The Digital Journalist
Images of a Journey:
India in Diaspora
September 2007

by Steve Raymer

Out of India

Reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press ©2007

Scholars have filled the shelves of the world's great libraries with books and articles about the Indian diaspora, a collective term that describes people who have migrated out of South Asia, but who generally think of themselves as Indian and are tied to the culture of India no matter where they might live. Journalists have usually shied away from reporting, in any comprehensive way, on this large-scale exodus that started in the days of the British Raj some 200 years ago and is, by all accounts, one of the most successful migrations in modern human history. That is, until the Indian government in New Delhi took up the issue several years ago, urging Indians to bring home their money along with the skills they have learned and knowledge they have created with such aplomb on a global stage.

Suddenly the diaspora was on the front pages, along with a stream of commentaries and television documentaries about the pivotal role of India and Indians in a new post-Cold War world order, one in which talent, skills, money, goods and services move easily—often at the speed of light—across borders and oceans. This growing interdependence of countries and peoples is called globalization. And Indians, for all their insularity and attachment to the culture of their homeland, have been the foot soldiers in the advance of free markets, free trade, widespread access to technology, and democratic ideals in many parts of the globe.

Today, the Indian diaspora reaches across all of the world's oceans and to every continent, including Antarctica, where India has a permanent research station. For the 20 to 25 million people of Indian origin living in a hundred or more countries, the sun never sets on this diaspora—a word borrowed from the ancient Greek that meant to disperse and has come to describe scattered peoples of a common culture and history. And since the early 19th century, Indians have indeed scattered to the far corners of the globe, though scholars rightly note that this migration we call the "Indian diaspora" is not the first time Indians have influenced the culture and politics of their neighbors and, indeed, the wider world. It is, however, the first time Indians have dispersed beyond the Subcontinent for such varied reasons and in such enormous numbers to become key players in the rise and fall of the British Empire, the creation of new states in the Middle East rich in oil and natural gas, and, in the end, a globalized world that today stretches from the villages of rural India to the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies.

Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora documents the struggle of Indian immigrants to survive and succeed in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, South Africa, the islands of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, and in the United States. But it is by no means an encyclopedic account of the diaspora—a scholarly undertaking better left to others. Rather, it is a sometimes larger-than-life story that begins with Great Britain's need for cheap and efficient laborers building railroads and working plantations, as well as for soldiers, policemen, coal miners, managers, and English-speaking teachers across the Empire. Not every Indian went abroad willingly, nor were they universally welcomed. Hundreds of prisoners were shackled in irons and sent to help build, and later settle, colonial outposts like Singapore, today one of the world's marvels of trade, tourism, and material comfort for most of its citizens. Other Indians were known as notorious moneylenders, so loathed in places like Burma that they were expelled.

Simple economic geography helps explain why so many Indians have, over the generations, traveled abroad in search of education and greater economic opportunity. India is home to 17 percent of the world's people, but Indians live on only 2.5 percent of the world's land. India is crowded, and only in recent decades has it been able to feed itself, reasonably educate many of its millions, and reduce debilitating rates of poverty, literacy, and discrimination based on caste.

In the time of the Raj, the Indian elites, including many of the early advocates for independence, studied in the storied colleges of Oxford, Cambridge and London, including a young man named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who would turn the world on its head, not with the force of arms, but the force of an idea—nonviolent protest. Today, with more caste-based quotas at India's most competitive schools, the ambitious young still go abroad to pursue dreams and degrees not always available at home in the crowded classrooms of under-financed public universities. While British universities remain popular, Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford are the first choices of India's best and brightest. Still, the some 80,000 Indian students in the United States can also be found at hundreds of other colleges and universities – campuses like West Virginia, Northern Michigan, Utah, and California State at Chico – whose schools produce doctors, software engineers, high-flying CEOs, human-rights lawyers, farmers, and motel owners along America's highways. In fact, some 2.32 million Indians now live in the United States, the most sought-after destination of the diaspora.

If there is a common thread running through the story of the diaspora, it is the constant movement of individuals and families in search of education, opportunity, and a sense of community and acceptance abroad. Success stories abound.

Consider Zubin Mehta, one of the world's most famous conductors who left Bombay as a young man to study music in Vienna and went on to lead the Los Angeles, New York, and Israeli Philharmonic orchestras. Or Ajay Puri, an Indian lad raised in Bangkok who developed his own Web site at the age of three and who now has the attention of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, though Puri is not yet a teenager. Or Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda, better known as Dr. Sam Pitroda, a telecommunications entrepreneur and inventor with more than 75 patents who never made a telephone call until he moved to America. Today, Pitroda is largely considered responsible for India's communications revolution and is chairman of India's National Knowledge Commission. Or the multitalented Madhur Jaffrey, who has become famous as an actress, culinary expert, TV presenter, and writer of movie scripts and cookbooks—so famous, in fact, that it is no overstatement to say Jaffrey has changed the way many people in Great Britain and the United States cook, eat, and think about Indian food.

But often success has come at a price. In some former outposts of the British Empire, Indians today are seen as uninvited guests whose days are numbered and opportunities limited. Hence, the term "brown brain drain" has gained currency over the past several decades in parts of Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Oceania.

Some stories are well known, like that of the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, a brilliant writer out of Trinidad. After studying at Oxford, Naipaul settled in Britain and found his voice as the prickly expatriate observing life as an outsider in England, India, and the Caribbean. Other stories are more anonymous, but inspiring nevertheless for their pluck and resilience. Beginning in the 1970s, Indian merchants, professionals, and more than a few politicians, along with their families, have been forced out of Africa, as well as Fiji, Vietnam and Malaysia by nationalists, communists, xenophobes, and affirmative-action policies for the indigenous majority. Their stories—of rebuilding lives anew in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and most of all, the United States—will be recounted in books and film so long as the human spirit is celebrated.

