Friday, 12 December 2008

Diaspora and Dispersal

I have nearly finished interviewing people for my documentary titled, I Journey Like a Paisley, and am now well on my way to editing it into a coherent piece of cinema that articulates the Indian-Australian experience through my individualised artistic lens. What have I learned from these interviews that is different from my academic research into diaspora theory and cultural practice? Is there a single, unequivocal message? Who is my audience? Why am I passionate about this story?

Perhaps what I have to acknowledge first and foremost is that it is indeed my own experience of living away from the land of my birth (an experience that is gradually acquiring diasporic undertones) which has fuelled my interest in diasporic narrative(s). But an old feeling tells me I was curious about diasporic writers, filmmakers and members of my extended family living abroad even when I was 'wholly Indian'. Why did the Deepa Mehtas and Mira Nairs always haunt my dreams and linger on the horizons of my imagination? A worshipper of Arundhati Roy's brand of writerly-activism in my teenage years, I was still more puzzled by the likes of Salman Rushdie, and continue to be fascinated by his amalgamation of recklessness and wisdom. Reading his book of essays called Imaginary Homelands while undertaking a third-year university course on world literature, I figured I was always drawn to the idea of home(s) away from home(s), probably destined to wander.

Wandering reminds me of a story my grandmother told me on my last trip to India. Always keeping me up-to-date on Sikh folklore, she said that once Guru Nanak went with one of his disciples to a village where the locals treated him indifferently. On his way out, he wished the villagers well, saying may they stay here and prosper. In the next village he visited, he was showered with respect and gratitude. This time, he wished the villagers left their abode and dispersed. The perplexed disciple was told that the latter set of villagers were good-at-heart, and hence it was better for the world if they wandered around and shared their spirit. The former village folk, on the contrary, were better off staying put and not polluting others' with their negativity.

And thus, I believe wandering spirits have a higher purpose. Sometimes, however, evidence of extremism or frozen cultural practices amongst those living in the diaspora (Indian and others) questions my faith in the liberalism of transnational populations. Aren't there bad apples everywhere though? While academia tell me that diasporic citizens are merely 'complex', one of my interviewees proclaims himself a 'confused desi'. What do I think/feel? The path becomes less muddled as time passes - choices are made both consciously and sub-consciously, accents are shed and acquired in context, clothes and jewellery learn to make adjustments. Hence, I have come to view the diasporic experience as an ongoing negotiation rather than a confusion of values or a complexity of heritage. It is a process of self-discovery, creative-expression and knowledge-sharing that is as enriching as enlightenment itself, provided you do not succumb to the pitfalls of nostalgia for the motherland, contempt for anything ostensibly foreign, or an uncritical attitude towards the economic and social advantages of the new society. This is my message of hope from the diaspora, but it is for everyone. The message is not new, but I/we have travelled far and wide to disperse it. The stories of our diasporic lives are a testament to this dispersal of humanity, of universal values, of cross-cultural sharing (not just understanding or co-existence).

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