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Air Date: July 29, 1997
Program 9730


INDIA AT FIFTY: WRITERS REFLECT


Guests:

Amitav Ghosh, Columbia University

Bharati Mukherjee, University of California, Berkeley

Kirin Narayan, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Sudram Shankar, Rutgers University


(This text has been professionally transcribed, However, for timely

distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Producer: This week on Common Ground, a group of writers
from India reflect on fifty years of independence from Britain.

AMITAV GHOSH, Columbia University: Independence Day and Republic Day, no matter how
far away Indians are, it was kind of incredibly important. I think especially for Indians who
were settled in the Caribbean and so on in the 19th century.

BHARATI MUKHERJEE, University of California at Berkeley: I am so proud that I did most
of my growing up in independent India, that it has survived while so many other newly enfranchised—newly
re-sovereignized countries have had their dictatorships and so on, but India has
remained a democracy.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

At the stroke of midnight on August 14th, India will mark 50 years of independence. For
Indians around the world, it is an opportunity to reflect on how their country has evolved
since the days of the British Raj. Calcutta born writer, Bharati Mukherjee, winner of the
National Book Critics Circle award and author most recently of a novel titled: Leave it to
Me
remembers those heady days of 1947.

MUKHERJEE: I still remember Independence Day. That was the most exciting day of my
life. And we used to as children, make dance dramas out of the event. Practice before
Independence Day and then for a whole week after. We dressed up in widow’s garbs first with
our hands tied with hair ribbons, as the shackled mother India, and then in bridal clothes;
bright red sari, as the free mother India. So I am so proud that I did most of my growing up
in independent India and that it has survived while so many other newly enfranchised—newly
re-sovereignized countries have had their dictatorships and so on, but India has remained a
democracy and has, at least on paper, one of the most liberal, most compassionate
constitutions in the world. But I, at the same time, want to emphasize that I in no way
regret that fate made me live in the United States and that I now think of myself more as an
American citizen of Indian origin than I do as an Indo-American or an Indian stranded in the
United States.

DAVIDSON: Does the anniversary continue to have meaning for you though?

MUKHERJEE: Fiftieth, yes. Otherwise, the other years… fiftieth suddenly makes me
realize, not only how my life has evolved but that the country has survived its democratic
government and expanded its constitution in ways that many surrounding nations haven’t.

DAVIDSON: Is memory important to you, being as you grew up in one country, and now
live in another, is that memory of your home country important in your life?

MUKHERJEE: Oh, yes. Very important. And I am who I am because of the way that I was,
my character and sense of self was formed in my Mukherjee family in the heart of Calcutta. I
think I would have been a very different person if I had grown up as a minority and perhaps a
despised minority in the United States during the fifties.

DAVIDSON: But you never felt that way after you arrived in the sixties?

MUKHERJEE: I felt very much an exotic foreign student, or guest, and people would come
up and feel my saris and so on in the early sixties, even in the dorm. But it never occurred
to me that there was anything patronizing in that. I just didn’t catch on to all those
political metaphors and attitudes I guess. I thought it was because I was pretty and my
clothes were pretty (Laughing).

DAVIDSON: In a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, Indian writer, Salman
Rushdie said that Indo-Anglian literature represents perhaps the most valuable contribution
India has yet made to world of books, and that the true Indian literature of the first
post-colonial half-century has been made in the language the British left behind. A group of
India’s younger generation of writers met at a conference of the University of Iowa’s South
Asia Studies Program. The theme was “Movement and Memory.” How do expatriates and immigrants
remember their homeland? How do they survive in an entirely different culture; and how do they
identify themselves in the new country?” Amitav Ghosh is a young novelist teaching at Columbia
University. He’s only been in the U.S. a few years. Two of his most recent books are Shadow
Lines
and In an Antique Land. I talked first with Ghosh about the long history of
Indian migration.

GHOSH: Much of the most important parts of Indian population movements happened in the
19th century, you know, when very, very large numbers of Indians were settled in Fiji, in
South Africa, then also in the Caribbean and in South America, in Guyana. And those movements
happened basically in the 19th century. I think, I suppose, the real difference between that
pattern of movement and what’s happened in the 20th century, is that there’s been much more
movement from India into America—into North America, that is—Canada and the U.S. and into
Western Europe, especially into Britain. The movement into Western Europe, into Britain,
happened, at least in part because the British had a sort of big boom, economic boom in the
sixties and at that point they needed cheap labor, so a lot of, you know, they virtually
encouraged immigration at that point. Whether there’s a direct connection with Indian
independence I don’t really know, but it true that, you know, for the diaspora, for the
Indian diaspora around the world, Independence Day and Republic Day, no matter how far away
Indians are, it was kind of incredibly important. I think especially for Indians who were
settled in the Caribbean and so on in the 19th century, the idea that the country that they
originally came from had become free, had become, you know, a nation in its own right, it
really marked a turning point in their lives.

