Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 34-35, 1992-93
Edited by Vijay Mishra

Blackbirding: Diaspora Narratives and The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

Paul Sharrad

Many colonies were established, or at least consolidated, on a basis of slave labour (convicts from Britain in Australia, from India in Malaya, from France in New Caledonia, Africans in the US, Pacific Islanders in Australia and Peru etc. etc.). The modern imperium of multinational capitalism, building on modifications in the body-snatching trade that saw urban excess and rural dispossessed exported as 'indentured labour' (Japanese to Brazilian plantations, Tamils to tap Malayan rubber; Chinese to the railroads of North America; Afghanis to the camel tracks of Australia; Japanese, Portuguese, Indians, Filipinos, Italians to the canefields all over the world) has a better publicity machine and is typically up-market: it now relies on 'guestworkers', and 'expatriates'. The mechanisms are the same, the doctrine of divide and conquer persists, and the pattern of varying psychic upheavals continues to be registered in 'diaspora literature' such as Milton Murayama's All I Asking for is my Body or Carlos Bulosan's America is in the Heart or K.S. Maniam's The Return, David Dabydeen's Coolie Odyssey, Satendra Nandan's Voices in the River, Faith Bandler's Wacvie, Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette, Naipaul's writing, Amitav Ghosh's The Circle of Reason, Bharati Mukherjee's Wife, Leila Sabbar's La Negresse a l'enfant, Aras Oren's work, Abdelkebir Khatibi's Love in Two Languages: the list could go on.

One of the most touching signs of the alienation of body and soul induced by the global market in body-snatching appeared in a press photo during the Gulf War. In a camp of refugee workers from Kuwait containing amongst others, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis and Arabs of inconvenient nationality without the means of getting home, there huddled a group of Filipinos, triangulated like paintings of Custer's Last Stand or the Iwo Jima statue under a flag which pleaded "Don't leave us among Asians". The complex jockeying for power, the denials and displacements, strategic emphases and effacements, internal rivalry and external toadying expressed in this picture sum up succinctly the negotiations of diaspora literature and also the dangers of reductive reading by audiences on both sides of the sign: the ethnic enclave and the hegemonic addressee outside the compound. Such dangers we have recently encountered in the furore over Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a text which is, amongst other things, a dramatic exploration of the dynamics of diaspora (Spivak, 1990a).

One example of reductive reading appears in the reception of Bharati Mukherjee's Wife (1975), where Indian readers unfamiliar with the stresses of life overseas object to what they see as an improbable plot hung on a maliciously conceived character (not representative of Indian womanhood or its associated virtues at all) in order to bolster Western feminism and the author's acceptance in the North American publishing market (Ramachandra). White American reviewers similarly respond from a position of sociological realism, either accepting the protagonist as a frail but typical daughter of Orientalist sexism so as to vent their guilts at the tragedy of migrant women's alienation or rejecting the portrayal as "ugly", "erratic" and "disjointed" (Klass). One side overtly blames it all on America for seducing its professionals and corrupting its women; the other covertly blames the migrant for coming, and for coming without shedding 'backward' habits of mind. Both leave the tragedy of Dimple Dasgupta discounted and the dynamics of the diaspora out of question. Certainly the naturalistic detail and the loaded satire of the novel seem to call for one response or the other, but either reading leaves out the complexities of class, profession, education, expectations of and by women within and across cultures, the pushes and pulls that have created the 'before' and 'after' circumstances which overwhelm a fragile personality, and the fact of modern global mass culture. The American reader needs to be reminded that Indian professionals were actively recruited in the fifties (that it is not a 'migrant problem' but a problem for migrants caused by internal government policy), and Indian audiences must face up to the fact that traditional marriage practices have become part of a general commodification of trade - metaphysics has merged with materialism - creating expectations in the middle classes at least which push professionals out from their midst. Dimple Dasgupta's narrow world of recipes and TV commercials doesn't really change from Calcutta to Connecticut; she is merely displaced from a wider class and cultural context in which such things can be kept in proportion or concealed. Already stressed by her lack of inner resources, Dimple in America is bombarded more completely with commodities so that she swaps one 'soapie' role for another (dutiful wife/ romantic lover/ madwoman in the attic) in a quest for the means to rebel against her own commodification.

