Thursday, 29 May 2014

Loneliness in Diasporic Life as Depicted by Anita Desai

It is not too preposterous to claim that no single person in the so-called civilized world is a native, all are migrants. The validity of the point made can be ascertained by outlining the history of the human race since the pre-historic time, when all land was Pangea. From Pangea’s “heart of darkness” originated the human race and migrated to different parts. During the glacial phases of the “Quaternary or Pleistocene Age” (Butlin et al 1-2), the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration (Clark 1-18).

When the continental plates separated out, the local migration within a geographically defined single landmass was transformed into cross-continental migration. Aided by the tectonics of the earth, the earliest human beings became great migrants but they were not yet ‘civilized’ and hence when the first civilizations cropped up they became the first ‘civilized’ natives. Still, the civilizations of Indus valley (India), Yangtze-Kiang valley (China), Tigris-Euphrates basin (Mesopotamia) and Nile basin (Egypt) cannot be said to have been inhabited by the original natives as they were periodically over-run by newer migrant groups (Toynbee 535, 543 & Clark 18 ). The newer migrant groups either scattered the former groups or amalgamated with them to become the new natives.


The process went on for ages and allied with the increase in population, it ultimately gave rise to the concept of a “melting pot”. India became the first melting pot of the world and since the coming of the Aryans, India has received invaders, traders and refugees in various migratory patterns. There are the Greeks and the Macedonians who came with Alexander; then the spread of Mohammedanism saw the displacement of the whole Parsi community from Persia to India; then came the Arab traders followed by Persians, Afghans and Turkish traders as well as invaders, and finally came the Mughals. All these migratory people have undergone such assimilation in the melting pot of India that they have become its natives. Even the colonial powers did not escape effects of the melting pot. The Anglo-Indian community in India is more Indian than anything else. Of late the second world war saw the migration of some Jews to India; the 1970s saw the coming of “hippies” and all along there has been constant migration of traders and refugees from India’s neighboring countries like China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Burma. These latter groups are still in the process of assimilation.

As previously stated, the “melting pot” is not an isolated concept related to India. The United Kingdom is also an example of one. Since the early Phoenicians to the Angles, the Jutes, the Saxons, the Normans and the Romans, all have become the natives of Britain (Butlin & Dodgshon 55). The later day migrants from the British colonies of Africa and Asia along with the Irish, Poles, Jews and those from the Commonwealth countries have made British society multicultural. The United States of America is perhaps the most active melting pot of the world. Clark also explains that the Red-Indians, the original inhabitants of that territory, were not even as “civilized” as the Incas of South America (World Prehistory in New Perspective 352). The migrant population from Europe, especially UK, along with the indentured laborers they brought from Africa now constitutes the native population of USA. The newer migrants like the Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and so on are providing constant fuel to keep the multi-ethnic melting pot of the American society to boil. Peter Kivisto in the ‘Introduction’ to his book, Multiculturalism in a Global Society depicts five major world migration patterns in the 1990s: from Asia to US and Canada; from Central America to Canada; from Africa to Europe; from Asia to Europe; and from India and South-East Asia to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. What this indicates is that migration is as good as any natural phenomenon.

The treatment of the migrant condition in literature is the most engrossing topic exciting intellectual debate. The postmodernist world has seen the emergence of interdisciplinary and cultural studies as the major thrust areas of academic exploration. As Elleke Boehmer states, “the postcolonial and migrant novels are seen as appropriate texts for such explorations because they offer multi-voiced resistance to the idea of boundaries and present texts open to transgressive and non-authoritative reading” (243). Thus, in a world where identity, origin and truth are seen in postmodernist terminology as structureless assemblages, the writer Anita Desai appears as a very good example in that regard. Desai’s mother was a German Christian and her father was a Bengali Indian. Her mother, Antoinette Nime, could trace her origin to France, and her father, Dhiren Mazumdar’s native place was Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) but he had settled in New Delhi. This mixed parentage of complex origin gives Anita Desai the advantage of having double perspective when writing about India and Indians and as well as about migrants in India and Indian migrants to the West. She is both an outsider, if seen from her mother’s side, and a native, if seen from her father’s side. Desai has enjoyed her unique position living in India for a considerable part of her life after which she went to Girton College, Cambridge, UK, followed by her shift to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Becoming a global citizen has chiseled her perspectives still further and also made her explore the condition of the Diaspora in her fiction in a better way. Desai has dealt with a group of diasporic Indians in Britain of the late 1960s in her novel Bye-Bye Blackbird (1969); she has also dealt with the character of a migrant Austrian Jew in India in her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). In the novel, Journey to Ithaca, she has shown an Egyptian acculturated in India along with an Italian spiritual seeker in the subcontinent (1995). Finally, she has also shown the predicament of a lonely Indian, Arun in USA, in her novel Fasting, Feasting (1999).

Anita Desai’s fictions are generally existentialist studies of individuals and hence background, politicality, historicity, social settings, class, cross-cultural pluralities are all only incidental. But being incidental does not mean that they are essentially extraneous. Their study is not only as important as the study of ‘human condition’ in Desai’s fiction but in fact, they are intrinsic to the latter study. Basically, it is the tension between what is to be included and what to be excluded from the study of literary text that makes it all the more interesting. This is especially relevant when the fiction deals with the condition of being in a Diaspora about migrant existence. The solitude that Desai depicts in her diasporic characters is a result of the inner psyche of the characters as also their external circumstances. Loneliness is a manifestation of both inner and outer conditions and hence, its sense can be evoked even in the middle of society.

The Jew, Hugo Baumgartner in the novel Baumgartner’s Bombay had spent his childhood in his native Germany with his parents. Even as a child a sense of loneliness gnaws at his being and is evoked at his crucial moments of triumph. On his first day at school when his mother comes to fetch him with a cone of bonbons for him, he holds up his prize for the others to see but already “the other children were vanishing down the street” and “no one saw his triumph”. He accuses his mother for being late and complains: You don’t look like everyone else’s mother” (33). Hugo’s loneliness as a child, in the midst of society comes because of the lack of identification. Even when he is not neglected he feels the same loneliness as is evident from the Christmas incident in the school when all his classmates were sent gifts by their parents to be distributed to them by their teacher. Hugo longs for the red glass globe that adorns the top of the Christmas tree. When the teacher makes it up as his gift he instinctively realizes that his parents have not sent any gift for him and he stubbornly disinclines from accepting it even though goaded by his classmates to take it. It is perhaps this sense of loneliness experienced by the Jewish community in Germany that helped Hitler fuel his Aryan myth and transform loneliness into fear. The Baumgartner family lives in fear in Nazi Germany and fear is an acute form of loneliness.

By Amit Saha

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