Their home abroad

The Encyclopedia of Indian Diaspora
ed. Brij V. Lal. Oxford. Pages 416. Rs 2,500

THE global Indian is now a cliche. What we often forget is that it is not a new phenomenon, and there is an enormous diversity among the Indians who have settled in practically every part of the world.

There is a tendency to think in euro-centric terms about the Indian diaspora, but we ignore that more than 50 lakh Indians migrated to Burma, Ceylon and Malaya (as they were known then) when the British ruled India. Even before this, there was indentured labour of over 15 lakh Indians who were sent to various British colonies.

The Encyclopedia of Indian Diaspora

The president of a former British colony, Singapore, is of Indian decent and it is largely through his encouragement that this book has been brought out. The reviewer was in Singapore when this book—published there by Editions Dider Millet, in association with National University of Singapore—was released by President S. R. Nathan. Now OUP has released it in India and thus the volume will be available to a wider audience.

The book is well illustrated with period photographs—some of them are recognisable faces, many are not. The illustrations bring alive the people and their locale. There hauntingly familiar, even as you know you have never seen a particular image before.

The encyclopedia is not in the sense of a cross-indexed reference book of short entries on various subjects. It is, in fact, a compendium of essays by people, largely academics, who have knowledge of the diaspora in various countries and regions.

This gives each of the over 30 features a distinct flavour. They reflect the unique history, culture and issues of each Indian community as it interacted with the people and the places. The general editor, Professor Brij Lal, from Australian National University, and his team are to be commended for the way they have brought out the diversity in the diaspora.

Special interest has been paid to areas which do not normally dominate our mindscape—Maldives, Trinidad and Tobago, Guynam, Surinam, Jamaica, the French Caribbean, Yemen, Israel, Turkey, The Netherlands, Portugal and indeed practically every corner of the globe Indians made their home.

As one looks at how the diaspora has evolved, one must recollect the diverse cultures that make India and of how they interact with each other, live together and maintain their identity. This experience is surely reflected in the way that that diaspora has evolved.

When we see how it was a taboo, till about a century ago, to cross the kakepani, or the dark dredged seas for foreign lands, we are amazed at how many Indians left their homelands in search of livelihood.

There is no accurate count of Indians who comprise the diaspora, though the number 20 million is generally accepted. The freedom struggle owed a lot to the Indians abroad. The Gadhar party in California, the Kamagata Maru incident in Canada, Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa—those who have seen a different life outside their motherland yearned for India to be free.

After India became a republic and followed the policy of non-alignment, it sadly did not stand up for its expatriates when they faced discrimination. Many became twice-banished as their host countries turned hostile. The plight of Indians who had to migrate out of East Africa, mostly to the UK or Canada, is familiar to the readers.

Now the government is actively courting the Indians abroad, especially since 2000.

Indians abroad are prominent in their contribution to literature. Indian cuisine has become so popular that in places it has even threatened the local staple. Indians have made a place in the political life of many nations. People of Indian origin are a vibrant diaspora that has been documented by more than 60 scholars, many of them of Indian origin. They have done a singular service, to help anyone who wants to study the Indian global spread.

Readers of Punjabi origin will wonder why one of the illustrations showing the Gurmukhi script has been printed in obverse. A printer’s devil, I am sure.

The Indian publishers have literally translated the Singapore price, which puts it beyond the reach of some potential readers. However, this book evidently cost an estimated Singapore $16 lakh to publish. The money came from sponsorships. There is no doubt that this lavishly produced book will find many buyers and readers.

This review by Roopinder Singh was published in The Tribune on February 4, 2007

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