropos   travel is evidenced by the proliferation of Bengali books in that genre.  Mingling realism with romance , adventure with fantasy, travel is understood not just in physical or geographical terms, but is seen as synonymous with the imagination, ranging beyond the idea of physical movement  and unbounded by it. Thus it is understood and accepted that in the context of ‘adda’(a loose free-flowing conversation popular in Bengal)  that factual narratives would be embellished by and interspersed with fictitious and exaggerated claims by a skilled raconteur or “addabaz”. In all this, travel emerges as and opens out a space of privilege to the traveler, an admittedly superior perspective, a bird’s eye view of things, which seems to  soar  above and transcend   cultural essentialism, nationalism   or narrow parochialism and purism.  Travel seems to confer  a certain authority and distinction to a traveler, who  then has the entitlement  to  proffer  his opinions on a number of things and the world at large. It offers a vantage point through which a cultural critique can be articulated.


Travel and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion

The standpoint of exile is often a logical corollary to the  rootlessness   of  the  traveler, and sometimes its obverse. It can be a consciously and strategically chosen position to achieve definite ends. It can aid in developing a phenomenological bracketing   as a mode and method of description that marks the genre  and  is  adopted  by satiric ‘travel’ narratives like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift(1726) , often with subversive  intent to articulate a cultural critique by suggesting  people’s intolerance in the face of cultural difference.  The salient or central point is that the standpoint of exile yields up what can be called a hermeneutics of “suspicion”(much like the response of the Lilliputians when they suspiciously explore Gulliver’s hat) rather than of emotional identification ,which is often the end result of the ‘classic realist’ novel or text. The hermeneutics of suspicion and  distantiation , or promoting suspicion in order to create emotional distance ,  is also evident  in other non-realist forms of writing like the fable.

The choice of non-realist forms like the beast fable on the part of some  diasporic writers, and   particularly  poets , men and women, can thus be viewed as a carefully chosen stance and  a consciously created standpoint to question the assumptions of the dominant be it in systemic terms or the formal. The dominant from a feminist point of view is patriarchy, its attendant and founding logic that of hetero-normativity.  From the point of view of form it is the novel that emerges as the dominant, both for  its capacity to  tell  a  story  and also for its hold over the market. Poetry in relation occupies a marginal if somewhat a hallowed space but is peripheral in relation to more dominant forms. At the same time, paradoxically, poetry can be written, read and interpreted in ways so as to displace the centrality of mainstream forms and interrogate the place of the dominant. Aspects   of   diasporic  discourse can be highlighted by setting the two forms-realist prose and non-realist poetry, in conversation,as it were, with each other in order to explore  some of the themes that emerge.

A case in point can be the poetry and poetics of Suniti Namjoshi. A writer who is a fabulist, a satirist, a writer of children’s fiction, illustrates through her adoption of non-realist forms, a critique of both dominant norms and forms. The writer here positions herself as an exile, an outsider in relation to the hetero-normative space of the realist novel , as it were, which offers her a vantage point to articulate her critique.

The   present   paper  mentions this in passing, focusing rather on the fictional representation  of  characters  by authors who suggest that travel and exile are two ends of the spectrum and depict characters who  undergo various stages of exile. Exile here can be viewed as contiguous to and coterminous   with   the   choice  of an outsider position . The traveler, migrant and exile can be seen as placed at different points of a continuum , all of them sharing a function . That function is the act of cultural translation, a crossing over from one threshold to  another , to chose a position of the outsider to talk about the culturally embedded self.  Metaphor and metonymy are skillfully deployed in the process  of depicting subtle cultural difference. To cite an instance: on the occasion of Gogol’s fourteenth birthday party, the Indian and Bengali mashis and meshos intermingle, their  Indo-American(born Indian but otherwise American) children watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island while Moushumi, recently arrived from England, eschews American television and  leafs through a well-thumbed copy of Pride and Prejudice. (Lahiri,2003: 73) As a cultural referent, nothing could perhaps be more obviously English than Pride and Prejudice.

The migrant, the traveler self and the trajectory that Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels   trace is the changing significance and the increasingly plural meanings of the notion of exile. From the perspective of the women characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels The Namesake and The Lowland, we witness the  changing  ramifications  of exile as a state of alienation which describes  the immigrant who is forced into displacement and dislocation to the immigrant who experiences displacement as  potentially liberating, emancipating. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels and short stories, many of the female protagonists and characters who migrate to America in the 1960s and 1970s, are shown to experience dislocation and displacement. A lot of the first generation female immigrants negotiate their everyday surroundings through their better-educated husbands and are at a loss initially. Displaced and dislocated , the promise of a better life that brought them to America seems to be belied  by their constant sense of loss and alienation experienced in the new country. Steeped in nostalgia, characters like Ashima Ganguly live out their lives in America with reference to the country they have left behind, unwilling and   unable to call America their home. The veneer or  patina of this ubiquitous nostalgia is like a necessary burden that they carry, almost out of a sense of guilt, at leaving their homeland and relatives behind.  In a culture which traditionally subsumed individual well-being to the well-being of the family and community or the larger social good, such a bold step by an individual of seeking greener pastures seems like an act of transgression .  Further for the first generation immigrant, it is a burden that he/she is fated to carry alone, since the  second  generation  immigrant is relatively unencumbered by such considerations and less immobilized by a haunting nostalgia for  the  lost country and a past thrown into peculiar relief in the alienating present. Thus Ashima Ganguly’s unambiguous sadness and pensiveness on leaving Kolkata is contrasted with the relief experienced by her children, Gogol and his sister Sonia:

