Volume XV, Number 1, 2019

"Review of Women in the Indian Diaspora: Historical Narratives and Contemporary Challenges" by Shreya Bera"

Shreya Bera is currently a second year PhD student in the Doctoral School of Literature at the University of Szeged. Her research interests include 20th century American literature, postcolonial literature, diaspora studies, theories of sublime, and trauma theories and narratives. Email:

Women in the Indian Diaspora: Historical Narratives and Contemporary Challenges
Edited by Amba Pande
Delhi, India: Springer
200 pp.
ISBN: 978-981-10-5950-6


Beyond the homogenized perceptions of gendered experience, the arrays of migration and resettlement among Indian women are quite diverse. However, in the shared space with migrant men, the voices of Indian diasporic women remain to be unheard and therefore mostly unmapped. Women in the Indian Diaspora: Historical Narratives and Contemporary Challenges (2018) offers a well-directed view of trials connected to women’s migration and their experiences during the process have always been different due to the reversal of gendered roles and expectations. Resettlement and the simultaneous dialectic tensions assert an abundant lifestyle and gradually redefine the gender roles and development of the self and the other. The central idea in this edited volume concerns women’s agency and restoring the multifaceted questions that they are facing under orthodox circumstances, the rearrangement of the socio-cultural layouts of patriarchy and gender relations, and supervising the developing struggles over the way of communication through the following generations. A collection of fifteen essays adhering to the theme of a global struggle for the liberation of these diasporic women and tries to map the transcultural developments of the struggle against Indian cultural and religious aesthetics. The book is sectioned into four parts: “The Context of Theory and Identity,” “Revisiting Historical Narratives,” “The Contemporary Challenges,” and “Diasporas across the World” and these sections capture well the editor’s purpose of adopting a multidisciplinary standpoint, with the idea of intersectionality of gender, religion, class and creed standing the ground within the realm of ‘post-rational feminism’ (18).

The editor, Amba Pande is currently associated with the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests include the Indian diaspora and international migration. Her introductory article titled “Women in Indian Diaspora: Redefining Self between Dislocation and Relocation,” gives an orientation on the procedures of migration and settlement of women in the Indian diaspora during the pre-colonial, colonial, as well as the postcolonial period to map their fights and agencies. The article discusses the very first-time women were given separate attention within the diasporic research during the late 1960s—early 1970s. By the 1980s, differences in gendered experiences were noticed and in the third phase, during 1990s, class, religion and ethnicity were brought in as contributing factors in the migration research. What she terms the ‘old diaspora’ with an emphasis on its subcategories—indentured labourers and free migrants—and places it in contrast with the ‘new diaspora’ referring to skilled and semi-skilled workers. Pande also explores the heterogeneity of Indian culture along with the continuous manifestation of traditional trends in both expatriates and immigrants, preserving their diasporic identity in a foreign land. At the same time, the new cultures and globalized conditions bring about socio-religious ruptures and lead to the development of hybrid cultures with their own socio-cultural distinctiveness. The article deals with complicated realities demonstrating inadequate and unbalanced power dynamics of the homeland and the conventional spaces of the host land.

Sandhya Rao Mehta’s “Centring Gendered Narratives of the Indian Diaspora” carries forward Pande’s argument and looks beyond the stereotypical representation of women and articulates the voice of the ‘other’ woman in the appropriated societies. In a way, ‘gender intersects with social hierarchies’ (pp. 35) during the process of migration. The negotiations with the prevailing structures of cultural oppression, the revolutionary plans and the exploration of gendered diasporic spaces remain at the focus of the article. Studies that have been done on the Indian Diaspora often showed that women as inactive participants and that the decision of moving is often a male one. The Indian men enjoyed the privileges at expense of numerous, undocumented narratives of women who have forcibly or otherwise, crossed borders only as an accessory to the repressed familial values to different parts of the world over the course of the last few centuries. This chapter complies with the need of study that investigates testimonial statements on gender and diaspora, focusing on the spaces of experiments on communally deprived women outside the first world. Outlining the rise in contemporary diaspora studies over the last few decades, it emphasises the diverse ways in which research on the diaspora has been regulated by class, henceforth showing that a number of women continuously stabilized the national economy by working in the Middle East. With this, the study invites theorization of the ‘geographies of power’, with regard to gender in migration studies, focuses on numerous ways to perceive the notion of gender beyond the binaries of victimhood and empowerment. The types of social locations and power geometries in regards to the diasporic women emphases to the intersectional relationship between gender, socio-political hierarchies and show the way how gender traverses with social hierarchies through the act of migration, the discussions with subversive models of patriarchy in order to negotiate within such circumstances, exists to be a vital facet of the investigation of gendered diasporic paradigm.