Mention of the Gulf War is indirectly apposite to my theme, which is the connection between invasion and 'migrant' or diasporic narrative. In the minds of the host society, the imported professional and the 'boat person' refugee are often perceived alike as a form of invasion, frequently figured in terms of disease as well as economic and moral threat. For the migrant minority, the space of behaviour and language and belief is invaded by the mores of the dominant model of national identity. This may be experienced as a gentle war of attrition or a violent onslaught, depending on the pre-existing negotiations between cultures and the relative status of the groups involved. Responses may vary accordingly from genial, accommodating antagonism to hostile retreat into siege conditions. The invasion syndrome affects tourists and travellers of other kinds as well, but 'culture shock' perhaps has special and more lasting impact in diaspora populations.

Critics have bent over backwards trying to find ways of making Vikram Seth's epic verse part of Indian English writing or have berated him for not conforming to notions of Indianness (Gupta; Narasimhaiah). The Golden Gate, however, is not Indian at all except insofar as it has been written by an NRI; nor is it, as its cover boasts, "The Great Californian Novel" save that California is the place in America for migrant and expatriate multiculturalism (as the party joke has it: "Hey, look everybody! I just met someone who was actually born in California!"). The book is, however, very much a diasporic narrative seen from the point of view of a Pom who has gone to Stanford to get a PhD and moves in the yuppie circles of second-generation Japanese artists, Hungarian economists, Jewish atheist green activists, women lawyers and gay advertising executives from Italian wine-growing families, and high-tech researchers in Silcone Valley. The society, like the poetry, is poised, self-aware, even slick, and the point is that style (or life-style) is part of the brittle protective barrier erected by an atomised, secularised community against disquieting invasion - not from 'foreign' culture, since that is all part of the multinational post-modern pot-pourri - but from the uncool angsts of loneliness, passion, commitment, and above all, mortality. Bharati Mukherjee has placed herself and her literature within this kind of post-national, professional, expatriate circle, and it is perhaps relevant to speculate on the degree to which her own 'cool' analytic sardony is a means of protecting herself from the attacks of alienation and outrage confessed to by Spivak (1990b) and besetting her less privileged migrant characters. For Mukherjee's 'wife', the invasions are of a different quantity and order than those afflicting Seth's professionals, a host of small things experienced as more threatening because she has far less power and lacks the entrée into an international culture of expatriation. From a sheltered world, her personal space is invaded by a marriage partner, her body by an unwanted pregnancy, her dreams by her husband's plans, her flat by a host of people, her dress, behaviour and eating habits by everyone else's expectations, her mind by the mass media. The story is one of psychic invasion of gothic proportions, and a gothic resolution is appropriate both to her own fragile personality and to the invading culture that has produced so many films of blood and possession as displacements of its own fears of invasion.

I could be accused here of doing what Mukerjee's critics have done: taking a selectively dramatic fabrication of a particular story as a treatise on contemporary migration. Suffice to say, elements of the novel do appear to be borne out by sociological data (Ganguly). Wife, however, is a novel (we have only to register the author's ironic definition on the fly - "Dimple: a slight depression" - to see that it is not social activist documentary) and as such, it is focussed on particularities. A version of Indian expatriation very different from either Wife or The Golden Gate will be found in the world of the educated professional who has grown out of a generation of transported indentured labourers and sits uneasily between past and future in a location at once his own and not his own. Subramani's stories in The Fantasy Eaters describe this world with quiet and edgy eloquence that again contemplates various forms of invasion: the population movements of history, incipient madness, the insurgence of dream into the everyday, of violence into monotony. Another Indian of the diaspora, V.S. Naipaul, returns to his alien homeland and, while justifying a view of Indian history as a series of inevitable invasions of which his own touristic exploration is the end-point, he is invaded by irrational surges of rage, fear and loathing until he flees India so as not to flee himself. (Naipaul, 1964). Different again is the story of the lower-class unskilled labourer or the hounded artisan who seeks a fortune in the Middle East, such as we find in Amitav Ghosh's The Circle of Reason. This book too, however, is driven by motifs of abrupt incursion and expulsion - Western ideas, refugees, terrorists, illegal immigrant workers, the invasion of the body by germs, the apparent impregnation of a woman by the fuselage of a warplane dropping out of the sky. Only temporary spaces of control and stability are possible in this erratic world of global movements.

