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The Longing-and-Belonging Syndrome

Meenakshi Mukherjee

Edited by Amitava Kumar
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 388, Rs. 395.00


'How does the writer of Indian origin living abroad negotiate longing and belonging ?' asks the editor in his highly readable and insightful Introduction to the anthology, and for a while I was persuaded that the thirty-three pieces that comprise the volume are meant to provide a range of answers to that question. And indeed they do, unless one begins to look closely at the contents page. Then the doubts begin . When did R.K. Narayan become an expatriate? What are Subhas Chandra Bose's letter of resignation to the Indian Civil Service or Nissim Ezekiel's 'Goodbye Party for Miss Pushpa' doing in an anthology which is meant to focus on the diasporic experience? How do the letters written by Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu and Rabindranath Tagore, all of whom were unquestionably rooted in India, contribute to the longing-and-belonging syndrome? Elsewhere in the Introduction Amitava Kumar proclaims, ‘In some measure, this anthology of essays pays homage to the ordi­nary experience of migration which can be at once modest and magnificent.’ Evidently, the intention and the contents do not always match. If the editor had merely said that the chosen pieces focus on the relationships of Indians with other countries, it would not have sounded very trendy, but it would have been the truth. These relationships do not always depend on physical migration, as we see in the extract from Nirad C. Chaudhuri's Autobiogra­phy of an Unknown India. Printed texts, imagination and misconceptions also play their part. But some of the pieces are individually so riverting that after a while it is possible to overlook the discrepancies in selection and enjoy the reading experience. All the expected transcultural names are here—Naipaul, Rushdie, Haneif Kureishi, Faoukh Dhondy, Ved Mehta, Bharati Mukherjee, Rohinton Mistry, Meera Syal and others. Writers normally not considered as expatriate like Arnitav Ghosh and Amit Chaudhuri also figure here, but my personal favourite is a piece from an earlier era I had never read before.  Sunity Devee, the Maharani of Cooch Behar describes with a refreshing candour her visit to England with her husband in 1887 to partici­pate in Queen Victorias golden jubilee celebrations. After the queen gave a private audience to this trembling young woman, she attended a reception dressed in a ‘white and gold brocade gown and a crepe de Chine sari’ (I am intrigued at a gown and a sari being worn simultaneously) carefully ...

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