Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Absent Child in Diaspora Discourse

(Taking a slightly different route here ... This is adapted from an Endowment Lecture I delivered recently.)

Sometime ago, I went through the titles of over 500 books on diaspora – I encountered books that highlighted different sides to the diaspora question - identity, nationalism, women, gender, queer studies, race, Islam, Jewishness – or in other words, books that include every aspect of a diasporic existence, except for how such an existence affects the child. Today, we live in a world where we are all diasporic, to a certain extent, even if we have never left the city in which we were born. A child is as much part of the diaspora as is the adult but there seems to be very little research on how children adapt to leaving the homeland, living away from the familiar, living in the borderlands between home and homeland, the culture of the hegemonic society and the culture of the hegemonic family. This is in spite of the fact that the ideal of childhood is based on residence, family, community and society.

The decision to migrate and settle down in a land that is not the homeland is, in cases of voluntary migration, almost always taken by the adult.  The child has no say in whether to migrate, when to migrate and where to migrate to. Marianne Hirsch in her essay, “Pictures of a displaced girlhood” recounts how she unwillingly boarded the plane from Vienna to USA and wept loudly all through the flight to register her grief and her reluctance to migrate. Issues of child migration or diasporic children don’t receive much attention especially in developing or third world countries, where the child is seen as a ‘passive mover’- migrating only because their families have chosen to or have been forced  to. for instance, the literature on Partition offers us very few stories of child refugees. In fact, the exemplary work of Kamla Bhasin, Urvashi Butalia and Veena Das reveals that far from being seen as victims of Partition or a diasporic life, the state and the community victimized the children further by setting up orphanages for children born of forced sexual encounters during Partition and worse, at a time when abortion was illegal in India, the state arranged clandestine mass abortions of such pregnancies. The state was also confounded by the issue of citizenship of these children. Where did they belong? To the father’s nation or the mother’s nation? What about the predicament of the child who was rejected by both parents?

Since childhood is almost everywhere associated with innocence, play and happiness, the figure of the child migrant, who might have faced war, hunger, violence and brutality and who might now face sexual exploitation, becomes a “threat to “our ideas – and ideals – of what it means to be a child and, in turn, the values and responsibilities that we hold as adults”. (Heaven Crawley). It reminds the adult viewer that they have failed to provide for the kind of childhood that is considered idyllic, that their notion of childhood, based on an othering of adulthood is a mere construct, and so raises the question of the falsity of the self. And so, afraid, fearful and guilty, we invisibilize the child and her unique predicament from all discourse.

The nostalgia felt by parents could be alien to the child for whom the host country is home, and the physical home which the parents have immersed in memories of the mystical homeland becomes alien and a borderland. “Questions of home and belonging can be complex for adults who migrate from their place of birth, but even more so for their children” and grandchildren. For those who were born or raised in the diaspora, the ties they have to their country of citizenship and their country of origin are not the same as that of their parents, and often are far more complex and even ambiguous. In The Namesake, Calcutta holds a certain bittersweet nostalgia for Ashima, which her children Gogol and Sonia do not feel.  Children of diaspora are caught in a double bind and experience double displacement. The differing worldviews, values and social mores of the family and the host country become a source of conflict, trauma and identity crises.

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