Occasionally, the story of the diaspora is one of irony. In South Africa, with its violent past and present, the country's most famous Indian migrant seems largely forgotten today. South African bookstores are bereft of books about Gandhi. And its universities seldom teach his philosophy of nonviolence to students whose lives are touched almost daily by crime and cruelty—the legacy of a state-sponsored system of racial discrimination.

But hardship is only part of the story. This account of the diaspora ends in Bangalore, the high-technology capital of a resurgent India, where Indian émigrés from places like Santa Clara and San Jose in California are at the forefront of an economic boom. Indeed, three of India's six largest companies, by stock market valuation, are in an industry that barely existed in 1991—information technology. But far from engineering the wholesale transfer of jobs from the United States and Great Britain, the Indian returnees of the so-called "reverse diaspora" are helping create a new Indian middle class, hiring educated Indians who, in turn, are buying Dell and Apple computers, Domino's pizza, and DaimlerChrysler Jeep Grand Cherokees. In the end, this story puts a human face on some of the notable, but more often than not, the ordinary people of the Indian diaspora—people who have changed the way the world sees Indians—and hence India.

Indeed, the Indians of the diaspora reflect the diversity of India itself. Many are Hindus, but among the diaspora are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis and Jews. In the United States and Canada, they often refer to themselves as Desis, a variant of the Sanskrit word desha, meaning motherland, or India, or even brown. They celebrate Diwali or Deepavali, depending upon whether their roots are in north or south India. And with equal enthusiasm Indians of the diaspora mark Dussehra, Gurupurab, the two Muslim Eid holidays, and the Prophet Mohammad's birthday, as well as Christmas, Passover, and Indian Independence Day. Firmly attached to the mother country in ways that might puzzle, say, Vietnamese or Somali immigrants, they are tuned, no matter where they live or how modest their homes, to TV Asia, Zee TV, Sony Home Entertainment, and the latest Bollywood films.

The transition from expatriate living abroad to citizen of a new country can be full of uncertainty and pain—more so, perhaps, for Indians of the diaspora because they tend to be so culturally self-contained and sometimes see little need to assimilate. An IBM engineer who shuttles between New York and Bangalore calls many of his fellow Indians in the United States "positively tribal in their isolation in 'Little India' ghettos." While this may be an overly harsh assessment, Indians find the twilight zone between past and present all the more difficult now that the idea of a melting pot, or assimilation, has given way to something called multiculturalism—an idea first advanced in Canada that gives immigrants the freedom to maintain their assorted faiths, food, languages, and other cultural traditions. Sadly, from California to the English Midlands, multiculturalism has ended up emphasizing differences and dividing communities, often at the expense of developing an allegiance to the values of one's adopted city, state, country, profession, and everything else that makes people the complex creatures they are.

Bharati Mukherjee, a native of Calcutta and a professor of English at the University of California–Berkeley, is by many accounts one of the most important writers of the late 20th century. A critic of multiculturalism who calls herself an American, not a hyphenated American, Mukherjee sees arrival in a new land as a process of enrichment and transformation for both the immigrants and their adopted lands, whose culture they inevitably change. "In this age of Diasporas, one's biological identity may not be one's only identity," she wrote in a famous Mother Jones essay. "The experience of cutting myself off from a biological homeland and settling in an adopted homeland that is not always welcoming to its dark-complexioned citizens has tested me as a person."

Certainly the diaspora is an ongoing story. Some Indians will cling to the culture of India or construct, as Mukherjee calls it, a "phantom identity, more Indian-than-Indians-in-India," as a defense against discrimination. But the young will adapt, walking the tightrope between two competing worlds until they are transformed in ways unimagined by their parents and grandparents. Some will return home with foreign passports and money to invest in moving India forward. But immigrant dreams die hard. Indians will continue to leave home with visions of a better life for themselves and their families. And if history is any guide, many—maybe most—will succeed. Some will surely distinguish themselves, earning still more Nobel Prizes and the like. And nearly all of the Indians of the diaspora will change the culture of their adopted lands just as those lands will, in the end, surely change them.

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© Steve Raymer

Professor Steve Raymer, a National Geographic magazine staff photographer for more than two decades, teaches photojournalism, media ethics, and international newsgathering at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is also on the advisory committee of the university's India Studies Program.

Raymer earned B.S. and M.A. degrees at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and studied Soviet and Russian affairs at Stanford University as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow. After service as a lieutenant in the United States Army, he joined the staff of National Geographic in 1972, launching a career that has taken him to more than 85 countries. From famines in Bangladesh and Ethiopia to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Raymer's photographs have illustrated some 30 National Geographic articles. From 1991 to 1995, Raymer was the director of the National Geographic Society News Service, a joint venture with The New York Times and The Associated Press.

Raymer is author and photographer of "St. Petersburg," a 1994 illustrated book about the imperial Russian capital, and "Living Faith: Inside the Muslim World of Southeast Asia," published in 2001. He also is photographer of "Land of the Ascending Dragon: Rediscovering Vietnam" (1997) and "The Vietnamese Cookbook" (1999).

In 1976, the National Press Photographers Association named Raymer "Magazine Photographer of the Year"—one of photojournalism's most coveted awards. He has received a citation for excellence in foreign reporting from the Overseas Press Club of America and is winner of numerous awards from the White House News Photographers' Association, as well as a Fulbright Research Fellowship from the U.S. State Department.

To see more of Steve's work, visit his Web site:

[This excerpt from Raymer's new book, "Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora," fresh off the presses this month, is reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press ©2007.]