Diaspora Consciousness in Indian Women Short Story Writers

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Paper by Dr M. Sreelatha
Published in Volume IV, Issue XXXVII, February 2018


In the last two decades, there has been an astonishing flowering of short story writing in English by women of the Indian diaspora. They mostly express their discontent with the plight of the upper-caste traditional Hindu women who are trapped in repressive institutions such as child-marriage, dowry, prohibitions on women’s education, arranged marriages and enforced widowhood. Apart from revealing the true state of Indian society and its treatment of women, their work is marked with themes such as East/West confrontation, diaspora, and the experiences of immigrants. The clash between tradition and modernity, finding identity in exile, and adjustment to the new surroundings is the impulse behind the works of acclaimed migrant writers. The present paper examines the diaspora consciousness as found in the short stories of Indian descendent women of USA.

Key Words: Diaspora, Cultural Roots, Identity, Home Land

Indian women diaspora writing made its landmark entry with the writings of Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Divakaruni and Jhumpa Lahiri who have all made their names while residing abroad. One of the important aspects of these writers is that they write predominantly the experiences of migration. They have given more poignancy to the exploration by dealing not only with a geographical dislocation but also a socio-cultural bond with their homeland. The contemporary life in India and of Indians living abroad is the primary concern of the Indian descendant women short story writers. They are significant because they are highly educated, intellectually strong, powerfully vocal and expressive of their vision. Further, they are adventurous and experimental. Hence, they are very innovative as far as their art and craft are concerned. Divakaruni explained that one reason for their success is the strength of their characters, “Many of us articulate in our books the deepest fear and trauma faced by women in India and here—and show them emerge, at least in many cases, as stronger and self-reliant women. Some of our characters are good role models for women readers and women activists” (Kamath).

Apart from the depiction of Indian society in their short stories, the expatriate women writers also explore various social evils and maladies continuously running through the lives of a number of women. They also deeply analyse the sufferings and persecutions of the miserable women. The theme of feminism finds expression in many short stories these writers. Divakaruni and Appachana are the outstanding writers who have given voice to women’s feelings and problems in their short stories. In addition to feminism, the East/West confrontation, diaspora, and the experiences of immigrants are the prominent themes found in the stories of Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri. The clash between tradition and modernity, finding identity in exile, and adjustment to the new surroundings is the impulse behind the works of acclaimed migrant writers, such as Shauna Singh Baldwin, Padma Hejmadi, and Vijay Lakshmi.

A recent development is the emergence of short stories by women, for women, dealing with issues of sensibility, emotional complexes, the generation gap, cultural clashes, and multiculturalism. They explore new sexual mores, fresh possibilities in human relations, marriage and motherhood. They have been prolific in their output and have also won many distinguished fellowships and awards. They have made the short story an effective tool for the promotion of secularized democratic Indian culture in the west and formed a bridge between the native and the Indian diaspora.

The present paper analyses the works of women short story writers of Indian origin who have achieved a measure of success in America. There are many Indian women writers based in the USA, Canada, Britain, and other parts of the world. But the article is limited only to Indian descendent women short story writers of USA to examine the themes with special reference to the diaspora. Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, Anjana Appachana, Padma Hejmadi, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vijay Lakshmi, Neela Vaswani, and Rishi Reddi are included in the category.

Bharati Mukherjee is the luminary among the diasporic women writers. She is one of the best-known writers of short stories to emerge from the Indian diaspora. Born in Calcutta, Mukherjee married a Canadian and moved to the U.S. where she presently lives and teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. She prefers to refer herself as an American of Bengali-Indian origin. She writes on the familiar themes of immigration, displacement, exile, return, and identity—primarily through the experiences of women characters. The short stories of Mukherjee often reveal contemporary themes and concerns. Her short stories express the nomadic impulses of Indians who in their deliberate search for a materially better life, migrate to the west and consequently face tensions of adaptation and assimilation. She is at her best in the depiction of cross-cultural conflicts and how her protagonists take control over their destinies.

Mukherjee’s first volume of short fiction, Darkness (1985), an allusion to the racism in Canada, is a collection of twelve short stories that register the despair produced by the encounter with Canadian racism. These stories focus on the difficulties that Indian immigrants face in adjusting to life in Canada and the United States. The second collection of short stories, The Middleman and Other Stories won the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for best fiction and cemented Mukherjee’s position as an important literary figure in the United States. These stories focusing on immigration and related issues as a major motif are looked at from different perspectives.

 Cultural identity, gender roles, and the experiences of loneliness and friendliness are portrayed well in her short stories. Mukherjee focuses on the entangled ties between Indian and American cultures, the constant pull between binary identities, and echoes of memory and nostalgia that play a significant role in the Indian diasporic short story. This nostalgia for the landscape of places and people of the writer’s childhood is often juxtaposed with the excitement and challenge of their new life and the unfamiliar landscape of the people and places of the U.S

After moving to the United States, she writes about her personal experiences. One of her short stories entitled “Isolated Incidents” explores the biased Canadian view towards immigrants as well as how government agencies handled assaults on particular races. Another short story titled “The Tenant” continues to reflect her focus on immigrant Indian women and their mistreatment. The story is about a divorced Indian woman studying in the States and her experiences in interracial relationships.

