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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 1

Judith Misrahi-Barak
Claudine Raynaud

Questioning Diasporas

Names and Global Habitations: The South Asian Diaspora and the problem of the proper name

Indira Karamcheti


This paper focuses on a peculiarity of the Indian diaspora-its inability to name itself by national origin, diasporic history, or race-rather, it is assigned names in the diasporic location: ’East Indian’, ’South Asian’, ’Asian American’, ’Indian American’, ’Black’ (although according to Spivak, not ’Black Blacks’, or ’real Blacks’), or even ’Hindou’, regardless of religious affiliation. By ’name’, then, I am designating the equivalence of a diasporic group with its own particularized history and identity. The difficulty in self-identifying as ’Indian’ signifies a relative ’belatedness’, a pre-emption of ’Indian’ and South Asian history by other histories. This paper seeks to examine the importance of that misappropriation and proposes that the consequences are matters of both signification and of ethics. The Indian diaspora constructs both meaning and narrative for itself by analogy to a supposedly more meaningful narrative-indenture to slavery, for example-in which it is positioned as a narrative of mimicry. Besides histories, names embed both moral imperatives and ethical claims. The misappropriation of a proper name creates uncertainty about what proper rights the ’Indian’ or ’South Asian’ can claim in the global context, especially relative to the so-called ’primary’ marginalized groups. Living by analogy, by mimicry, makes claims to compensation or affirmative action on the grounds of historical marginalization not only suspect but suspiciously opportunistic and unethical.

Texte intégral

1Diasporas move in a dynamically unstable linguistic field: witness the debates over the definitions and relationships of such terms as ’diaspora’, ’the transnational’, ’the global’, and ’the cosmopolitan’. Names of peoples and cultures of course shift during these global movements, usually in the direction of greater generalization, so that Indians, Pakistanis, and Sri Lankans, not exactly political allies, become equally ’South Asian’. Or Anglophone Jamaicans, Hispanophone Puerto Ricans, and Francophone Martiniquans are all convivially West Indian together. Most such shifts retain an umbilical connection to three identitarian categories: geography, history, and race. Contained within these are more specific categories such as nation, religion, language, colonialism, class, gender and labor. Intellectual efficiency mandates greater and greater simplification: the Jewish diaspora, the African diaspora, the Chinese diaspora, the South Asian diaspora.

2In this paper, I wish to consider a peculiarity of the latter diaspora, the South Asian diaspora, a peculiarity that seems to me particular and perhaps even unique to it: its inability to claim a name connecting it to a specific national (geographic) origin, diasporic history, or race. The inadequacy of the diaspora’s name in itself is not unique: racial classifications and many national names, including that of ’India’, whether produced through the machinery of colonialism or seemingly organically indigenous, certainly have no natural or essentialist authority. What is unusual here is the pre-emption of the ’Indian’ name, history and identity by other marginalized histories seen as having a prior or superior claim to it. Some examples of such pre-emption are the priority and greater signification of slavery to the indenture that replaced it within the same structures, or the ’Blackness’ of Africanity that overshadows the race of the Indian, or the greater ’Asian-ness’ of the South East Asian that subsumes that of the South Asian. ’The proper name’, then, here represents geographic/national specificity, particular diasporic history, and recognized racial identity. To think of the South Asian’s name as ’proper’ means to confer ownership of identity to the diaspora, to concede that identity is indeed a property, that is, a commodity that can be employed for greater or lesser profit, and to accord to the South Asian diaspora the right to claim an appropriate-i. e., self-identified-history and race.

3This pre-emption produces three mutually dependent ways of understanding that diaspora in the popular (and even the intellectual) imaginary. First, the specific history of South Asian people in diaspora does not exist as a concrete and self-referential discourse. Instead, it is imagined in reference to the histories and movements of other peoples. For example, in Fiji, the South Asian is understood in relation to the indigenous Fijian; in the Caribbean, to those of African descent. Nor is the issue only that South Asian identity and history are placed in relation to others, but that they are placed in an inferior and secondary, a belated and marginalized, position relative to those others. So the South Asian is a shadow presence, a mirror reflection, throughout the diaspora: less important in relation to the African, the Afro-Caribbean, the Fijian, and unable to be understood as having a separate and meaningful significance of its own. South Asian global itineraries and settlements are subsumed under the histories of other diasporic or marginalized peoples and are perceived as secondary, their value and virtue inherently constituted only insofar as it recapitulates the primary, prior, narrative.

