Reimagining India: Diaspora, nostalgia and the arbiters of the homeland as Marginasia

Vaux Le Vicomte (Image: Wikipedia Commons, Jérémie Szubert)
Vaux Le Vicomte
(Image: Wikipedia Commons, Jérémie Szubert)

In June 2004, UK-based Indian steel tycoon Laxmi Mittal’s daughter Vanisha wed her fiancé in France. The festivities lasted six days and spanned venues such as the Palace de Versailles, Jardin des Tuileries, Chateau Vaux le Vicomte and the Eiffel Tower. It reportedly cost Mittal $60-70 million, making it the world’s most expensive wedding. The Indian media gushed and gasped about this extravagant event for days and days.

In February 2014, Indian-American business executive Satya Nadella was announced as the new CEO of Microsoft, making him the third chief executive in the American company’s history. Nadella, who was born and educated in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, became an instant icon of Indian-American success. On television news channels throughout the day (and, if I remember correctly, for a couple of days), pundits enthusiastically discussed Nadella’s success and what it said about Indian expatriates’ growing profile in the world of business and technology.

More recently, the announcement in August 2015 that Chennai-born and raised Indian-American engineer Sundar Pichai would be taking over from Larry Page as the CEO of Google was met with similar euphoria in India.

Finally, in August 2012, local media in the southern state of Kerala joyously celebrated the success of a young man called PV Arun from Manimala, Kerala, who, it was reported, had received a special invitation to join NASA as a research scientist and been simultaneously admitted by MIT for a doctoral programme under one of its top scientists. In September 2012, the national English-language media picked up the news story and ran gushing headlines about the ‘patriotic young hero’s’ success. In October 2014, two whole years after the original round of congratulatory coverage, yet another report emerged in a national newspaper about the young scientist.

And then things kind of fell apart.

It turns out the whole thing was a hoax. PV Arun had neither been recruited by NASA nor admitted to a doctoral programme by MIT. For two years, the media printed or broadcast concocted tales without so much as verifying their authenticity. The story was too good to be missed.

It is almost truistic to say that in the Indian media expatriates are regularly (and ceaselessly and breathlessly) celebrated as symbols of success and achievement.

If you’re immersed in any of the many media cultures that proliferate in the country, you cannot help but observe – or be repeatedly sledgehammered by – the fact that articulations of achievement and aspiration are deeply intertwined with notions of cosmopolitanism. Migration, coupled with visible financial success, enables new access to cultural capital. This cultural capital is endlessly reproduced through media coverage of diaspora ‘success’, which dovetails perfectly with (and reinforces) the widely held notion that living and working abroad is definitely a marker of economic (and cultural) ascent. Thus, success is making it ‘over there’, in building a life or business or career in a western metropolis.

From garish and mind-numbingly extravagant displays of wealth to success stories of the salubrious and instructive kind, and even to success stories of the entirely fictional kind, every instance of the media’s celebration of expatriates further consolidates, replenishes and (re)generates the country’s deep and abiding love affair with all things foreign. Only in this case, that which is foreign is also innately familiar (in the sense of familiaris, of one’s own).

The term ‘foreign’ is perhaps uniquely redolent, among well-encoded words in the Indo-Anglian lexicon, with powerful historical resonances. In his book Politics After Television, US-based media scholar Arvind Rajagopal provides evocative and searingly painful reminders of the immense power that the term ‘foreign’ carried in the not-so-distant past, before and after the liberalisation of the economy. (In the year 1991, India initiated widespread economic liberalisation, ending decades of government control over imports, exports, currency and capital.)

Family and relatives living abroad were a rarity, earning them something of a celebrity status back home (think, for instance, of the character Sophie Mol in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, or of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines); visitors from the US or UK would bring foreign chocolates that, for the duration of their shelf-life, were treated like a prized family heirloom; foreign soaps, moisturisers, perfumes and even jigsaw puzzles earned pride of place in any household; foreign holidays were (for most) an unimaginable luxury; and foreign cars put you straight in the very top echelons of the socio-economic ladder. The word foreign was like manna from heaven.

Fast-forward ten and now twenty years, the word foreign is still as alluring, as redolent with meaning as ever, but its power now transcends the limited material world of the aforementioned commodities. Foreign merchandise is now everywhere, from the corner store to the designer boutique and super-mall, and foreign cars clog the streets of the biggest cities and the smallest towns. Foreign goods have lost their sheen.

For the well-to-do and even the not-so-well-to-do, in the midst of all this material abundance, the most prized foreign commodity today is foreign subjectivity, is becoming foreign itself. And as in all cases of successful fetishisation – with ever increasing rates of emigration – this too has become rather commonplace. Nevertheless, it is still prized, still revered, still desired with a vengeance. The act of departure for foreign shores has a halo hovering over it like no other.

