Even if the Indian subcontinent was never your home to begin with, it can serve—and has served—as a spiritual home in conversation, books, films, and pilgrimage-like trips. In her 1979 book Karma Cola, Gita Mehta observed these visitors and the industry of fake fakirs who sprang up around them to embrace their curiosity and take their money. As the vivid success of Eat Pray Love and Chip Wilson’s Lululemon empire have proven, the guru era is far from over. There are fraudulent ashrams and cultish inveiglers all over the subcontinent and in the islands where the disapora scattered: everyone has a cousin—or six—who gives 38 percent of their income to a leader who, in exchange, relieves them of their connections to family and friends. In the West, too, gurus proliferate in small local temples, Sai Baba megastructures, and the Bikram Yoga training camp.
Karma Cola is history as reportage, a sardonic chronicle of minor vengeance for colonialism: the colonizers who just wouldn’t go away are now a source of capital for the country, a welcome variation on the one-way cash flow of the former empirical relationship. India can sell its wisdom, packaged for consumption by America and Europe’s young and directionless—or old and directionless, for that matter.
For Westerners, the sixties and seventies represented a key moment in the creation of what Salman Rushdie later called an “India of the mind.” Following in the footsteps of the Beatles, a major influx of Western tourists came to India in search of spiritual reality, an authentic home for the soul, a place where truth could be found in spiritual slogans, riddles, and in long cross-legged communions with silence and humidity. This India contained simpler, purer ways and the answers to the most difficult problems. The solution was the miracle of relinquishing worldly wealth to a country willing to accept that wealth. As Mehta writes:
Earlier in the century the Brahmins of Western intellectual thought had paved the way. Aldous Huxley had struggled with Vedanta and dared to expand his mind. William Butler Yeats … found “in that East something ancestral in ourselves, something we must bring into the light.” These were the thoughts of the highest caste, the scholar, deliberating on language, meaning and despair.
Now it was the turn of the populists, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, to become pacemakers for a faltering Western heart, and they achieved a more striking success.
Next in this path of inheritance, today, is the displaced diasporic subject: the brown writer, or the protagonist in that writer’s novel, who is embedded in the West but also has a “faltering heart” in need of revival by the ancestral tonic of a voyage east. Even diasporic writers who aren’t writing narratives of nostalgia and healing homecoming must contend with the creation of an India of the mind, both for themselves and for a Western readership.
In “Imaginary Homelands,” Rushdie discusses coming to the dilemma of realism early in the composition of his 1981 novel, Midnight’s Children:
But if we do look back, we must do so with the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.
For the past two decades or so, many of the novels dealing with the South Asian diaspora have depicted a solid subcontinent and a wavering West: the mirage is in the writer’s present, while the truth lies somewhere in the past, somewhere “back home.” Chanu, the homecoming-obsessed husband in Monica Ali’s 2003 Booker shortlisted best-selling novel Brick Lane, believes his unsatisfying life can only be repaired by reversing his emigration. While his wife is profoundly skeptical, Chanu believes his struggles with money and intellectual fulfillment and the lack of respect he feels from his superiors at work will all be repaired by a return to Bangladesh.
Chanu’s return is a disappointment: he goes back to the land of his past but can’t step into an idealized memory, or a younger version of himself. When his wife asks him if the return has granted him what he wanted, he replies, “The English have a saying: You can’t step into the same river twice. Do you know it? Do you know what it means?” Chanu’s saying goes further back than the English. It’s Greek, Heraclitus, a take on the essential hollowness of nostalgia that’s over two thousand years old, and still difficult for readers, writers, and Chanu to actively believe.
In Brick Lane, Ali combines predictable curry-book tropes with a complex depiction of individual brown experience in the West. The novel opens in Bangladesh, 1967, with a flit through homey squalor:
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen’s life began—began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly—her mother Rupban felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. Rupban squatted on a low three-legged stool outside the kitchen hut. She was plucking a chicken because Hamid’s cousins had arrived from Jessore and there would be a feast. “Cheepy-cheepy, you are old and stringy,” she said, calling the bird by name as she always did, “but I would like to eat you, indigestion or no indigestion. And tomorrow I will have only boiled rice, no parathas.”
A couple of lines later, the narrator refers to Rupban’s pregnancy this way: “For seven months she had been ripening, like a mango on a tree.” I’d venture to say that if the writer of these words were white and English, they’d be taken as exoticizing, ham-handed (that self-dialogue, the “cheepy-cheepy”), the food references sticking out as markers of a situation as foreign as red soil on Mars. The designations of poverty, of the exotic, of a cheerful comfort with one’s lot, of hospitality and familial closeness over the feast table: it’s all there. Ali herself was born in Bangladesh, which isn’t an incidental fact; it lends credence to her grasp of life there. But it’s incredible how “imagined from the outside” the scene feels.
