Elements of Diaspora in Anita Desai’s Bye Bye Black Bird

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The Elements of Diaspora in Anita Desai’s Novel – Bye Bye Blackbird

by – K Sirisha, published in Vol.II, Issue.XIX – August 2016 

Introduction to the Author:

K SirishaK Sirisha is from Bangalore. She is into the field of teaching. Sirisha has an interest in reading and writing and she has published papers and articles in some of the established magazines.




The term ‘Diaspora’ has its root meaning in ancient Greek Language which means scatter. When it is applied to the people, it speaks about the scattering of people from their home land to different places across the globe. There they spread their culture.

            Diaspora literature can be defined as the literature produced by the writers who are away from their homeland. The present paper is an attempt to discuss the diasporic elements in the writings of Anita Desai the Indian woman novelist though there is big list of diaspora writers like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, M.G. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, and Kiran Desai. Anita Desai has the mixed parentage as her mother belongs to German Christian and father is a Bengali Indian. This complex origin has given her the suitability to become a Diaspora writer.

Keywords: Diaspora, Diaspora Literature, Complex


In the present day-to-day world, people have become so busy with their buzzing lifestyle. But at times they need some entertainment to come out of their frustrated lives. Literature is one of the mediums of entertainments which gives relaxation to the tired souls. In the history of literature, the novel has its own place in picturing the lives of human beings. Novel is one of the literary forms which can be defined in various ways.

            The word ‘novel’ derived from the Italian word ‘novella’ which means “a tale, a piece of news”. The novel is longer than the short story. It can be defined in different ways.

Birjadish Prasad in his book A Glossary of Literary Terms defines a novel as it “is a pocket theatre, containing as it does all the accessories of drama without requiring to be staged before an audience.”

            Mulk Raj Anand says that “novel is a process of inhale-exhale, a life-giving inspiration, a prose poem which realizes the body and soul, even a few visionary glimpse of the miracle of life itself”.

Literature is an expression of human emotion in any form of the writing. There are different kinds of literature. The present paper is an attempt to discuss the diaspora literature. The word ‘diaspora’ has its origin in Greek Language. It refers the dispersion of people from their own land. Diaspora Literature can be defined as works that are written by authors who are away from their homeland or native land. The term identifies a work’s particular geographic origin.

            Diaspora literature can also be defined by based on the content of the writing irrespective of its place where it has been written. If a piece of literature or a piece of work, though written in motherland, speaks about the character’s adoption and surviving outside the motherland it can be considered as diaspora literature. The Story of Joseph from Bible and The Book of Job are the best examples of this type. In the story of Joseph though the book is written in Isreal it speaks about Joseph’s learning to survive outside motherland.

            There are different types of the diaspora. They are victim diaspora, Trading diaspora, Imperial diaspora and Labor diaspora. When it is applied to literature this present paper is an attempt of Indian diaspora with reference to Indian English Literature. There are so many diaspora writers like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Rohinton Mistry, Bharati Mukherjee, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, M.G. Vassanji, Shyam Selvadurai, and Kiran Desai and Anita Desai. Among these writers Anita Desai is the writer who penetrates into diaspora literature as her mother is German Christian and father is Bengali Indian.

            Different opinions are expressed by different authors about diaspora. Migrant communities are called with different names such as diaspora, exile and expatriate. This migration may take place for various reasons such as historical, economical, and social reasons. Some times higher education also becomes a reason for the migration. But in the case of Indians they have shown a greater sense of adjustment, adaptability and acceptability. But genuinely people experience the sense of homelessness. Sometimes the intensity would be more. Nagging sense of guilt, nostalgia, insider and outsider syndrome, up-rooting and re-rooting and quest for identity are the characteristic features of diaspora. Salaman Rushdie in his article “Imaginary Homeland” says about the identity of immigrants as “plural and partial”.

            The most engrossing topic which raises the exciting debate in an intellectual way is treatment of migrants. The emergence of inter-disciplinary and cultural studies in post-modernist world have become major thrust area of academic exploration. Elleke Boehmer states, “the postcolonial and migrant novels are seen as appropriate texts for such explorations because they offer multi-voiced resistance to the idea of boundaries and present texts open to transgressive and non-authoritative reading”. Identity, origin and truth have become structureless assemblages according to postmodern terminology. Anita Desai is the best example in this regard as she has complex origin as her parents belong to different origins. Her mother, Antoinette Nime, could trace her origin to France, and her father, Dhiren Mazumdar’s native place was Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) but he had settled in New Delhi. Having the advantage of double perspective, the writings of Anita Desai can well describe India and Indians and as well as about migrants in India and Indian migrants to the West. She is both insider and outsider. She is outsider if seen from her mother’s side. She is insider if seen from her father’s side. She has spent a considerable part of her life in India and later moved to Girton College, Cambridge, UK, followed by her shift to Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Being a global citizen she has chiseled her perspective still further and also explored the condition of the Diaspora in her fiction in a better way. The diasporic Indian can be seen in her novel Bye-Bye Blackbird. She has dealt with the character of migrant Austrian Jew in Indian in her novel Baumgartner’s Bombay (1988). In the novel, Journey to Ithaca, she has shown an Egyptian acculturated in India along with a spiritual seeker in the subcontinent (1995). Finally, she has also shown the predicament of a lonely Indian, Arun in USA, in her novel Fasting, Feasting (1999).

