Guest Post by Harminder DhillonThe immigrant’s experience is often that of Trishanku- precariously, and perennially, held between the sky of aspirations in their adopted land and the gravitational pull of their native ones.
While the Indian diaspora experience in the West has been captured in Indian writing in English and cinema in recent years, the Indian connection to Africa has been less so, with Mira Nair’s movie Missisippi Masala being a partial exception. I realized this while reading M.G. Vassanji‘s novel The In- between World of Vikram Lall and then chancing upon a photo essay by Amarjit Chandan.
M.G. Vassanji’s novel deals with the ambiguity of being an Indian in East Africa: a people not accepted by their adopted lands, and forgotten and disowned by their native ones; people viewed with suspicion and admiration at the same time for same reasons –hard work, wealth and success; a people literally and metaphorically hanging in-between. Masterfully crafted, the novel captures the micro level lives being lived, dreams being dreamt –and often shattered.
While reading Vassanji one often finds oneself walking down bazaars of Nairobi –buying photos, gold from Gujjus and jalebis from Panjus. As I flipped through Chandan’sVassanji’s haunting characters came back to life. The octogenarian Punjabi standing by the railway line he built an era ago, the white family that visited the highway store, the black gardener, Hindu boy holding hands with a Muslim classmate but finally succumbing to historic boundaries, the black lover of the Punjabi girl who was never accepted, perhaps not even by the girl herself, but surely not by her family and community.
The In- between World of Vikram Lall is story of migration, the fragility of immigrants’ dreams and their struggle for survival in a culture so alien to theirs.
A similar thematic continuity is visible in the recent photo essay (pdf format) by Amarjit Chandan. Chandan, one of the finer poets writing in the Punjabi language is a product of the ‘Spring Thunder over India’ era of Naxalite rebellion and now lives in the U.K.
His poetry, though written in the Punjabi language, shows the adaptation of European poetic themes and literary devices.
In this essay, however, Chandan’s photos bring to life the Punjabis living their successes, just as Vassanji’s characters live in the Indian quarters of Nairobi and Mombasa. Wassanji and Chandan, one living in Canada and another in U.K. tell the same tale –one through his novels while another through his poetic lens.
Punjabis, soon followed by Gujaratis –or Kuchhis as they like to be known as, landed on the coasts of East Africa almost a century ago and went on to play a significant role in the 20th century history of the region.
Originally transported by the Empire as artisans for railway construction and saw mills, they soon set their roots and contributed to the nascent labour movement, freedom struggle, administration, professionals, sports (Remember Indian players in African hockey/cricket teams) and, most of all, economics.
Ironically the endeavour to enrich the adoptive lands that flourished –and peaked –during the colonial times was halted in the 60-70s when these nations won freedom and became their own masters. Local nationalist leadership viewed Indians as carpet-baggers for the departing colonial Raj, which more or less, they were not. The ensuing exodus of Indians devastated local economies and from which they could never recover.
Maybe, after all, there still might be a happy ending to this story. The immigrant’s experience, after all, is a long one.
(Harminder Dhillon, an immigrant himself, is an engineer turning lawyer. He has founded and edited Punj Pani, a Punjabi weekly published from Toronto. )