From the outside looking in

India Abroad
December 5, 2003

There is, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, a manuscript believed to be the moment of origin of the Swaminarayan movement, known in Britain for its temple at Neasden, with which Prince Charles was once associated. The Swaminarayanis have appealed to the Bodleian to allow them exclusive access once a year to the manuscript to pay their respects. One witnesses here an inscription of the sacred within the secular, an engagement of the diaspora with the local.

The pre-eminence of the Swaminarayan movement within the Indian diaspora, in Britain and the US, is evident in Sandhya Shukla's Indi a Abroad: Diasporic Cultures of Postwar America and England , which opens with the two cultural festivals of India organised by the sect in London (1985) and New Jersey (1991).

Shukla's book is motivated by, and gives direction to, the energy of the Indian diaspora. The book achieves an ideological agency through a series of negotiations between "home" and "away", the organic evolution of a community and its fossilisation of traditions and customs in exile. It shows the community becoming individuals. Indeed, the reader needs to bear in mind the author's own position within this diaspora. The text might be read as a self-referential exercise that sees her transcend her work in the very act of creating it: a model of the diasporic world she depicts.

Beginning with the festivals, Shukla moves back in time to the early Indian arrivals in the UK: the cheap, unskilled labourers, the ayahs or maids who returned with British colonial servants, the lascars or underpaid sailors who sailed back from the colonies. Among the areas the book addresses are differences between the British and American chapters of this group; its specific geographical location (Southall in the UK and Jackson Heights in the US); the role of this diaspora in literature; the print culture in exile that has both been shaped by and serves this community; and its evolution over generations. As in Sunaina Maira's study Desis in the House, India Abroad , it collapses history, ethnography, race and immigration.

However, Shukla is also an academic writing from within the confines of American academe. Her failure to engage with the subtext of an important speech given by former US President Bill Clinton when discussing his trip to South Asia is a fault line in the text. Clinton said: "I think... we've been able to play a meaningful role in Northern Ireland (because) we have so many Irish Americans here. I think... we've been able to play a meaningful role in the Middle East (because) we have a lot of Jewish Americans and a lot of Arab Americans. I think we forget that among all the some-200 ethnic groups that we have in our country, Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans have been amongst the most successful." Shukla's unproblematic acceptance of this praise is evidence of the distance from the homeland that diasporic Indians are sometimes accused of. When America made an unsolicited offer to mediate in the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, India firmly declined.

If diaspora is, as Elazar Barkan defines it, "a culture without a country", it is at such moments that one witnesses that lack of "country".

Dipli Saikia is on the staff of The THES .

India Abroad: Diasporic Cultures of Postwar America and England

Author - Sandhya Shukla
Publisher - Princeton University Press
Pages - 322
Price - £36.95 and £12.95
ISBN - 0 691 09266 4 and 09267 2

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