THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE INDIAN DIASPORA edited by Brij V. Lal. New Delhi, Oxford University Press. 2007. 416 pages. $80.
One hundred and fifty years after their ancestors were transported from India to the distant Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, their great great grandchildren maintain a tradition that they have sworn to preserve: Keeping the feet of their dead in the direction of India. The belief is that India is where their souls still belong.
Lord Dholakia is a British peer, but he proudly proclaims his continuing emotional attachment to Gujarat, his ancestral homeland. Fatima Meer, the distinguished South Africa-born intellectual and anti-apartheid activist, can proclaim publicly, “I am proud to be related to all these countries [where people of Indian origin have settled] and particularly to India to whom we have always referred to as Mother India.” Professor Amartya Sen and Maestro Zubin Mehta have homes in the United States, but still carry their Indian passports. And Lotus Vingadassamy, a fifth-generation descendant of indentured laborers in the Caribbean, says:
“Technically speaking, indeed, I am not an ‘Indian.’ I will however maintain that whatever the colour of the passports I could be carrying, they would in no way explain the essence of my soul, my roots and my belonging.”
Depending on their location these people of Indian origin have come to be identified variously as Coolies, Blacks, Coloreds, Mulattos, Creoles, East Indians, Asian Indians, Asians, South Asians, Desis, or simply Indians. But, in India, the country of their origin, they are referred to as NRIs, Indians Abroad, Overseas Indians, and Global Indians or cosmopolitans.
And, to be sure, this Indian diaspora is not just about emotion. Every year it chooses to remit billions of dollars to India—an estimated $25 billion in 2006.
The Encyclopedia of the Indian Diaspora tells the story of this staggering diaspora of 20-25 million people of Indian origin—how it has evolved into a social force of global significance and how it challenges the West’s traditional notion of India itself. It’s the grand culmination of a mammoth collaborative project undertaken by 62 scholars over a period of two years.
One third of the book’s content provides the basis for understanding the evolution of the Indian diaspora through the 19th and 20th centuries. This is achieved by examining the political, social, and cultural conditions in India as well as in the diaspora. The remaining two-third of the book explores overseas Indian communities as they exist in 10 geographical areas, namely: South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa and the Indian Ocean, Caribbean and South America, North America, Europe, Australasia and Oceania. This is accomplished by country-based profiles of diasporic Indian communities giving a synoptic view of their historical origins and evolution, their social and political experience along with their contemporary concerns, and their continued links with the homeland.
Modeled after the 1998 Encyclopedia of the Chinese Overseas, this authoritative study provides us with one of the most extensive and reliable material on the Indian diaspora in one volume. Because most of the 62 contributors are part of the same Indian diaspora, we get an insiders’ view of this vast and complex subject matter.
Meticulously edited by the Indian-Fijian scholar Brij V. Lal of Australian National University, the great strength of this encyclopedia is that it comes with a balance between the historical and the contemporary, with the arrangement of material according to chronological and geographic indicators. It must be said that few academics have pursued their ethnic roots with such single-minded seriousness as Prof. Brij Lal, himself the grandson of “Girmitiyas” or indentured laborers. Elsewhere, Lal has expressed movingly the “violence and rupture” that have replaced the tranquility of Fiji, and how “the pride of an Indo-Fijian being a part of Fiji (is) replaced by despair and dejection, the sense of being at home in the islands overtaken by a desperate desire to leave for some place else at the earliest possible opportunity.” The author of 10 books on the Indian-Fijian experience, Lal is certainly the foremost living scholar of the Indian diaspora.
The book shows that there is hardly a single country in the world that does not have an Indian community. And it goes on to give deep and enriching insights into the actual lived experience of the Indian diaspora. Ten or more pages are allotted to each of the countries with large PIO contingents: Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia/New Zealand, Fiji, Singapore, Malayasia, Mauritius, Gulf States, and South Africa. It also provides historical depth in the study of these communities.
Each essay on an individual country provides an overview as well as the demography, history, economic and political positions, and cultural and educational activities of the country’s Indian population. In addition there are archival and modern photographs of people, costume, buildings, cultural traditions, and economic activities, documents, artifacts, as well as a comprehensive array of maps, diagrams, and important statistics. The photographs convey a sense of period and a sense of place, reinforcing the themes that emerge from the text—demonstrating not only what members of the Indian diaspora have in common with one another, and with India itself, but also what has come to differentiate one community from another.
In addition there are extensive articles on Indian diasporic writers, dance, music and cuisine. Noticeably absent are the health issues confronting PIOs—diabetes, coronary heart disease, and metabolic syndrome that’s widely reported in the medical literature. Another topic that should have received attention is the emergence of a virtual Indian diaspora alongside the new communication technologies. It is hoped that a future edition will remedy this oversight. But for now, India and her diaspora are forever indebted to Brij Lal and the superb team—especially Marina Carter, Vijay Misra and Binod Khadria—that contributed to this outstanding effort.
After going through the contents, I was reminded of an observation by Prof. Dipesh Chakrabarty of the University of Chicago, one of the editorial consultants for this encyclopedia: “… we used to think that in order to find Indian culture you had to go to India … And now increasingly you know that Indian culture is both inside and outside as people have become diasporic, as cultures cease to be rooted in particular places … And that I think is a very exciting possibility.”
—Francis C. Assisi