            The diasporic element can be seen when Anita Desai describes the solitude of the characters. This solitude is the result of the external circumstances which shows its effect on inner psyche of the characters. But loneliness is the manifestation of both inner and outer conditions. So it can be evoked even in the middle of the society. Even the Indian Community is not exempted from being a victim of the sense of loneliness. It felt diasporic. UK Has been a prime destination for Indian migrants after the independence. In earlier days, people used to go to UK just to experience the pristine beauty of England. These people can be called as ‘Anglophiles’. There is another sect of people who used to go to UK to take proverbial ‘postcolonial revenge’. This type of group is called “Anglophobes”. But the people of England are not as innocent and friendly as Indians and these two groups of migrant Indians are pressed together and marked as “the Others”. It can be viewed as a sign of blatant racism sometimes. But one cannot always say that it has come just because of blatant racism but because of an individual’s own inner needs. The purpose and distinctions are diminished and diluted for both “Anglophobes” and “Anglophiles” as they are sailing in the same boat. Being purposeless they find themselves lonely.

            The background of the novel Bye Bye Blackbird is set in 1960s England which is written by Anita Desai. The story revolves around two friends Dev, and Adit in London. Adit has stayed for a longer period in London and married an English woman, Sarah. Dev comes to London for his higher studies and subsequent employment. The words of Adit shows his disappointment when he says:

All I could find was a ruddy clerking job in some Government of India tourist bureau. They were going to pay me two hundred and fifty rupees and after thirty years I could expect to have five hundred rupees. That is what depressed me-the thirty years I would have to spend in panting after that extra two hundred and fifty rupees.

This has compelled him to leave his mother country and settle in abroad for a decent income.

As Adit adopted England as his home he is able to withstand the insults hurled at him and humiliations. He admires the Western life and erstwhile masters. He says:

I like the pubs, I like the freedom a man has here-economic freedom! Social freedom! … and I like the Thames. I like old Ma Jenkins who clean my rooms … And I like weekend at the seaside. I even like the B.B.C.

He falls in love with an English girl and marries her. He becomes a ‘spineless immigrant lover’. Sarah agrees to follow him like a typical Hindu wife. Adit is overjoyed and remarked her:

You are like a Bengali girl … Bengali women are like that Reserved, quiet. May be you were one in your previous life. But you are improving on it-you are so much prettier!

Dev, on the other hand, gets infuriated by being called as ‘wog’ by a school boy. When they are walking down the street, they hear Mrs. Simpson muttering aloud, ‘Littered with Asians! Must get Richard to move out of Clapham, it is impossible now’. These lines suggest how emigrants, especially Asians are looked down as ‘other’ in England. ‘Otherness’ is defined by difference, typically difference marked by outward signs like race and gender. Dev understands that Adit is least bothered about insults he hurled at him and says, “Boot-licking toady. Spineless imperialist lover….You would sell your soul, and your passport too, for a glimpse, at two shillings, of some draughty old stately home”. But both have realized that they are opportunists after this juncture.

Few days later they have planned a gathering with other colored emigrants where they can eat and drink. “Modern diasporas are ethnic minority groups of migrant origins residing and acting in host countries but maintaining strong sentimental and material links with their countries of origin- their homeland.” That gathering is a fusion of different migrants. One Pakistani claims

“My religion forbids me to drink or smoke or touch a woman. But here, in this country, what am I to do? I also do the things I see other men doing”. Sarah and Audit enjoy Bhangra dance and the enjoyment has reached its peak with the high volume of radio. All of sudden they hear a voice saying” Wrap it up, you blighters, where d’ you think you are, eh?” Next moment the scene has changed and the group is forced to reduce the intensity of its merry-making. Dev can’t take this and says “The trouble with you emigrants is that you go soft. If anyone in India told you to turn off your radio, you won’t dream of doing it. You might even pull out a knife and blood would spill. Over here all you do is shut up and look sat upon‟ (24). Samar recounts the day he was called a bloody Pakistani” (26) as he refused to close his umbrella at the order of an Englishman.

