The Digital Journalist
India in Diaspora

September 2007

by Nayan Chanda

Wanderlust has created the world we know today. Ever since our human ancestors walked out of Africa in search of a better life, the journey has not stopped. That incessant journey, or "scattering to the winds" summed up in the Greek word diaspora, has emerged as a prominent factor in the making of a globalized world. With the rise of information technology India's role in globalization has earned belated recognition but the story goes far back. Indian traders represent one of the oldest diaspora communities in the world. An ancient Indian text observed the perils and promises of those who left home in search of a better life in Suvarnadvip (golden island) as modern-day Indonesia was known in the first millennium: "Who goes to Java, never returns. If by chance he returns, then he brings back enough money to support seven generations of his family." Researchers continue to find evidence of cultural intermingling in Southeast Asia that probably harks back to an Indian presence in the early centuries of the common era. Meanwhile, recently unearthed archaeological evidence also points to the presence of Indian traders settled in the Egyptian port of Berenike on the Red Sea, at around the same time. Imagine the surprise of Alexander the Great's troops in the fourth century before the common era, when they came across a colony of Indian traders as they invaded the island of Socotra—Shuktara (happy star) in Sanskrit—off the coast of Aden.

The slow trickle of migration and overseas settlement changed dramatically in the colonial period. To the earlier wanderlust of traders and fortune-seekers was added a whole new class of people, from sepoys (soldiers) to convicts and bonded plantation labor, most of whom were forced or tricked to cross the "black water," as the vast ocean was fearfully called. European companies and colonists packed steamboats to carry over a million Indians to various corners of the world from which they would never return. From the Pacific to the Caribbean, from Malaysia to South Africa, the Indian diaspora has grown, creating enclaves of Indian languages and cultures amidst hitherto unknown peoples.

India's awakening to independence at midnight in August 1947 altered the long-established equation, with millions of Indians voluntarily leaving their homes in search of a better life elsewhere, the most attractive being the former colonial countries and the rising economies of Europe and the United States. Opportunities for employment in the oil-rich Middle East also offered a strong pull. By the beginning of the 21st century, the Indian diaspora had swelled to some 20–25 million, touching every continent. As Steve Raymer wryly notes, there is even an Indian research station in Antarctica. Whereas the members of the research station have only penguins for company, the Indian diaspora everywhere else has transplanted its traditions and culture on adopted soil, transforming the indigenous culture as well as changing others around. Trinidad's Marianne River has been reimagined as the holy Ganges and a golden-domed gurudwara has been raised to dominate Silicon Valley.

The revolution in transportation and communication technologies has, however, introduced a new twist to the old story of disapora transformation. Thanks to affordable air travel, the homeland left behind is no longer lost forever. Thanks to dozens of satellite television channels, diaspora Indians are being nourished and entertained by news, music, and movies from their fast-changing homeland. Many who had lost languages and traditions due to centuries of separation are relearning and re-appropriating their culture. There is a new sense of pride in their now-prospering country. India's rising economy and especially the success of its IT industry have for the first time encouraged reverse migration and created what Steve Raymer calls "reverse diaspora"—Silicon Valley-returned Indians living in gated communities in Bangalore, creating their own diaspora of Indian-Americans—living the American life and work-style in the midst of Indian familial and cultural patterns.

India's diaspora has inspired a rich literature—from scholarly studies to fiction. Steve Raymer's collection of vibrant images offers, for the first time, faces of these time-travelers and their descendants in all their pathos and pride, solemnity and playfulness. There are few photojournalists as qualified as Steve Raymer to document the epic saga of the Indian diaspora. Steve has spent over three decades covering Asia for National Geographic magazine and has developed an unblinking eye for capturing both the iconic and the particular images of Indians abroad—people at home and at work, foods and festivities, with all their distinctive flavors and colors. His photographs and his pithy, well-researched descriptions reveal a sensitive and sympathetic, yet critical mind. His nuanced portrayal of the diaspora shows an amazing range of emotions and his images grab you with a directness that makes you almost smell the incense and the spices from his richly textured photographs. While his portraits of generations of Indians, especially the less fortunate, are suffused with nostalgia and pathos, the vibrancy of a successful community is, on the other hand, often revealed with a touch of sardonic humor. The photographs are deeply evocative—a sumptuous visual feast to savor and relish.

View The "Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora" Gallery

© Nayan Chanda

Nayan Chanda, a distinguished foreign correspondent and author, is editor of YaleGlobal Online Magazine at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. As a Reuters correspondent he covered the fall of Saigon in 1975 and was editor-in-chief of The Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong. Chanda is author of "Brother Enemy: The War After the War" and "Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization." Chanda also is the recipient of the Shorenstein Award from Harvard and Stanford universities for helping American audiences understand the complexities of Asia.