Nabanita Chakraborty’s “The Rhetoric of Deliberation and the Space of the Hyphen: Identity Politics of the Indian Women Diaspora in the Fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri” explores the growing feminization of international migration. A stark contrast is perceived in developing societies, further stressing the incorporation of the socio-cultural quays of the women from these societies. Sheetal Sharma’s “Freedom or Subjugation: Interpreting the Subjectivity of Women in Indian Diaspora Communities” focus on the ‘quantum intensity’ of diasporic experiences in the case of women diaspora and how these women strike a balance between refabricating their environment and forming the cultural blend in their homes and lifestyles within their host society. The phenomenon of migration and settlement of diaspora communities is considered a multidimensional experience subjected to be analysed from both the quantitative and the qualitative perspective. When evaluated from the quantitative perspective, the research on diaspora and migration tend to take into account aspects related to numerically organised profiles of the representatives of this diaspora community (age, skill, category, education, last residence, etc.); the reorganization of population due to migration over time and space; patterns of migratory flows like rural to urban, urban to rural, urban to urban and rural to rural and also an awareness of intentions and anticipation of the origins and consequences of migration. On the other hand, the qualitative dimension of the progression of migration and the gradual settlement of diaspora communities concern themselves with the operational and institutional variations twisted by the migratory flows and also includes the collaboration between the cultures of the destination and host society.

Part II consists of three essays—“Indian Indentured Women in the Caribbeans and the Role Model of Ramayana’s Sita: An Unequal Metaphor” by Archana Tewari, “’The Men Who Controlled Indian Women’—Indentureship, Patriarchy and Women’s ‘Liberation’ in Trinidad” by Radica Mahase, and “Tamil Women of the Diaspora: Indentured to Independence” by Bernard D’Sami—focusing on the patterns of migration among Indian women, both in relation to Indian men and individually. The authors broaden the geographical understanding that concerns Indian women. The first essay in this section explores the connection between mythological migrations in comparison with real ones by referencing Ramayana, an ancient Indian epic. The pain of migration increases in a diverse manner if the migrant is a female from an economically struggling section, under contractual labour scheme, or simply leading a life as a dependent belongs to society where she is stereotyped as a deity of sacrifice. The question is how the author could relate the sacrificial intents of the epic with that of the pre-colonial stages of Indian Indentured labourers in the Caribbean’s? because of the basic trials of women through forceful slavery, annexation and dislocation which are as observable in the ancient fictions as in the contemporary migratory behaviour. All these qualities would precisely describe the Indian women moving to the Caribbean islands to work in the sugar plantations during the British period. The discursive intent of this article is especially important to the contemporary re-readings of the Ancient Indian epics like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments (2019). The article by Mahase, on the other hand, concentrates on the ideologies of radical feminism that emerged during the last years of the struggle for independence in India in the 1940s and how that struggle manifested within the boundaries of Trinidad. The conditions propelling women’s migration and their experiences during the process and settlement have always been different and extremely specific to them. As historically known, The Indian indentureship scheme was introduced solely to provide a cheaper source of labour on the plantations in Trinidad and other Caribbean countries. Though there was an intense criticism of African slavery, Indentured labour scheme was not equated in the same level with it and kept on continuing under the shadow of different socio-economical agreements. Mahase talks about a general agreement by the colonials of the Indian women who arrived in Trinidad. These women were presumed to have been the ones benefitted the most from the indentureship system as they lived in a British colony for so long in increasing their social and cultural status. Mahase somewhat deals with the notions of high and low culture and takes a dig at the white washing of the cultural disparity under the justifications of colonization.

Marriage holds a somewhat transcendent position in the diasporic situation for an Indian woman who takes a leap of faith into the unknown. She is expected to hold her composed demure by dignity, through faith in ‘karma’ and to submit to her preordained destiny with an unquestionable fervour. “Fitting in: The Joys and Challenges of Being an Indian Woman in America” by Mahua Bhattacharya explores the Indian idea of the perfect woman, who does not have her own home and this prospect of being a keepsake for someone else always casts a shadow on her upbringing that she perhaps exists to virtuously fulfil the roles of a daughter, wife and the mother. In both body and spirituality and how the arranged marriages play a huge part in this chase of constructing the ideal deity through societal surveillance and patriarchal bondage. The joys and challenges of a diasporic Indian woman who chose to live in the US after marriage and who shows how political contexts in their adopted countries shape South Asian women’s struggles when they try to fit in. This paper also brings the issue of subjectivity formation into this dialogue which often shapes the way Indian women in the US try to assimilate into American society. Finally, it also complicates the idea of ‘home’ that women settling in the US feel about their homeland, India.