The strength of the fiction written by Indian expatriate women writers can be best understood in terms of the incredible success of Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. Her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage is a series of eleven stories which deal with conflicts arising out of love.  Not only are most of her stories set in the Bay Area of California, but she also deals with the immigrant experience, which is an important theme in today’s world. In Arranged Marriage, Divakaruni beautifully tells stories about immigrant brides who are “both liberated and trapped by cultural changes” and who are struggling to carve out an identity of their own. These stories about Indian immigrants to the U.S. show how the dislocations of immigration make this tradition problematic. Many of the short stories in Arranged Marriage celebrate Indian women’s immigration to the United States as a journey from oppressed or depressed conditions to freedom and discovery of self under the inspiration of western influences.

In her second collection of stories titled The Unknown Errors of Our Lives (2001), a set of nine stories, Divakaruni illuminates the transformations of personal landscapes, real and imagined, brought about by the choices men and women make at every stage of their lives. Most of the stories illuminate the pain, loss, and alienation of the immigrant experience and transform them into the drama of common human existence. The inevitable clash – of the two cultures, of the two belief systems and of the two very different philosophies – is what Divakaruni exploits to great effect in these stories. “The Blooming Season for Cacti,” is a story of two women, uprooted from their native land by violence and deception, finding unexpected solace in each other. In “The Lives of Strangers,” a young woman who has survived her own suicide attempt ends up finding great empathy for a mysteriously quiet yet strong Indian woman on a trip to Kashmir. The story “What the Body Knows,” is about a new mother’s difficult journey between life and death and what pulls her safely to the other side.Much of Divakaruni’s work deals with the immigrant experience, an important theme in the mosaic of American society. Divakaruni has created the stories that are required in this age of Diaspora.

Anjana Appanchana is an eminent writer who has won acclaim not only in India but also in the United States and England. Appachana’s basic aim is to portray a woman in her several roles. She has also deftly presented the modern woman as contrasted against the traditional woman.  The trials and tribulations of women is a recurring theme in her stories. In almost all of her stories, there is an attempt to portray the modern woman who refuses to be tied down by the existing fetters and she is also contrasted with the traditional woman who thinks that marriage is the only option available to her.

 Appachana’s maiden book, a collection of eight short stories Incantations and Other Stories (1991) is another gem of Indian expatriate literature. The stories deal with different kinds of themes: politics, the inimitable Indian bureaucracy, psychology, young children behaving (being forced to behave) like adults, adults behaving like vicious, selfish children, youth which has tasted adulthood all too soon, north vs. south with its gullibility and prejudices – all are treated in an unforgettable manner. Behind them, all is the hypocrisy of traditional ways, whether it relates to business, bureaucracy or marriage, sometimes with tragic consequences.  Appachana manages to capture the pervasive humour, poignancy, and self-delusion of the lives of the people she observes, but she does so without seeming to pass judgment on them.

Padma Hejmadi was trained as a classical dancer from the age of four in her native Madras. Writing under the name Padma Perera, she published several collections of stories in India in the 1970s before coming to America. She is the author of Birthday, Death day (1985) and Other Stories (1992), Dr.Salaam and Other Stories of India (1978) and Coins of Vintage (1975). The short stories “Birth day, Death day” and “Letter” deal specifically with cultural displacement and exile that a cross-cultural marriage could entail. The other two stories, “Monologue for Foreigners” and “Weather Report” are concerned more generally with the experience of foreignness and of finding an identity in exile.

Another significant writer of this disposition is Shauna Singh Baldwin. She was born in Canada, grew up in Punjab, and studied in the United States. English Lessons and other stories is a collection of fifteen short stories that revolve around Sikh women in three different countries — India, Canada, and the United States. The mother-daughter relationship appears in “Simran,” a story which is told from two perspectives — the anxious Indian mother whose daughter is studying abroad, and the daughter’s fellow student in the U.S, a Pakistani Muslim. The loneliness of ageing and dying in an alien land is tackled with sensitivity in “Jassie.”

Young women immigrants feature in several stories. “Devika” and “Montreal 1962” are excellent in their description of the married women who stay at home all day, creating a miniature India for their husbands to come home to. In her stories, Baldwin explores the theme of cultural displacement and exile employing a variety of narrative strategies.

            The Indian descent writer of the new generation who deserves a place of high respect is Jhumpa Lahiri. Her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies won universally good reviews and the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In these stories, Lahiri captures the small moments of displacement of the Indians living in a foreign culture. Her second collection of short stories Unaccustomed Earth (2008) deals with emotional complexes of characters suffering in an alien land. Lahiri feels fortunate that she was able to absorb the Indian culture in a natural way. She learned about her Bengali culture at an early age, travelling regularly to Kolkata spending considerable time with her extended family. The disinterest of her teachers and friends in the US about her frequent absence from school made her experiences in India more natural.