DAVIDSON: Even for say, second, third, fourth generation Indians?

GHOSH: Absolutely, I mean I often meet, you know, Indians who’ve never been to India,
but you know, they are from Guyana, or Trinidad or Fiji, and they’ll often say, “We want to go
to India to watch Republic Day.” And I say “What?” I mean it’s not something that would occur
to me to go and watch, you know, the parades at Republic Day. But it’s a kind of part of their
secular mythology, that you know, there’s this wonderful thing that happens in India on
Republic Day.

DAVIDSON: Memories are a key component in the creation of a mythology, and memories,
Amitav Ghosh says, are important to anyone who’s left their homeland.

GHOSH: I think memories, memories are very important for people who leave any place.
I mean, you know, look at how much, you know, say Polish immigrants to America remem- I mean
how powerful their connection with Poland is. Or even more so with the Irish, you know. And
it’s a curious thing, I mean the people who came here, presumably, didn’t actually have very
good memories of their home countries, otherwise they probably wouldn’t have left, you know.
But it’s curious how once they come here, time works a certain magic and with succeeding
generations there becomes almost a kind of invented homeland, which has very little to do with
the realities of the homeland, but is a kind of invented thing, which is invented, really, on
the streets of New York or in Flushing, or in Boston or wherever. And that’s really, it’s
really their India. And it’s relationship with the real India, if there is any such thing,
it’s kind of you know, “What is it?” I’m not sure.

DAVIDSON: That’s something I’ve found since I’ve begun traveling abroad, and then
talking to visitors from other countries who’ve come here and they say the American memory of
their country, say from—well, you’re here in Iowa—there are a lot of Germans, or people
from the Nordic countries, and they do have this, well, very old country notion, in fact from
another century. And that’s where the traditions actually come from. And it’s not from the
modern day country, which is very, very different.

GHOSH: Absolutely, it’s really of the old country. Yes, I know. One of the things that
often strikes Indians who are traveling out of India, and when they encounter long-settled
Indian communities abroad, is that, those communities have preserved, you know, ways of life
which are now quite lost in India.

DAVIDSON: There was this question that came up this morning about people identifying
themselves, so I wanted to ask you how do you identify yourself?

GHOSH: I must say, I wish I knew. I mean to me, identity is a kind of, it’s really an
impossible question. And I never feel at all the compulsion to stand up and say, “I am this,
and nothing else.” That’s really all I can say about that.

DAVIDSON: Indian author, Amitav Ghosh. Another of the new generation of Indian writers
is S. Shankar who teaches at Rutgers University and has recently published a novel titled
A Map of Where I Live. Like Amitav Ghosh, Shankar finds the issue of identity to be complex.

SUDRAM SHANKAR, Rutgers University: I certainly identify myself as an Indian. And I also
identify myself as a South Indian. And over the last few years I’ve often identified myself
as a South Asian. So I think those two, the South Indian and the South Asian aspects of course
lead in opposite directions, because South Indian, when I say I’m a South Indian I am laying
claim to an identity which is smaller than Indian. It’s kind of a regional identity. I’m a
Tamil, and so you know, I’m sort of laying claim to that. When I say I’m a South Asian, I’m
laying claim to an identity which is larger than Indian. And I think it’s important to do both
things, because identities are not, should not be static. I think they should be, I think
there are many different identities we take on at different times, and it’s important to be
really aware of that and be self conscious in the way in which we identify ourselves. Yeah.

DAVIDSON: Is there a connection in your mind between the 50th anniversary of India’s
independence from Britain and Indian displacement?

SHANKAR: I think so, I think definitely for many different historical reasons. Some
of them are very obvious: the partition of India, as most people know, caused a great
displacement of people—millions of people—I’ve heard it described as the largest
displacement of people ever in history, in the briefest period of time of a few years. I mean
this was from Pakistan into India and India into Pakistan. So that’s a very well documented,
well known, fact. But I also think that Indian independence as a political event, put, set
free a number of social forces which then has led over the last 50 years to a kind of a
immigration of Indians out of India. I mean, economics, social changes, you know, modernization,
developmental policies and so on and so forth, have totally transformed India, and the life
of Indians, in terms of Indians moving from villages to cities, from one part of India to the
other, from India to other parts of the world, and so on and so forth. So I think many of
these other, you know, more gradual, more kind of a steady movement over time, rather than a
kind of huge, you know, catastrophic movement in 1947, 1948 which was a partition in the
Northwest and the Northeast. This other kind of movement is as significant and I think it
follows directly out of the independence, and the setting up of an Indian state in 1947.