4Second, as the South Asian diaspora is constituted by its relationship to another, supposedly more meaningful history-indenture to slavery, for example-it is inevitably perceived as a kind of mimicry, an imitation, a lesser reflection of a more meaningful presence. Mimicry, by definition, while it may be potentially destabilizing, also invites and sometimes creates ridicule and suspicion-precisely because it is not an authentic presence in its own right, and has no identity of its own. It is, again, by definition, an improper reflection. Third and last, the consequence is that for the South Asian diaspora to claim its ’proper name’-’Indian’, its own proper, self-referential history, and its right to claim title to its own story-becomes a scandal of impropriety and a kind of fraud: the claim of the inauthentic to authenticity. Thus, the South Asian is constructed as fraudulent and unethical, intrinsically and essentially. This is far more than a stereotype; it is the master narrative of the South Asian diaspora, constructed around an impossible identity-the absence of the proper name.

5While this of course has consequences of a psychological nature for members of that diaspora, that is not the focus of this article. Rather, I am primarily concerned with the literature by and about the South Asian diaspora and the problematic of narrativizing an identity that is meaningful only in relation to a supposedly greater one. In what follows, I first detail the history of that missing ’proper’ name in the heteroglossically, multiply imperial Caribbean, then in the more contemporary United States, and discuss issues of name and character and ethics. The second and most important part of this article primarily focuses on an analysis of M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall, as an exemplary literary exploration of the struggle to name oneself properly and its inevitable defeat. Lastly, I suggest the overwhelming persistence of the narrative of the improper Asian in the story, detailed in contemporary journalism, of Raj Rajaratnam. I propose, then, that not only cultural but literary narratives about the South Asian diaspora are driven by the same problematic: the lack of a proper name, understood as the denial of a story rightfully about oneself-and the attempt to claim it, which is interpreted and punished as scandal, impropriety, and fraud.

6The difficulty of the ’proper’ name for what we in the United States today call the ’South Asian’ is both global and of long duration. People originating in the modern nation of India in other, extranational, global locations could not and cannot identify themselves as ’Indian’. In the British West Indies, they were ’East Indians’, as opposed to the indigenous ’Indians’ or ’Amerindians’, or the predominantly African-descended ’West Indians’. They were ’West Indian East Indians.’ V. S. Naipaul writes, after ’national feeling grew up... There was a cry for integration, and the West Indian East Indians became East Indian West Indians’. He continues:

This didn’t suit the Dutch. They had a colony called Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, on the north coast of South America. They also owned a good deal of the East Indies, and to them an East Indian was someone who came from the East Indies and was of Malay stock. (When you go to an Indian restaurant in Holland you don’t go to an Indian restaurant; you go to an East Indian or Javanese restaurant.) In Surinam there were many genuine East Indians from the East Indies. So another name had to be found for the Indians from India who came to Surinam. The Dutch called them British Indians. Then, with the Indian nationalist agitation in India, the British Indians began to resent being called British Indians. The Dutch compromised by calling them Hindustanis. (34-35)

7In Francophone Switzerland, they were for some time identified as ’Hindou’ even if they were Muslim, as ’Indien’ was reserved for the American Indian. Throughout the British Raj, they were as much ’Blacks’ and ’niggers’ to the rulers as were Africans; in fact, Mrs. James Elliot’s 1926 A Guide to Indian Household Management ’pleaded with the English not to call their Indian servants “nigs” since they are, after all, “fellow creatures”’ (Prashad 2000: 159). In England, they can now be ’Asians’, ’Pakis’, ’Coloreds’, or even ’Blacks’-but they are not ’real Blacks’ or ’Black Blacks’, as Spivak phrases it, when juxtaposed to people of African descent (Spivak 1989: 80-88).