“Three Tamil Diasporic Women’s One Mission: Discover New Identities” by Gopalan Ravindran, “Gender Differentials of Indian Knowledge and Service Workers in the US Labour Market: A Comparative Analysis in the Context of ‘Age, Wage, and Vintage’ Premia” by Narender Thakur and Binod Khadria, and “Unemployed Female Skilled Migrants from India in the Netherlands: The Entrepreneurial Self Under Structural Dependency” by Kathinka Sinha-Kerkhoff and Kate Kirk. The latter focuses on the ethnographic data collected by the authors showcasing ‘entrepreneurial selves’ (pp. 138) in indentured labour which results in ‘non-unitary subjectivities’ (pp. 138) of financially reliant Indian women in the Netherlands. This paper tries to move away from the historical diasporic developments around the world and refocuses the argument towards current issues while trying to maintain a multidisciplinary perspective connecting to socio-economic and political facets.

People migrate and so do their cuisines – ingredients, cooking, preparations, methods of dining etc. travel with them across borders and spaces adapting to disparate social and environmental circumstances. As trans-migrant communities spread throughout the world, diverse food habits achieve importance in the diaspora due to the sheer connection with nostalgia and links to the homeland. Part IV brings about the practices and principles around food preferences and consumption among different Indian communities scattered around the world through the articles “Curry and Race: Gender, Diaspora and Food in South Africa” by Movindri Reddy, “Diversities, Continuities and Discontinuities of Tradition in the Contemporary Sikh Diaspora: Gender and Social Dimensions” by Shinder S. Thandi, “Anglo-Indian Women: A Narrative of Matriarchy in a Global Diaspora” by Ann Lobo, and “Lived Experiences of Sikh Women in Canada: Past and Present” by Amrit Kaur Basra. The introductory article of this section is prevalent with the examples of the Gujrati and Sindhi communities in South Africa and how they, within respective communities explore the hyphenated binaries through the culture that were not born into but adapted to. The Sikh community, on the other hand, confers to their identities. According to Basra, The Canadian domain works more as a homeland in a host country where matriarchy thrives better than it would have on Indian grounds.

To conclude, Women in the Indian Diaspora: Historical Narratives and Contemporary Challenges targeted a variety of emergent questions related to women in the Indian diaspora such as dislocation and relocation, space, hyphen and indentureship. It certainly unpacks the usual meaning associated with the concept diaspora and reiterates the need to discard the male centric tendency to project women as mere victims, denying their agencies altogether. But the book can be criticised on two levels. Firstly, the book misses the point on communal disputes that occur within the Indian migrated communities in the USA: the societal stigmas, cultural diversities as well as the effects of cultural atrocities are all discussed from the angle of eastern and western relationship, imposing an idea of communal harmony through the generalised washing of ‘Indianness.’ Secondly, the book fails to provide an overall picture of the Indian communities scattered about in the USA, majorly ignoring Indian diaspora hailing from the Northeast India (consisting of seven states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura), Southwest India and Union territories with anglophone and francophone majorities and only concentrating heavily on South Indian communities (Tamil and Kannada), Sikh and Bengali communities in North America. The book, in that regard, lacks the coherence discussing the trials of Indian diaspora, especially not considering the various challenges faced by Indian diasporic women, hailing from different states and communities, hence from different cultural terrains. The book also misses to discuss other Indian diasporic authors such as Bharati Mukherjee, Anita Desai, Amitabha Ghosh, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Abha Dawesar whose works can be considered as the groundwork of diasporic research. The volume is, nevertheless, well structured and tries to glance at the Indian diaspora from the viewpoint of women which tallies with the literary gap in both diaspora and gender studies. It facilitates the reader to gain a peek of diaspora through a gender narrative. The book is also a decent read and attempts to narrow down a wider and much complicated discussion of the rehabilitation of Indian women in different countries and how they, through generations devoted to self-exploration, walk beyond the predetermined definitions of gender, but with a vigorous theoretical support.