DAVIDSON: We’re talking on this edition of Common Ground with writers of Indian
origin, on themes of Indian migration and the importance of memory to Indians who have left
their homeland. This one of an occasional series of Common Ground programs reflecting on the
50th anniversary of India’s independence from Britain. Common Ground is a service of
the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts
and audiocassettes of this program are available. And at the end of the broadcast I’ll give
you details on how to order.

DAVIDSON: Another of this younger generation of Indian writers working in English is
Kirin Narayan, who currently teaches anthropology and South Asian studies at the University of
Wisconsin in Madison. Narayan, reading from her novel Love, Stars, and All That explodes
stereotypes about Indians living in the U.S. through characters such as Ajay, a young engineer
reflecting on his life in the United States.

KIRIN NARAYAN, University of Wisconsin at Madison: “Ajay had just come in from a
dinner party in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The snow had started to scud against his windshield
as he drove home, and now it was falling fast and thick outside. He sat on the sofa staring at
the TV screen. Habit had brought him here. The TV was off, but he sat on the corner of the
sofa so familiar to him that the cushions were shaped to his frame. He stared at the room’s
reflection, curved and distorted in the glassy screen. He lit another cigarette. He was
thinking about his brother Prakash and why Prakash’s life in Bombay made him, Ajay so angry.
One of Ajay’s American ex-girlfriend’s therapists had had a guru, and Ajay had picked up the
technique of not merely experiencing an emotion, but looking inward to observe it. Apparently
this was an ancient Hindu meditation practice. The anger about Prakash Ajay now witnessed, had
to do with the Marine Drive apartment in Bombay with its rhythms of noise and quiet. It had to
do with there always being a servant in the background. With his sister-in-law Calpuna so
ruthlessly competent, the kids on vacation with their sing-song voices so full of rambunctious
life. It had to do with dinners at 8:30 with the television news in Hindi, and chapatis still
puffed with heat. The serials after the news that everyone watched, even the servants standing
in the doorways. This is what Prakash had. Ajay wondered if he’d stayed on in Bombay if he’d
have all this too. Instead, what could he boast of? Several degrees in computer science, a job
at Bell Labs, a thinning patch on the top of his head that all the creams and oils were not
helping. He owned a condominium that was generally so messy, it was embarrassing to have
people over. Even the maid who came in once a month and left the house reeking of cleaning
fluids. He had a remote control VCR he could watch from his bed. He had a cabinet full of
liquors. Though he owned far more than his brother would ever hope for, that household still
made him feel like a beggar. A beggar on crutches standing at the gate while laughter and
argument flew fast from the house inside. Of course, he would never want to be around a woman
as petty as Calpuna, so obsessed with her little dog’s recipes and saris. He’d always resented
the way Calpuna had taken over the household from his mother. But even if Calpuna had banished
his mother’s bright posters of gods from every wall, and even if she had bought ridiculous
arty mugs instead of using the old cups and saucers for tea, he still had to admit that it
was Calpuna who stood at the center of the hubbub he identified as family happiness.”

DAVIDSON: That’s such a wonderful complex of characters in there. Ajay is a rather sad
person with one foot in India and one foot in the U.S. Does he ever resolve that?

NARAYAN: I don’t know because he’s left behind in the novel, but one thing that I
perceived about the character of Ajay when I was creating him, was that he had very fixed
ideas of what an Indian woman should be, and what a wife of his should act like. And that
that was going to hard for Gita, the heroine, to adapt to.

DAVIDSON: And yet he doesn’t seem to really want that idea that he has in his head.

NARAYAN: I think that he’s confused, basically, and as you said, depressed. And it
takes their having, meeting in America in a context where they’re both being themselves rather
than meeting at a friend’s house in Bombay, in this semi-arranged situation, for them to understand
that they really have made very different choices of what kind of gender roles and class positions
they want in America. Gita’s a brilliant academic and intellectual; he’s much more interested
in making money and having a den with a big TV.

DAVIDSON: I’d just like you to talk a little bit more about how identity fits into the
novel.