Anita Desai is not usually discussed in this kind of context. Her characters may be driven by dark forces, but they are often depicted within static and even claustrophobic situations (as in the island of Where Shall we go this Summer? or the Old Delhi of Clear Light of Day or the hilltop retreat of Fire on the Mountain). She does, however, have a view of writing that corresponds closely to the processes depicted in the other fiction already mentioned, and an interestingly anomalous novel that corresponds remarkably well to the dynamics - fictive and sociological - of diasporic experience.

Desai talks of the creative act in terms of an invasion of the the uncanny: "I write out of compulsion." (Srivastava, 213) Her imagination is "fired by the unfamiliar" (Desai, 1984, 102) that often manifests itself as a takeover of the unconscious by "some monster" that will finally "burst out" (Srivastava, 214). Creation occurs "behind a secret door" (Desai, 104) and is generated in a solitude that is "schizophrenic" (105) and partakes of "dream and nightmare" in which the author is haunted by "the wisp of a ghost" (106) until the obsession is exorcised on the page as "the blackened remains" of an inner fire doused by repeated redrafts under the control of the conscious intellect (Srivastava, 209; Desai,109).

It is interesting that when she herself steps out of her Indian surroundings to travel to London, the result of the stimulation of her imagination by the unfamilar should be exempted from this invasive model. Desai talks about Bye Bye Blackbird (1971) as "a piece of truly objective observation" - almost as social documentary - and dismisses it for its "lightness" (Srivastava, 221). I think it is fair to say that most criticism treats it in the same way, implying that the characters are stock figures of mostly sociological significance, and that the plot structure is too tidily contrived in order to make up for a lack of artistry (Aithal; Prasad; Sharma). While I do think there are tensions between the author's deep interests (unconscious sources of creativity, poetic-modernist style, female psychology under stress, for example) and the surface material (public issues, realist observation, Indian migrants in England - here predominantly male), the concept of uncanny invasion offers a means of aligning this book with her others, of bringing together the sociological and the aesthetic elements within the text, and of placing it within the frame of diasporic literature in general.

We can only speculate on the psychological controls that this book may embody as a means of the author's negotiating her own place as traveller. What we can point to with certitude is the continuity between the workings of this text and the writer's governing conception of the creative process. In the opening scene, a stranger is startled by a cat that rears like a cobra to leap from under a tea-cosy (7,9) and an even more uncanny image rises out of the kitchen sink to meet his gaze: "the decapitated head of last night's party now caked in yellow blood and the smell of decay." (6). A woman feels "cut and slashed into living, bleeding pieces" (36) and her dreams are set against a backdrop of "a night slit and torn by long blades of rain" (50). A newcomer to England experiences the underground as a tomb full of "menacing slither" and martian-like creatures (57-8), a retired gardener is transformed into a strange beast (143-6) and the book offers recurrent reference to being enchanted, bewitched, caught up, agitated, swamped, drowned, buried under an avalanche (34, 69, 83, 122, 138, 172, 206, 224). The monstrous imagination of Anita Desai is clearly at work in this otherwise "objective" book.

Desai's characters are constantly being overwhelmed by scenes and events in an extreme, gothic manner. Dev is a newcomer to England with ideas of entering university. He is spellbound in either delight or horror at the sights of London. With unconscious irony, he accuses his host group of having lost a sense of proportion, while seeing everything himself from the emotionally excited state of the tourist (16). Adit, his old friend and host has grown accustomed to English ways, but is horror-struck by the sudden sight of his wife on a bus:

he had sat back, sat silent, shocked by that anguish. An anguish, it seemed to him, of loneliness - and then it became absurd to call her by his own name, to call her by any name: she had become nameless...had shed her ancestry and identity and sat there, staring, as though she watched them disappear. (31)

Later he himself is invaded by a fit of depression and vivid memories of India (183-4, 191-2): "the mood had begun to enter him, circulate within him and alter him" (176). This imagery of physical infiltration and uncanny transformation is matched by allusion to black magic (177).

Sarah, Adit's wife, spends her working life hiding in a broom-cupboard school office because she cannot cope with the unconscious slights or intrusive friendship of her monocultural colleagues. We are not sure about the exact origin of Sarah's psychic invasion, but its nature is something like the schizoid state that Dev experiences at the point of cultural cross-over (120-122) overlaid by the enormity of having marginalised herself within her own society and estranged herself from its culture, so that she feels an empty imposter beneath a series of inauthentic roles (34-7). Her dreams of the East are small compensation: they are reduced to postage stamps, literally (33-4), and are always set against the ridiculous fantasies of Emma, her landlady, and the knowledge of a real Indian world that may (and does) eventually claim her in the image of an engulfing "dark flood" (224).