8’From the time of their arrival in the United States’, writes Susan Koshy, ’South Asian Americans have confounded the attempts of official bodies to determine their racial classification.... South Asians were white in 1910, 1913, 1919, and 1920, but were non-white in 1909, 1917, and after the Supreme Court ruling in 1923’. According to the categories of the U.S. Census Bureau, by decades, they were ’Other/Non-white Asiatic/Hindu’ in 1910, ’Other/Hindu’ in 1920, ’Hindu’ in 1930 and 1940, ’Other/Non-white/Asiatic Indian’ in 1950, ’Other/Non-white/Hindu’ in 1960, ’Other/White’ in 1970, ’Asian Indian’ in 1980, ’Asian or Pacific Islander/Asian Indian’ in 1990, and Asian Indian in 2000, as a ’subcategory of the umbrella term Asian American’, where the category currently rests (Koshy: Web).

9As Koshy writes, ’the categories black, Indian, and white were already occupied’. More than the census categories, however, it is the narratives and the meanings of ’Black’, ’Indian’, and ’White’ that are already occupied. These are narratives of heroic suffering and victimage, and undeserved, if sometimes guilt-racked, power on the part of white oppressors: a binary struggle of exploited/exploiter, dominated/dominator-narratives, that is, of virtue and viciousness, of the hero’s struggle to regain rightful position and the sinner’s epiphanic understanding of the nature of the sin. The South Asian has no place in these narratives-except in the position of mimicry. If it were a matter of simply creating a narrative from scratch or of disseminating a little known narrative, the problem would have a simpler solution. The difficulty lies in the South Asian’s vacillating half-insertion into narratives not perceived as ’proper’ to the diaspora. The South Asian is both ’Black’ and ’not-Black’, ’Indian’ and ’not-Indian’, sometimes ’like Whites’, but not really.

10In other words, the South Asian engages in a kind of mimicry. To use Homi Bhabha’s poetic terms, he is ’almost the same but not quite’, sometimes ’not quite/not white’ and at other times ’not quite/not Black’, but always ’not quite/not right’. Mimicry, as Bhabha succinctly puts it, is a double vision, a metonymy-a substitute naming, a partial presence. It is to be signally not authentic, not the real thing, to be fraudulent (121-131). If, as Bhabha claims, mimicry destabilizes essentialist claims based on race and/or culture, in the diaspora that destabilization seems to undermine the South Asian’s nominal claims to both the virtue of exploited Blackness and to the privileges of exploitative Whiteness.

11Mimicry, then, is by definition the wrongful claim to an identity not one’s own, an ’improper name’. The concept of the ’proper’ has powerful and wide-ranging reference: from ’property’, the rights of ownership; to the class- and gender-based hierarchical structures of ’propriety’, that is, of the classical concept of ’decorum’, of social behavior-in other words, to ethical social behavior. The ’proper name’, as Derrida explains it, is ’the reference of a pure signifier to a single being-and for this reason untranslatable’ (166). The ’proper name’ of ’Indian’ does not refer to a ’single being’ who originates from the Indian subcontinent-it exists from the beginning as translation. To be ’Indian’ thus confronts an unsolvable problem of cultural and identitarian problem of translation: the ’Indian’ has no proper-ty claim to ’Indian’ness’, as that name has already been assigned elsewhere as a ’proper name’. Thus, the claims of the South Asian to the name and narratives of ’Blackness’ or ’Whiteness’, or even of being ’Indian’, constitute a challenge to accepted ideas of property, propriety, and especially moral identity: does the South Asian have the right to claim these narratives and identities of abused virtue and heroism? If the answer is ’yes’, then the South Asian can also lay claim to certain kinds of treatment from others: citizenship rights, affirmative action, social and economic equality, and so on. If the answer is ’no’, then any attempts to make such claims merit the treatment reserved for imposters fraudulently attempting to steal goods and benefits not rightfully theirs, an identity verging on criminality.

  • 1 The passage I am citing reads: Daimon ’here means simply a man’s personal destiny; it is determined (...)