These incidents leave a deep scar in Dev, who is divided between the opportunity he has got in England and the moments of bearing suppression and differences. The feelings of alienation and unidetification overwhelmed him. Desai expressed his agony:

Dev ventures into the city…. The menacing slighter of the escalators strikes panic into a speechless Dev as he swept down with an awful sensation of being taken where he does not want to go. Down, down and farther down – like Alice falling, falling down the rabbit hole, like a Kafka stranger wondering through the dark labyrinth of a prison….Dev is swamped inkily, with a great dread of being caught, step in the underground by some accident, some collapse, and being slowly suffocated to a worm’s death, never to emerge into freshness and light. (57-58)

Dev’s anguish disappears as he is ushered by the fresh morning. He himself trying to meet the challenges of an immigrant. However, he tries to cope up with the arrogance of English people the constant humiliations irked him. When Dev asks about the feelings of Adit, he says “…the laziness of the clerks and the unpunctuality of the buses and trains, and the beggars and the flies and the stench – and the boredom, Dev yar, the boredom of it‟ (49). I live for the moment. I don’t think, I don’t worry”. One day Adit insists a visit to his former land lady where he stayed for three years. Strangely Sarah rejected and reluctant to come. Adit says “That’s where I lived for three years, Dev. That’s the only landlady I stayed with for more than a fortnight. The others all threw me out, but I stayed with them, with the millers, for three years. At the Millers’. Adit is treated as an outsider and his visit gives him a feeling of unwelcome when he observes the treatment given by the landlady. When Adit sincerely enquired about their daughter, she wishes to reject the fact that Adit has lived there for three years. Mrs Miller expresses a feeling that she does not like any personal questions about her house or family. Though Adit is taken aback he takes control of the situation and leaves the place. On their way back neighbors stare curiously from behind their technicolored rose trees and a dog barks. His visit is an unpleasant surprise to the white family and their neighbors.

Like any other Indians abroad he has been infected by schizophrenia. He cannot digest the experience he faced when he visited the landlady. His uncertainty is best described by Desai:

In this growing uncertainty, he feels the divisions inside him divided further, and then re-divided once more. Simple reactions and feeling lose their simplicity and develop complex angles, facets, shades and tints… there are days in which the life of an alien appears enthrallingly rich and beautiful to him, and that of a homebody too dull, too stale to return to ever. Then hears a word in the tube or notices an expression on an English face that overturns his latest decision and, drawing himself together, he feels he can never bear to be unwanted immigrant but must return to his own land, however abject or dull, where he has, at least, a place in the sun, security, status and freedom.


Again they planned their visit to his mother-in–law’s house and he expects that his mother-in-law rather treat him differently. But he is annoyed with the treatment he meted out. He says ““My mother-in-law hates and despises me. They make fun of the life I lead and the ideals I profess. Therefore, I am angry. I am hurt (176). These fleeting moods of anger are new to him and „…faced with one, he was unable to deal with it – he merely stood still and felt his leaden feet sink in as though in quick-sands”. Adit has developed an extreme hatred for England he starts thinking everything English tom be insulting and depressing. He loses control of himself:

he stood staring, not at one of the posters he so delighted in but at a piece of that Nigger, go home graffiti on the walls that had previously nearly skidded off the surface of his eyeballs without actually penetrating. Now he is screwed up his eyes and studied it as though it were a very pertinent sign board (181). …the eternal immigrants who can never accept their new home and continue to walk the streets like strangers in enemy territory, frozen, listless, but dutifully trying to be busy, unobtrusive and, however superficially, to belong.

 Diaspora expresses the oscillated mind, suffering and agony of cultural change. He decides to leave England and says Sarah “Sarah, you know I’ve loved England more than you, I’ve often felt myself half-English, but it was only pretence, Sally. Now it has to be the real thing. I must go. You will come?”. Though Sarah agrees to his proposal she faces an alienation that is internal. Desai remarkably stated that Sarah “shed her name as she had shed her ancestry and identity, and she sat there, staring, as though she watched them disappear”. Sarah is brave enough to face the situations in life though she has gnawing fears in her mind. Sarah is alone and her friends are having a meeting. She recollects her emotions:

She felt all the pangs of saying good bye to her past twenty- four years. It was her English self that was receding and fading and dying, she knew it, it was her English self to which she must say good bye. That was what hurt – not saying good bye to England would remain as it was, only at a greater distance from her, but always within the scope of a return visit. England, she whispered, but the word aroused no special longing or possessiveness in her. English, she whispered, and then her instinctive reaction was to clutch at something and hold on to what was slipping through her fingers already.

She is in cross roads. Sarah can neither shed her native English culture nor accept the adopted Indian culture completely. At the time of farewell Christine asks her about baby, Sarah says, “You mean boy or girl? I don’t mind either. “Or do you mean who it will look like, Adit or me? I hope it will look like Adit, brown as brown, with black hair and black, black eyes” (224). Christine replies, “Well, in that case …I suppose it will be better to have the child in India”. Now she lost her identity as an English woman. She can be considered as a multicultured, Mrs. Sen, the wife of an Asian, rather than Sarah, the English woman.

            At the end of the story Dev who always complains about the country and its people decides to settle in England to reap a rich harvest. He is successful to establish his roots in England. But Adit and Sarah bid good bye to England. At the time of bidding goodbye, Dev calls out, “Bye-Bye Blackbird”. This is how Anita Desai describes the diasporic element to the eyes of readers.



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  1. “Diaspora Literature” by Martien A Halvorsm- Taylor.
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