This 'gothic' sensibility connects to the dynamics of the social situation described in the novel. Adit and Dev are part of the 'Asian invasion' of modern Britain, Dev at one point comically imagining the Raj in reverse (28, 61). Dev has been invaded by the dreams of colonial education (11). He arrives with practical intentions, but experiences a counter-invasion of the crude facts of minority - separate toilets for 'Asiatics', being called a 'wog' by schoolboys (14, 17). From a hostile cynic with bookish illusions, he falls into a deep depression as he finds no suitable employment and contracts a fever. When the group of Adit's friends descend on Sarah's parent's home like a conquering horde (138), Dev goes for a walk and is possessed by a vision of the English countryside:

For the first time in England, a thought of this order did not upset him as unjust or foolish - he saw it as fitting into the pattern of nature.

By keeping very still, he was rewarded with the sight of the little water moles playing in the river. A moorhen sailed serenely by, not noticing him at all, followed by her chirruping brood. Trout flickered through an underwater chess-board of sunlight and shadow. The serenity, the plenitude of the scene so soothed, so lulled him that he was sure, if he lay back upon this bed of buttercups and rushes, he should fall fast asleep, stupefied with joy. (169-70)

The text is conscious of the literary glow that haloes this scene, inserting references to Wordsworth, Gray, Alice in Wonderland and obviously invoking the spirit of The Wind in the Willows. Nonetheless, Dev begins to settle down and cease to attend to the things that once irritated him. His host, however is vaguely discomposed by the greenness and peace and prompted to think of India's dry plains and natual disasters (129). Adit projects himself as a man of the world, who lives for the day, sports tweed jackets and sings opera (tellingly: "It's all the same to me"; it isn't, merely part of the self-delusion consistent with his profession of selling illusions to others as a travel agent, 9-10). Despite the adventure of 'marrying out', he has numbed himself in routine, making small paradoxical concessions such as cooking (breaking free of Hindu convention) in order to get a proper curry (asserting his Indian identity). All of a sudden, he is brought to see his alienation and, under the patriotic inspiration of the Indo-Pakistan war and the threat of Chinese invasion of his homeland (197-8, 203), he resolves to go back to Calcutta, taking his English wife and their soon-to-be-born child. The swap-over is so abrupt it is as if a documentary has been invaded by soap-opera.

In fact, a key moment in the book is when Adit's circle of friends watch a documentary about migrant factory workers (20-23). They distance the pathos with wise-cracks based on class and ethnic difference, but when it is revealed later that one of them has 'salvaged' a piece of marble on the way home, they are melodramatically plunged into crisis: "Bella stamped her foot and shouted. 'It's all very well to laugh, but you're Indians, you're foreigners, you've got to be that careful, you do, and what's a joke to you would have looked like a dirty Asian's cheek to the bobbies, and how would you feel then?'"(187). The point is, it is a soap-opera world that the migrant inhabits: a space of extremes and instability, of vulnerable visibility and the knowledge that one is dispensible and thus invisible except as representative of a group. The would-be migrant arrives as a guest and acts as tourist, but even when he has settled down, he is kept by the dominant culture in the role of the tourist who will eventually return home, who doesn't really belong (36, 220). The people of diaspora, therefore, all carry, to varying degrees: "an opposition...between a state of alienation and a desire to return...a conjunction of past and present, the exotic and the everyday, in a radically destabilized form." (Hodge, 389).