NARAYAN: I think in many ways this novel is about a young woman’s coming to terms with
what it means to be a woman who’s drawing on several different cultural heritages in the 1980s.
It’s a story set roughly in the mid 1980s and would be probably different if I was setting it
now. So, and I say several different cultural heritages because of course, she’s not just
dealing with India. It’s a colonized India that she’s coming out of. She went to convent
school—Our Lady of Perpetual Succor convent. And has some Victorian standards that she’s
having to contend with in the American setting. And the book really traces her journey towards
trying to discover what kind of woman she would like to be at the intersection of these different
discourses, as one might say.

DAVIDSON: Do you think there’s anything unique about Indian displacement, given it’s
history of colonialism. You seem to kind of hint at that.

NARAYAN: I think that how Indians experience displacement has so much to do with what
their background is in India. And of course, what routes are bringing them to America—if it’s
displacement in America that you’re talking about—because some Indian’s here of course, have
come via places like Uganda to Canada and then to the U.S. So they can be complicated trajectories.
I really believe that one has to specify what displacement means in terms of who’s experiencing
it and where they’re coming from. I interviewed several young second generation South Asian-American
women. And one of the young women had the very interesting realization that India was not
just one thing that her parents had led her to believe. When she came to, went to college at
Bryn Mawr, a very politicized atmosphere, and became very close friends with an elite young
woman from Bombay who she realized was a lot more westernized than she was herself growing up
in New Jersey. And she speaks of it as this moment of utter revelation to her, making her very
aware of how class impacted on people’s backgrounds.

DAVIDSON: What were some of the other things that came out in these interviews.

NARAYAN: My impression, talking to these young South Asian women is that it seems
harder for them to feel betwixt and between an Indian or Pakistani identity and an American
one than it is for their brothers and the other young men of their generation. Because this
gender difference, at least the cases I’ve had a chance to witness. I think a lot of young men
experience their privilege within a South Asian family as something that is enabling; it’s a
nice thing, they have no problem with being South Asian-American. Whereas a lot of the young
women seem to feel more conflict between the two identities.

DAVIDSON: S. Shankar from Rutgers University is concerned that those who’ve left
India may be so caught up in memories of their homeland that they fail to pay attention to
their new country.

SHANKAR: There is an issue of memory and remembering also to deal with the places in
which we have arrived. It’s not just a question of how do we remember, say India, and Indian
history, but I think Indians and I think other immigrant communities need to take responsibility
for the way in which they remember the history of the U.S. And that there are very important
choices to be made there as well. But I think immigrant communities are so intent, or so obsessed
in some ways with the particular relationships with the places that they’ve left, that they
tend not to realize their responsibility of actually, you know, taking on that particular task
of, a very important task of remembering the histories of the places where you have arrived at.

DAVIDSON: And novelist Bharati Mukherjee has even taken the somewhat controversial
position that immigrants who leave home should become citizens of their adopted country when
possible.

MUKHERJEE: This is a tough area. I have very strong feelings and yes, I feel that if
they’re not going to go back to India, then they should be honest about their intentions and
stay here, and if they don’t like certain institutions in the United States, then they should
vote and make the difference that they can. I think that Indians, professionals, who profess
to love India, but who are not paying their taxes in India, only going on American, you know,
extraordinary, dollar kind of salaries, for their one month of holiday, back to the homeland
to show off to their Indian relatives who are earning in rupees, that that’s a kind of mean,
I find that—not mean—I’ll take that back—I find that a very disconcerting situation.

DAVIDSON: This past fall, you wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times
about the different experiences you and your sister have had since you both arrived in the
United States in the early sixties. You chose to become an American citizen and she has not.
What do you observe psychically happens when someone chooses not to become a citizen of the
country where they have chosen to live?

MUKHERJEE: I think there’s a kind of—this is not at all about my sister,—but a
generalization—I’ve made that clear—that there’s a kind of ripping off attitude, whether
it’s conscious or unconscious. I think if India matters, so passionately, that you should go
back and give your, invest your expertise and your tax money into the growth of Indian society
and the reformation of Indian society. That’s why I’m saying, if you’re going to stay here you
have to accept the fact that you’re not going to give up your memories of India, and you are
who you are because of the way you were shaped by your childhood experiences in India, but
your place is here and you’re going to worry about the elections here and the social problems
here. Reinvest in the country that has made, given you, the opportunities to be the maximum
person that you can be.

DAVIDSON: That’s Indian born writer Bharati Mukherjee, who teaches at the University
of California in Berkeley. My other guests today have been S. Shankar of Rutgers University,
Kirin Narayan from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Amitav Gosh from Columbia University
in New York City. For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

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