These elements, a blend of nostalgia and exoticism, survive Nazneen’s arranged marriage-facilitated emigration to London: she begins to receive letters from her sister, Hasina, which are presented to the reader in broken English, lacking articles and prepositions. This despite the fact that neither sister knows English at this point in the novel, which means the letters the reader is seeing are translated through Nazneen and Ali—if Nazneen’s Bengali dialogues with her husband and friends emerge in plain English, why does this written version of Bengali emerge with such lack of fluency? “They still playing chess but some of piece are lost there not so many fight now.” These aren’t the errors of a native speaker who is bad at writing—they’re the errors of a nonnative speaker feeling her way into a new language. Nazneen’s letters from her sister are doubly translated, first rendered into English from Bengali, and then into broken English, to emphasize the separation between life for women in Bangladesh and the life Nazneen is leading in England.
Hasina’s broken English-Bengali has the same reality as the statues that Nazneen and her husband see in the windows of the Pakistani restaurants near their home:
Days of the Raj restaurant had a new statue in the window: Ganesh seated against a rising sun, his trunk curling playfully on his breast. The Lancer already displayed Radha-Krishna; Popadum went with Saraswati; and Sweet Lassi covered all the options with a black-tongued, evil-eyed Kali and a torpid soapstone Buddha. “Hindus?” said Nazneen when the trend first started. “Here?”
Chanu patted his stomach. “Not Hindus. Marketing. Biggest god of all.” The white people liked to see the gods. “For authenticity,” said Chanu.
Brown readers and writers want to see authenticity, too, especially if it’s packaged with a message that the freedoms of the West can be had alongside a long-distance experience of the subcontinent. The genre that Ali’s book flirts with continues to thrive.
In her 2016 essay “When My Authentic Is Your Exotic,” the Pakistani American novelist Soniah Kamal worries that including mangoes in her book will fold her into this genre of reimagined authenticity:
If I put the mango in, was I a sell-out? If I took it out, was I being true to the season? What fruit could I substitute? A jamun? But what is the English name for jamun? Should an English name even matter, a jamun being a jamun, like a corn dog is a corn dog. Would I yet have to italicize jamun? Who is the audience for my novel, anyway? Everyone? But what does everyone mean? Should I stick to an apple or a banana? Or would that be too generic?
Finally deciding she “can neither deny reality for fear of the disdainful Eastern eye any more than I can write in fear of needing to fulfill the expectations of the orientalist Western gaze,” Kamal allowed her characters to eat the goddamn mangoes, which made perfect sense in the scene she was writing, set at the peak of Pakistani summer. Reading this essay, I knew that the mango books Kamal dreaded being shelved among were the same as what I called curry books—books that signal their falseness by underlining their authenticity, and that place that authenticity in a homeland lost to time and distance. The blended, diasporic person is torn from one place, yes, and exists in another place, yes. But why should we assume that the before-place, the India or the Mauritius or the Trinidad, possesses a heightened reality and truth, what Kamal calls “the authentic exotic”? That’s not a concept I accept in what I read, write, or remember. It’s a narrative that does injustice to the true complexity, hilarity, danger, and weirdness of life as a brown person living anywhere in the world, whether far away from their supposed home or right where their ancestors have dwelt for centuries.
When Kamal says she neither wants to write for the “disdainful Eastern eye” nor the “orientalist Western gaze” she passes over another audience: the diasporic reader, a first- or second- or third-generation-away-from-the-homeland person who also longs for a version of the comforting authentic. Western isn’t just white—we live here, too. And the sense of nostalgia, the anxieties of belonging and of home, don’t exist solely in brown households. There is an overlap in what diasporic and other Western readers want from books by brown writers, and in that overlap is authenticity: a sense that there is solidity, reality, and truth in that place and past that was left behind.
As the commercial viability of immigrant fiction became clear, genre rules and parameters emerged, and editors and publishing boards began to seek variations on a certain type of brown story. There’s profit to be made in a relatable, seemingly authentic presentation of race and culture, even if there’s a placeless tinge of Westernization, subtle and ignorable under a formulaic blend as precisely calibrated as a Marks & Spencer chicken tikka masala. But what’s lost in this pursuit of the authentic is, perhaps, the specificity of the different immigrant existences, ways of being and tasting that are about the present rather than about pursuing the lost truth of generations past. The diasporic bond is a shared, invented history, based on real events and a real place, but it is shared only as a tissue of agreements, disagreements, and ideas imposed from the outside. Our personal histories, on the other hand, are a fruit that expands as it is peeled, until it is too large to be gripped in the hands or the mind.
This essay was adapted from an excerpt of Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race, published with permission of Coach House Books. All rights reserved.
Naben Ruthnum won the Journey Prize for his short fiction, has been a National Post books columnist, and has written books and cultural criticism for the Globe and Mail, Hazlitt, and the Walrus.