But this is not to say that foreign subjectivity was never fetishised before India became a capitalist heaven (or hell, depending on your point of view). It certainly was. What has shifted in recent decades is the sheer scale and magnitude of the phenomenon. Now newspapers and television channels actively eulogise, mythologise and apotheosise the foreign-departed.

Particularly so when the same folks return the favour by fetishising in return their home country through myriad forms of performative nostalgia. Ethnic gatherings (usually restricted, in my experience, to the state or region you come from), movie screenings, film festivals, political rallies at Madison Square Garden or the Sydney AllPhones Arena, corner stores, restaurants – all of these become sites of paying homage to the motherland (and making a living off it in the process). Nostalgia is everywhere and it’s profitable.

(On a side note, it’s interesting to observe the feedback loop that exists between diaspora gatherings and the Indian media. We witnessed the fanfare that accompanied Indian PM Narendra Modi’s rallies in New York and Sydney. On a far, far smaller scale, a friend of mine in the US said that at a recent Assamese social gathering in Las Vegas – Assam, my home state, is a province in the north-east of India – they had journalists and cameramen from News-Live, a provincial TV news channel in Assam, covering the show, beaming images of their foreign-departed brethren living it up in Las Vegas back to viewers in Assam! No doubt the broadcast was sponsored but the fact that the organisers were keen on having it telecast back in Assam speaks volumes, I think.)

Some may point out that nostalgia and continual engagement with the homeland within diasporic cultural circles can be seen as problematising my primary contention about departure as the dominant lodestone of success. However, as I’ve argued here, nostalgia as a political enactment is actually indispensable to celebrations of expatriate success.

The salient diasporic element in the nostalgic erudition of a Salman Rushdie or Jhumpa Lahiri, both epitomes of literary success, contributes in subliminal ways to how they are read in the homeland. Their brand of nostalgia is one that reinforces, rather than undermines, the dominance of diaspora in the cultural imagination of the homeland. Their success amongst readers, reviewers and the general cognoscenti back home is encoded not so much with pride at their felicity for cultural verisimilitude and authenticity but rather pride at their felicity for articulating versions of authenticity through appropriation by the western literary canon and imagination. Their success is not only one of having mastered the art of telling wonderful stories about India (which it indisputably is) but also of having mastered the art of telling those stories from the vantage point of individuals definitively inhabiting a western consciousness and literary space.

The same holds true for academia and the world of policy. However, here it is not nostalgia but a claim on representativeness that works as the operative factor. From the earliest days of postcolonial and subaltern studies (associated with the likes of Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha), when India as a subject of inquiry was conceptualised, to strategic, economic and cultural studies today, how India is seen, understood and talked about has been decisively moulded by those who have established themselves in western academe or in the international business/strategic policy nexus. For example, just before the 2014 federal elections in India, debate over economic policy (not just internationally but within India) was dominated by expatriate heavyweights in foreign institutions – Amartya Sen on the one hand (pro-welfare state) and Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya on the other (pro-market). After the elections, which Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party won by an enormous margin, at the vanguard of the post-poll analysis in western media were not voices from within India but expatriate doyens of culture and opinion such as Pankaj Mishra, whose analysis more often than not spoke to western preoccupations (India as a communally-divided country, religious strife, Hindu nationalism, etc.) rather than Indian ones (economy, corruption, governance, etc.). It would not be an exaggeration to say that while conducting research on India today – from topics such as poverty (Abhijit Banerjee) to topics like sexuality (Ruth Vanita) – students are more likely to find themselves citing Indian scholars based at foreign institutions than Indian scholars based in India. All this is not to make some kind of nativist argument, but to simply point out that the diaspora wields tremendous cultural capital.

When I saw that the theme for this edition of Peril magazine was “Marginasia” (‘where is it, who defines it and who belongs to it?’), I wondered to myself, “If I were to draw margins – in terms of power, capital and visibility – where would I put them?” Who would I put in the centre and who at the periphery?

It is then that it struck me that really, amidst continuing realignments of cultural power and visibility spurred by global movement, all of the homeland is Marginasia. In terms of the politics of desire, aspiration, achievement and the right to represent; in terms of visibility; in terms of sharing pride of place in the Indian media and its shared cultural imaginary, the homeland is Marginasia. It is a sobering realisation. And one that merits neither chagrin nor diffidence, just quiet reappraisal.

Arjun Rajkhowa

Author: Arjun Rajkhowa

Dr. Arjun Rajkhowa works in tertiary education in Melbourne. His research interests include policy; public health; media, culture and society; and human rights. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ArjunRajkhowa.

1 thought on “Reimagining India: Diaspora, nostalgia and the arbiters of the homeland as Marginasia”

  1. Nice one, Arjun. Your article brings up a lot of links between capitalism, globalisation, migration & whiteness—how the initial reverence for “the West” later on brings about nostalgia for “the homeland” (which *can* be outdated and/or stereotypical as a result of time and distance), with both fetishes centering whiteness as its core… lends itself to assimilation in a broader context and interesting to maybe think about navigating that.

Your thoughts?