12Thus, the name becomes character, or ethos. And ’ethos’ has an etymological and significant connection to ’ethics’. The connection appears as early as Heraclitus: ’ [Ethos, or] Man’s character is his daimon’, a cryptic statement explained as meaning that the individual’s character controls personal destiny (Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1957: 211).1 According to this logic, the South Asian diaspora, then, is itself responsible because of its inherent character (ethos) for the treatment (ethics) it receives in its various diasporic locations. Its treatment is appropriate and justified because of its fraudulent self-naming.

13That treatment has at times been dramatically public, state-driven and sanctioned, and negative. There are the public repudiations of the Indian in Fiji and post-independence Africa. About 60,000 indentured Indians were imported into Fiji by the British between 1879 and 1916 to work the sugar cane fields. The terms of indenture as proposed by Lord Salisbury in 1874 denied the possibility of eventual land ownership, reserved for indigenous Fijians, but promised political citizenship to Indians if they decided to remain. By 1987, the ethnic Indian population comprised 53 % of the population, and governmental elections reflected their larger numbers. Reaction against domination by this ’alien’ population led to the military-backed ’Rambuka coup’, which guaranteed indigenous Fijian majority control of Parliament for some time and resulted in a sizable emigration of Indo-Fijians from the country. In 2000, Mahendra Chaudhry was the first Indo-Fijian to be elected Prime Minister, only to be toppled by a second armed nationalist coup headed by George Speight. Such repudiation of Indians, as an alien rather than an integral part of the nation entitled to political participation, is seemingly regarded as ’understandable’. Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Paias Wingti, reported the BBC, said, ’It’s just like back in England. If you had 53 % of the population becoming Indians and taking over England what would the English people think?’ (BBC Web).

  • 2 Theroux cites an article by Keith Kyle, “Gandhi, Harry Thuku, and Early Kenyan Nationalism,” Transi (...)

14In a similar way, nationalization, or Africanization, in Kenya and Uganda led to suspicion, disenfranchisement, denial of citizenship, loss of property and businesses, exile, and sometimes worse for the Asian population. Some members of this population were descendants of indentured workers brought to work on the railroads, but others were descended from Indian traders settled for generations in east Africa. In Kenya, Asians had ’played a major-and early-role in the struggle for majority rule’ (Theroux 1997: 64),2 only to find themselves admonished after independence by President Kenyatta for not having respect for Africans, who said:

Some of these people have not even realized that there is now an about-turn. This is a final warning to them and unless they change their ways, they should not blame the government for any measures that may be taken to deal with their nonsense. (64)

15The expulsion of Asians from Idi Amin’s Uganda is acknowledged as heinous but does not cause an international outcry. In both cases, the claim of the Asian to citizenship and equal rights is disclaimed by what is widely agreed to be the greater and pre-emptive rights of racially Black Africans.

16Of course, I’m discussing a particular era and particular places. The United States has a different trajectory from that of Fiji or Africa, but I hope to argue that the narrative of the perfidious Asian still operates. The Indian is seemingly unassimilably different, and that difference is due to the Indian’s own character, the nefarious ethos of the South Asian, which is castigated as despicable without much fear of contradiction. The pervasiveness of this view of the Indian, and its seeming unremarkableness is what is remarkable. Works of the imagination, both fiction and nonfiction essays, bear out what seems a commonly accepted view.

17James Michener, the popular author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific in 1948, was renowned for carefully researching his material. His 1951 Return to Paradise is a literary tour throughout the Pacific, organized in a series of a nonfiction, factual essay paired with a short story about each place he visits. The ’nonfiction’ essay about Fiji begins: ’Imagine a group of islands blessed by heaven, rich in all things needed to build a good life, plus gold mines and a good climate. Picture a native population carefree, delightful and happy. Add a white government that works overtime to give honest service’.

18This particular paradise has only one black fly in the sun tan lotion: ’There’s only one thing wrong with that picture of Fiji. The Indians. Nobody can stand the Indians’.

19There’s more:

It is almost impossible to like the Indians of Fiji. They are suspicious, vengeful, whining, unassimilated, provocative aliens in a land where they have lived for more than seventy years. They hate everyone: black natives, white Englishmen, brown Polynesians and friendly Americans. They will not marry with Fijians, whom they despise. They avoid English ways, which they abhor. They cannot be depended upon to support necessary government policies. Above all, they are surly and unpleasant. It is possible for a traveler to spend a week in Fiji without ever seeing an Indian smile.