He (Gogol) knows that his mother will sit silently, staring at the clouds, as they journey back to Boston. But for Gogol, relief quickly replaces any lingering sadness. (Lahiri, The Namesake,87)

In The Namesake, inter-generational  contrasts  are seen in the cultural shift in the attitudes from one generation to the other .The first generation migrant is culturally an outsider in relation to American culture, the second generation an outsider to their parents’ cultural and social imaginaries, despite  the parents’  obvious attempts at acculturation. At the heart of the novel lies questions of cultural identities and  their  attendant  subjectivities . The title itself flags the issue of identities, counterfeit identities and a peculiar serendipity that results in Gogol’s outlandish and unusual name.
In  both  The Namesake and The Lowland, the burden of everyday life and of child-rearing falls on the women, Ashima and Gauri respectively. The responses such a situation elicits is however very different in each case. While Ashima carries the weight of Indian and Bengali cultural traditions and lives in a state of exile in America, Gauri in The Lowland (2013) embodies a more dissonant modernity. Her story is a complex one of alienation, exile and a partial assimilation and resolution. Widowed at a very young age in Kolkata, she is shown to be in a perpetual state of mourning for Udayan, her idealistic albeit somewhat selfish husband. Active in the Naxalbari movement, he is shot by the repressive state agency of the police in front  of  his  young  and pregnant wife. She is subsequently treated as a pariah by her in –laws who ignore her completely.  She   is rescued from this situation by her husband’s brother, Subhash, an academic in America, who marries her and takes her with him to Cambridge, Massachussets. Isolated and alienated   but intellectually inclined, she shapes her life there around her academic interest  in Philosophy. Eschewing the traditional roles of wife and mother, her sojourn in America is marked by sudden acts of rebellion. Thus she defiantly declares to Subhash that she has nothing in common with other Indian women that she meets at a party. Subsequently, she rebelliously cuts off her long hair and snips her Indian clothes into tatters in a vicious way. In a particularly evocative passage, Lahiri writes:“On the dressing table was a pair of scissors …along with clumps of her hair. In one corner of the floor, all of her saris, and her petticoats  and  blouses, were lying in ribbons and scraps of various shapes and sizes, as if an animal had shredded the fabric with its teeth and claws..She had destroyed everything.” (Lahiri, The Lowland,141)

What is noticeable is the savagery that is evident in the imagery. Here again, the author effects a dual alienation: the alienation of Gauri from her marriage, motherhood and from Indianness, on the one hand and of alienation from the reader whose sympathies are propelled towards Subhash, her husband and Bela, her daughter. Gauri’s  act of running away from marriage and motherhood maybe viewed and understood as an extended mourning for her dead husband, Udayan. It is also a signifier of a willed choice of a state of exile from prescribed and ascribed roles, as well as an attempt to turn the page, and leave behind every vestige, every trace and residue of her earlier  existence. For Subhash though manifestly different from Udayan, with all his patience and consideration, reminds her of  Udayan  at every instance. Her effort to move on is rendered impossible since one brother seems to stand in for the other dead one in an ironical and uncanny experience of mirroring. To her, only a complete estrangement from him, from Bela, from marriage and motherhood, can help her to disengage herself and start life anew. Interestingly, later as a tenured professor she even tries out a lesbian relationship, making her what can be called a gender nomad. It is tempting to extend Freud’s idea of the uncanny being rooted in the sense of doubleness here:

The uncanny, or a notion of both familiarity and threat manifesting through the same person, object or event..conceptualizes that the things we find the most terrifying appear that way because they once seemed familiar . As Freud theorizes:”for the uncanny is nothing new or alien, but something that is familiar…in the mind and which has become alienated from it through process of  repression”(Freud,1919)

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels and  stories  treat  concepts of exile, alienation, transformation, self-fashioning  as intimately related to questions of selfhood, identity and subjectivity. She gathers in disparate themes to weave a rich tapestry with subtly different patterns refracted in the unlikely pairing of Nikolai Gogol and Gogol Ganguli , Subhash and Udayan, each a variant of the other, in unexpected and unlikely ways. Like in  Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, where Calcutta and Dhaka mirror each other not in a reflected but in a refracted way, we perceive uncanny insights where both the old world and the new appear  as a figure of speech which is called a chiasmus: are we on  the outside looking in?  Or on the inside, looking out?

The notion of exile can also be  a productive one for feminist writers like Suniti Namjoshi  in order to question  the hegemony of heteronormativity. Her use of non-realist forms  like the beast-fable question and unsettle certainties,but that would be the subject of another paper. To sum up, diasporic theory presents possibilities and becomes more complex when read in conjunction with questions not only of identity, travel and migration, nationalism and assimilation, but also questions  of  gender  and  of men and women’s differential relationships to questions of  nationalism and assimilation .



Works Cited

Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur (2003) Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell

Freud, Sigmund (1919) The Uncanny. Trans David Mclintock. London: Penguin, 2003

Lahiri, Jhumpa, The Interpreter of Maladies, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,1999

------- The Namesake, Houghton Mifflin,2003

------- The Lowland, Delhi: Random House,2013

Swift, Jonathan (1726), Gulliver’s Travels. Harmondsworth: Penguin,2003