This observation comes from a provocative meditation on tourism and monuments. Hodge cites the palace/necropolis of Knossos, the burial mounds/observatories of Celtic Europe, Pompeii and Atlantis, concluding that tourist admiration for such places craves "the spectacle of a joyous civilisation preserved at the moment of its destruction" (Hodge, 394) or "the spectacle of another's death at the site of successful resistance" (396). The monument allows displacement of a personal enactment of flight from, as well as remembering of, one's own culture and its/one's own death. (India is figured in the book as a place of "the dead and the dying" as well as the teeming masses persisting under a tropic sun - 115, 129. Its touristic marker, of course, the Taj Mahal, is a tomb as well as a monument to undying love. It finds its counterpart for Dev in the Albert memorial, Westminster Abbey and a country churchyard, complete with cemetery.) Such monuments mark the simultaneous stimulation and extinction of desire, except that the monument is a marker of origin that is also a sign of another origin behind it, and so it defers our desire at the same time as it satisfies it (394). The monument is thus a monstrous sign of cultural control and the inability of any sign-set to control or contain the culture it represents. It exists to bind together the in-group and admonish or incorporate the out-group, but is at the mercy of necessarily perverse readings by the outsider (390-91), not least when the outsider, because of colonial education, sees the culture represented as partly his own.

The newcomer invades the sites of the target culture, plundering them for significance. This can involve bizarre conversions, as when Dev is inspired by the Battersea power station as a monument to western technology and 'reads' it in terms of Vedic fire rituals - an ambiguous sign of energy and its consumption; of sacrifice that vivifies the universe and consecrates its continual slide into death (Desai, 53-4). For the colonial, already invaded by the mental life of the dominant power, there is the quest to fully possess the partly familiar and confirm one's total being. But the moment of self-realisation is in turn invaded by the consciousness of estrangement and lack of authenticity. Dev is outraged that British churches seem monuments to political power and the fading past rather than to eternal truths of the spirit (68). The most accessible points of contact with another culture are at the same time only simulacra and sometimes artificially concocted at that. Dev's typical English pub, with its patina of age redolent of Dickens' jolly chocolate-box England (10-11), is ironically played against the unspoken counter-clichŽ of the timeless antiquity of the East, the mention of the simulated England of Raj hill stations (13), and the probability that the pub is a modern 'restoration', just as the Indian restaurant he and his friends later visit is a fixated symbol parodying an idea of India (194-5); Emma's club for friends of the East provides experiences that are both less and more than the authenticity they try to reproduce (87-98). The traveller in either direction is caught in an overload and an emptying of images within a schizoid play of dream and life.

It is under the monuments of diaspora that we can assemble such disparate works as Bye Bye Blackbird, The Golden Gate and Wife. Vikram Seth's bridge and his detailed signs of the social and physical landscape constitute monuments that simultaneously connote belonging and distance, continuity and the mortality of the individual. Dimple Dasgupta's prostration before TV ads - icons of the West that capture a civilisation in its liveliest but most fixated form, marking a point of heightened desire (love/life) coincident with the promise of instant gratification of such desire (death) - is part of her "erratic" life, shallow at its start, unstable at its end, but consistent with the kind of experience and artistic logic outlined here. Dev consults the moribund oracles of empire and finds them monstrous until his displaced desire encounters the emotionally compatible, but totally overwhelming natural monument of England's countryside, the "green and pleasant land" that overshadows, but co-exists with, the "green and grisly" one (130) already experienced.

As suggested earlier, there are important distinctions to be made within the broad category of diaspora. For the migrant worker, life away is not much different from life at home: drudgery and struggle. Like Desai's Punjabi peasants in the downstairs flat, they carry their communal shell with them, even though they may enter a new identity-space as 'Indians' that permits social mixing with unlikely types such as Dev, the Bengali babu (116-19). It's the middle classes and beyond who have the free time and the tourist outlook. Nonetheless, class and even caste boundaries become permeable (as we see in Dev's case) when one is overseas trying to make money, and the worker, too, is subject to the invasive dynamics of identity management under crisis (as demonstrated in the millennarian collectivity of the various immigrant groups of The Circle of Reason). Spivak notes that at the level of institutionalised discourse, rational toleration can itself be a form of Eurocentric domination and that the minority identity, with seeming irrationality or excess of passion, must make strategic jumps from one space to another across the field of subjectivity so as to resist containment and erasure (Spivak, 1990a). Bhabha similarly points out that the hybridity of the colonised and the diasporic is not a case of comfortable multicultural pluralism or gradual synthesis, but is marked by asymmetry, the edgy coexistence of incommensurable experiences and the unpredictable incursion of the uncanny (Bhabha, 1984; 1990). Such theorising suggests invasion as a trope expressive of diasporic experience, and allows us to discover in Desai's 'anomalous' novel an artistic logic which meets some of the objections of critics and finds connection to a varied assemblage of modern writing.


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