20Indians are money-grubbing shysters, litigious, unpatriotic, snobbish, treacherous, breeding like flies, like the mongoose which, as Michener points out in this fact-based, carefully researched essay, threatens to overrun the island with its fertility-and was also imported from India. The following short story, titled ’The Mynah Birds’, compares them to another bestial Indian import, the noisy, quarrelsome, hugely prolific avian immigrants, called ’Dirty invaders’ by one character. In this story, the blondly handsome American Joe Harvey has taken up with a young Indian girl, Pata Cadi. They are threatened by an Indian man who objects to the interracial affair. He is Billimoria, a ’thin and very black figure’, with a ’funereal face’ and skin of ’midnight black’. At the end of the story, as Joe boards the airline to return to the States, leaving Pata behind, Billimoria stabs her to death with a ’writhing stiletto’ (Michener 1951: 123-174). Joe Harvey is blessedly ignorant of her murder, and blissfully careless about the danger in which he has knowingly left her.

21This example may seem dated. But that fear of the alien, unas-similable Indian whose years of indentured servitude on Fiji’s soil nonetheless do not entitle him to political participation, land ownership, or the dignity of having suffered in an abusive system, remains alive and well, attested to by not one but two military coups to prevent the Asian’s political participation. It can even be and is remarked upon merely in passing, as a curiosity of the Fijian landscape. For example, in the more recent Changes in Latitude (1989), the American Joan McIntyre Varawa, who moves to Fiji and marries a Fijian, records her husband’s reaction to fellow, but Indian, passengers on the bus:

He is impassively disdainful. His feelings never show on his face, but in the twitches of his muscles, in the clenching and unclenching of his fists, in his sometimes playful jabs at imaginary opponents. A bunch of young Indian boys jokes behind us. Malé’s shoulders tense; he lights a cigarette and stares ahead of him. He does not consider fighting with Indians worth his time. They are too small and slender; they are not worthy opponents compared to the strong muscular Fijians of the koro and bush. Abstractly Malé hates Indians. In reality he is often compassionate and loving toward individuals, and invariably polite. But in no way does he consider them Fijians, and Fiji is Fiji. (72)

22The same narrative of the alien and perfidious, unethical Indians appears in east Africa, and again manifests itself in state-sanctioned strictures against them. The profoundly ethical and respected writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in his early novel A Grain of Wheat (1967), recapitulates the image of the Asian as unscrupulous alien trader, writing, ’In the days when European and Indian immigrants wrestled to control Kenya’, as if they had equal power over Africa and Africans. The novel ignores the past of indenture and the difference of race, let alone the fact of common colonization by the British. Yet later some of the characters engaged in the Kenyan independence struggle praise Gandhi and laud his leadership as a model for Kenyan anti-colonialist movements. The novel unconsciously separates ’good’ Indians-over there in India, their ’own’ country-and ’bad’ Indians-the labor diaspora of indenture created by the British as part of a shared, but different, history of imperial conquest and subjugation. The Indian history of labor, exploitation, and suffering, as well as of participation in the Kenyan independence movement is erased-Asians within the Kenyan diaspora have no name as nationals, as ’Blacks’, as labor, as having a history of exploitation within Kenya.

23The title of Paul Theroux’s ’Hating the Asians’ says it all. Also written in 1967, when Theroux was living in east Africa, and published in Transition, the article argues that ’Asians [are] the most lied-about race in Africa’ (60) and that to hate the Asian is the demonstration of both patriotism and, for the progressive non-African, the way to prove one’s correct political credentials. Both Whites and Blacks, in Theroux’s view, find it not only ’normal’ to hate the Asian, but laudable. This may be ’racism’, but it is a racism that is co-equivalent with nationalism. Again, the history of indenture, of shared political struggle, of long habitation in the land, of non-white race-all are erased because they are overshadowed by the presence of a narrative understood as having a greater name in the representation of race, a national geography, and of a history of suffering.

