Book Review: ‘The Migrants’ – Approaching the South-Asian Diaspora

Title: The Migrants
Language: English
Author: Salma Siddiqui
Publisher: Leadstart Publishing-Platinum Press
Binding: Paperback

The book begins with a flabbergasting scene of two kids who come across a dead baby in a shah di Tallian – a dark eerie graveyard at night which was forbidden for anyone to go. Siddiqui’s nature of narration will leave the reader in a mode of frenzy and unsettlement until the reader sees the larger point of the need for smaller anecdotes that the author employs in order to fit the larger plot line and character descriptions. There is vast literature work that has gained notable respect in the academia that has to do with the diaspora, the repercussion of the partition and the partition itself. Accidentally or otherwise, the author of the book, Siddiqui hails from the same town that of the renown writer in the same canon – Abdulla Hussein, author of ‘The Weary Generations’, further migrated to Britain in 1967. It would be a naive act to dismiss the similarities that are to be found here. It is not a surprise that the Urdu writer Hussein has been very well praised in the academic community for his work that also intricately displays inside struggle of the family with layers of the story-line with partition as a background.

The story fits very well in the larger canon which gives scope for the simultaneous currents in diaspora literature in America and Britain as in the writing, for instance, of Bharati Mukherjee, Kamala Markandaya and other writers who were writing about the experience of making homes in foreign lands and amidst foreign cultures in the early 1950s: i.e, the lived experiences of those of us who have immigrated and attempted to adapt to new environments. According to Feroza Jussawalla, the reality of finding homes and creating homes in new lands and representing those homes (in literature) is called “transnational realism”.

The contrast between Hussein and Siddiqui seems useful only when there is a larger introspection to be done of the sub-genre created by a certain type of authors capable of migration and then representing that shift in the south Asian literature. This indeed, when seen with the lens of Gary Olson’s apparent historic example that portrays the fight amongst the scholars that contribute to creating such discipline, here a sub-genre, South-Asian diaspora, if at all one could call that for hegemony within ‘rhetoric and composition’. He evidently found this hegemonic struggle over the identity of that discipline in each one of them. The struggle that Olson is talking about is that of the responsibility of these set of scholars who tend to define the course of the subject as and according to their ideology. Further addressing the aspect of the importance of the publishing apparatus in this tangential struggle for hegemony.

Siddiqui’s case in regard to publishing house may seem at first glance to be under thought mainly because the publishing house, Platinum Press was at its peak while proudly boasting its ‘post-millennial, mythology-inspired fiction in English’ such as, Marvels and Mysteries of Mahabharata, Roll of the Dice, Rise of Kali and few others as best sellers, however, the fluidity that is maintained by the narrative and the writing style by Siddiqui comes to the rescue while distorting the rigid lines and characteristics of ‘historical fiction/partition/social history’. Peter Owen, the publishing house Hussain on the other hand, has always tried to display the aspect of diversity through genres that pertain to liberal-leaning community buy showing interest in ‘World Series’ and selected ‘Modern Classic’.

Other people who have worked in similar lines like Gijsbert Oonk specializing in the “Trajectories of Migration and Theory” have rather a unique approach. Gijsbert Oonk considers the need to look at the larger dilemma. Backed by Peter van de Veer, ‘questions the radical modernity of the experience of displacement, disjuncture and diaspora.’ Subtly attracting the attention towards the reality of Migration which can have severe effects on Mental health in the Migrant communities. Often homesickness, racial disparity, xenophobia, food and financial insecurities playing a vital role in its cause. Keeping all aspects in mind the reader cannot be aloof of the maturity of the same girl who first was reluctant to touch the dead baby on some random grave at night. This small piece of narrative turns out to be a milestone in the process of self-criticizing and character development vaguely following the bildungsroman. The same narrator, whose development can be seen now because of her emphasis on the nitty-gritty details of the aftermath of the bombing of Maymyo – which altogether suggest the importance of the diaspora as she slowly draws the readers attention to the eventual abandonment of the fort that the family happy lived in before. Perfect contrast with the sub-narrative where she is content about the later settlement in the UK after the exhausting exodus.

According to Oonk, People in diaspora are part of both global history and local history. Which is a valid argument when read any of the diaspora. Siddiqui’s book has a large chunk of narrative that possesses nostalgia – the home, the hometown and her parents. Essentially because her narrative is based on these stories that build a rigid identity for her as a first-generation migrant. Historians should emphasize the dynamic processes of changing attitudes towards the homeland, the host country, and the Diasporic community itself. A historical and comparative approach may help us to understand some of these dynamics and the attention of the larger community to such diasporas seem to be essential to have a better comparative approach. Siddiqui is not aloof of this, even when she uses the word ghee, she includes in the glossary, precisely giving the idea of the readers that she has in mind. Migration has contributed a lot to the global literature with stories and narrations of individuals, communities and sometimes nation. However, as Said Edward warns us to not romanticize the act of migration or exile or, by implication, the diaspora. ‘Exile cannot be made to serve notions of humanism… Exile is neither aesthetically nor humanistically comprehensible… To think of the exile informing this literature as beneficially humanistic is to banalize its mutilations, the losses it inflicts on those who suffer them.’

This book then is a reflection of the Diaspora’s yearning to belong. Well written and a beautiful read, I believe this will do well to be on your shelf.