My parents never consciously sat down and told me things about India, they sort of correctly assumed that I would learn things just by the virtue of being their child. I think it has always been important to them to maintain strong social ties with Indians living abroad and visiting India. (Shankar)

A relatively new name in women expatriate short story writers, Vijay Lakshmi writes about Indian women’s experiences and tensions of family life in the west. Her short story “Touchline” wins an Editor’s prize from Orbis (UK).  Her most important work is Pomegranate Dreams and Other Stories (2002), a collection of short stories and a novella. All the stories in the collection involve characters struggling to connect disparate cultural backgrounds. Like the pomegranate, Lakshmi’s characters position themselves in many different cultural settings. She weaves themes of east meets west, bridging Indian and American lifestyles, beliefs, hopes, and dreams. In the title novella, “Pomegranate Dreams,” we see the story of a young girl, Juhi, who has just moved to Philadelphia from Jaipur in northern India, trying to adjust in a world where nothing is familiar, clinging to her memories, her pomegranate dreams, of India.

The collection of short stories, Where the Long Grass Bends (2004) marks the arrival of yet another South Asian writer in the American literary world of short fiction. It is Neela Vaswani’s first book that distinguishes itself from the mainstream trends in contemporary South Asian American short fiction. Whereas many of the writers focus on such themes as culture clash, alienation in the new country, nostalgia for the old country, and critiques of nationalism and patriarchy, Vaswani’s work emphasizes aesthetics. She is highly experimental and her stories have a mythic quality that ranges widely in form, characters, locations, and themes.Vaswani tells stories that subvert conventional narrative forms by employing Indian lore, Gaelic fable, and historical legend. The plots are constructed in a way that invites the reader to question the expectations of fictional forms, cultural issues, and the relationship between fiction and fantasy.

The most recent writer who appeared in literary field is Rishi Reddi. She was born in Hyderabad, India, and grew up in Great Britain and the United States. Her debut book of fiction, Karma and Other Stories, won the 2008 L.L. Winship – PEN/New England Award.  The stories in the collection of Karma and Other Stories set in the Boston area, with side trips to an isolated immigrant community in Wichita, Kansas, and Hyderabad, India, introduce a luminous new voice. In her acclaimed short story “Justice Shiva Ram Murthy,” Rishi Reddi follows the troubling and intriguing experiences of an elderly Indian judge who travels to America to live with his daughter. The story, “Devadasi” is about a beautiful young woman raised in the United States who travels back to India and challenges the sexual confines of her culture. And in “Bangles,” a widow decides to return to her native village to flee her son’s off-putting American ways. In her short story collection, Reddi weaves a multigenerational tapestry of interconnected lives, depicting members of an Indian American community struggling to balance the demands of tradition with the allure of Western life.

            A recurring theme in many of the short stories of Indian diaspora women writers of the recent years is a sense of consciousness to the homeland. The concept of home, nation and belongingness to the place of origin find an important role in moulding their personality. In the older generation immigrants’ writings, the question of identity, feeling of alienation, rootlessness is predominantly explored. But those writers born and brought up in the host cultures are torn between two different nations and countries and hence they are described as having a hybrid identity. They adopted and assimilated the elements of both home and host cultures and same is demonstrated through their writings. However the diaspora women short story writers have enhanced the literature with their universally appealing themes and basic human values. They have strengthened the tradition of the short story in Indian Diaspora Literature.


Introduction to the Author: 

M. Sreelatha has been awarded Ph. D from Kakatiya University, Warangal. She is presently working as Lecturer in English, Dr.BRA Government Polytechnic, Karimnagar, Telangana, India. She has teaching experience of more than 20 years. The researcher is a recipient of Gold Medal for securing the highest marks in Post Graduation (English Literature). She is also awarded as the Best Lecturer by the State Government of Andhra Pradesh in recognition of her service in teaching in the year 1999.

Works Cited:

Kamath, A.P. “Women Writers of Indian Diaspora Creates a Big Impact.” Rediff News 23 Aug.1999. 22 June.2009 http://www.rediff.com/ news/1999/aug/ 23us2.htm

Paranjape, Makarand. “Introduction: Displaced Relations: Diasporas, Empires, Homelands.” In-Diaspora: Theories, Histories, Texts. ed. Makarand Paranjape. New Delhi: Indialog Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2001.

Pathak, Vandana, Urmila Dabir, and Shubha Mishra, eds. Contemporary Fiction: An Anthology of Female Workers. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2008.

Shankar, R. R. “A Writer Free to Write All Day.” Rediff News 23 Aug.1999. 22  June.2009 <http://www.rediff.com /news/1999/aug/23us2.htm>

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