24A more recent novel, M. G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003) is an exemplary, cogent, complex, and powerful presentation of the problem of the impossibility of a proper name for the Asian, the Indian, in the diaspora. The novel takes place in two time periods, beginning in 1953, ten years before independence, and in two locations, Kenya and Canada. Vikram Lall, the eponymous central character, recalls his life in Kenya, where he was born and raised, the third generation of Asians in Kenya, the descendant of an indentured Indian laborer brought from India to work on the railroads. His is a family that sees itself as Kenyan-Indian, with, by Vikram’s generation, a deep identification with Kenya. His uncle Mahesh is a radical, actively working to support the Mau Mau, supplying them with guns and food. His sister, Deepa, loves and wishes to marry a Kenyan, Njoroge, who later becomes prominent in the tricky waters of post-independence politics. By the 1970s, Vikram, too, finds himself working for the government, but increasingly in a kind of shadow capacity. Here is Vikram’s description of his situation in independent Kenya:

Here I was, a young Asian graduate in an African country, with neither the prestige of whiteness of Europeanness behind me, nor the influence and numbers of a local tribe to back me, but carrying instead the stigma from a generalized recent memory of an exclusive race of brown “Shylocks” who had collaborated with the colonizers. What could I hope to achieve in public service? Black chauvinism and reverse racism were the order of the day against Asians.

25Yet, he, like his sister and his uncle, sees himself as Kenyan. He claims the right to name himself, and to narrate his own history. But his destiny is fixed by what he is named by others: an Asian.

26He first works for the Ministry of Transport, then is ’promoted’ to personal assistant to Minister Paul Nderi. He becomes, in his own estimation, a ’sort of Asian batman’ (255) for the minister. The minister has particular ’designs’ (255) for him, designs based entirely on ’the assumption that as an Indian I was naturally adept at handling large sums of money’ (239). He is asked to launder money through the Indian community businesses, an activity that, if discovered, allows the Minister and the government as a whole to place all responsibility on him and on the supposed essential nature of the Asian as money-hungry and treacherous. His corruption is indeed revealed and in disgrace, he escapes with his life to Canada. It is at this point that the novel begins with this self-introduction:

My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility....
I am quite an ordinary man, as you will discover, and moderate almost to a fault. How I came upon my career and my distinction is a surprise even to me. (3)

27Having recounted his story, Vikram Lall determines upon a final moral choice-and it is more final than he counts on. He returns to Kenya and offers to reveal all, to admit that he has ’done things unethical but not illegal, and these were done with the approval of public servants’. In exchange he asks the ’Anti-Corruption Commission’ to declare him freed of all charges. But his silence is necessary to the powerful: the Commission is disbanded, and the place where he’s hiding out, containing his important papers, set afire. The novel ends ambiguously with the suggestion that Vikram gives the manuscript of his novel to someone for safekeeping while he remains in the house to die.

28The complex and laudable accomplishment of this novel is to sketch out the inescapable power of the narrative of the misnamed Indian. Vikram Lall’s individual self, personal story, affiliations, loves, political motivations-mean nothing. All are overshadowed by the narrative of the corrupt, treacherous Asian loyal only to money, unethical to the end. His redemption can only be accomplished by his death.

29And death is not only literal in the fictions about the South Asian diaspora, but also the metaphorical death of South Asian identity-the South Asian can be virtuous if he or she stops being Indian: think of the Trinidadian Samuel Selvon’s A Brighter Sun (1952) or Turn Again, Tiger (1959), both plots in which virtue lies in creolization, in which the Indo-Trinidadians learn to become ’Trinidadian’, and what exactly that means in terms of learning not to be ’Indian’. Or the more recent movie Mississippi Masala (1992), which circles around two intertwined plots. An Indian-Ugandan family is expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, and settles in Mississippi. The father spends his days pursuing legal recourses in the hopes of regaining his property, his home in Uganda. The daughter falls in love with an African American (Denzel Washington!). Both learn the limits of possibility as members of the South Asian diaspora. Meena, the daughter, leaves her family and the Indian community to run away with Denzel (which may seem a pretty good exchange). The last visions of her are shots of the lovers in a cotton field, embedding her firmly in the history of the African American plantation South. Jay, the father, returns to Uganda, accepts that his loss is permanent, and that that loss is right. The last shot of him is in a public marketplace: he watches an African woman dancing, and cradles a Black child in his arms. As his own child leaves him, he learns to accept the rightness of that loss-the African claim on the world, on human sympathy, on law, on history, all outweigh his own.

30I want to end by turning specifically to the recent trial and conviction in the United States of Raj Rajaratnam (a name that combines the names of ’king’ and ’jewel’) on fourteen counts of insider trading. I am far from being an expert on financial matters, don’t want to argue the case, and am not qualified to do so. I willingly accept the guilty verdict. And, certainly, the immigration history of South Asians into the United States is very different from that of either Fiji or Kenya. The changes in immigration law in the U.S. in 1965 meant that Indians came into the country as middle- and upper middle-class, working in medicine, engineering, academia, and increasingly in the financial sector. And the recent economic recession and financial turmoil in the U.S. has been publicly discussed in terms of the wheelings and dealings of investment bankers and hedge fund managers, and similar high-flyers. While other persons have been tried and convicted, the stories of only a few have been trumpeted in the public media and have captured public attention to the same extent as Raj Rajaratnam’s: Leona Helmsley, Martha Stewart, Bernie Mad-off are the names best known in the public sphere. Students of literature and the cultural truths it often encodes will recognize a very familiar plot with very familiar characters. Here is the alien figure, treacherous, out to line his or her pockets. In the narrative of Raj Rajaratnam is the vacillating name of the always misnamed South Asian: he is not ’Black’-he has neither the supposed indigeneity nor an authentic ’American-ness’. He is one of the ’model minority’ that can outsmart-in this case by patently unethical means-the native American, both Black and White. Nor is he ’White’-while some white males have also been convicted of financial misdealing, the right of this group to wealth is not automatically remarkable. And Rajaratnam is both Indian and not Indian in the U.S. There, in the global imaginary, under another name, goes Vikram Lall, laying improper claim to what is not rightfully his-a name not his, a proper name.


Works Cited

bbc on this day 1950-2005. 1987. ’Fiji one step closer to a republic’, Accessed March 2, 2011.

Bhabha, Homi. ’Of Mimicry and Man’, in The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994; 121-131.

Derrida, Jacques. ’Des Tours de Babel’, in Difference in Translation, Joseph F. Graham, ed. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985; 165-207.

Elliott, Mrs. James. A Guide to Indian Household Management. London: Ward Locke, 1926, cited in The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000; 159.

Kirk, G. S., Raven, J.E., and Schofield, M. The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History With a Selection of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1957: 210-211.

Koshy, Susan. ’Historicizing Racial Identity and Minority Status for South Asian Americans’, n. pag. n. d. Asian Pacific American Collective History Project, Accessed March 2, 2011.

Michener, James. ’Fiji’ and ’The Mynah Birds’ in Return to Paradise. New York: Random House, 1951; 123-174.

Mississippi Masala. Dir. Mira Nair. Samuel Goldwyn Fair, 1992. DVD.

Naipaul, V. S. ’East Indian’, in The Overcrowded Barracoon. London: André Deutsch; 1972: 31-38.

Prashad, Vijay. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

Theroux, Paul. ’Hating the Asians’, in Transition 75/76, The Anniversary Issue: Selections from Transition, 1961-1976 (1997): 60-73. Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois institute. Accessed March 2, 2011.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. ’In Praise of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’. Critical Quarterly 31-32 (1989): 80-88.

Varawa, Joana McIntyre. Changes in Latitude: an Uncommon Anthropology. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989; 72.

Vassanji, M.G. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.


1 The passage I am citing reads: Daimon ’here means simply a man’s personal destiny; it is determined by his own character, over which he has some control, and not by external and often capricious powers.... ’

2 Theroux cites an article by Keith Kyle, “Gandhi, Harry Thuku, and Early Kenyan Nationalism,” Transition 27, 1966.


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