EN 4262 The Immigrant Seminar Notes
With Manju Kapur’s The Immigrant we return in some ways to the territory of the Indian family, and related issues of gender, sexuality, power, values, that we saw in GST. Caste is obviously not a major issue in Immigrant as it was in GST, but there are similarities in the trope of the “unmarriageable” Indian woman, the social pressures on Indian women, the control and authority that extended families exert on individuals (especially women), the quiet desperation this creates, and resultant tragedies (in this case, not violence, death, incest, but adultery, the breakdown of the marriage and family, crises of identity). We also saw something of this family pressure in Londonstani (Arun’s dilemma), and will also see it to a certain extent in Valmiki’s Daughter (VD). Clearly there is a “triangulation” (as it were) of narratives pointing to a certain anxiety and stress-point concerning Indian marriage and gender and family relations. Immigrant and GST (and to a certain extent VD), novels written by women novelists, have a noticeably more sentimental, sensitive and wry tone than the more aggressively brisk narratives by male novelists like Malkani and Adiga, who tend to treat the marriage issue in brief and as a catalyst to other action, rather than in detail and for its own sake. Yet this is not to say that the foregrounding of marriage and sexuality as major themes in Immigrant and GST is necessarily a more true and non-ideological representation – it is simply a different take on what is clearly a major issue in diasporic Indian identity.
Narrative and Intertextuality
As we have seen with a lot of other Indian Anglophone writing, the voices/ghosts of the English literary tradition is always hovering somewhere, in the background or foreground. In the case of Immigrant, there are a number of explicit literary references, in keeping with characterization (because Nina is an English teacher) and with the author’s background (Kapur’s background is similar to Nina’s). Migration (and the sexual encounter with the Other) is figured through Donne’s poetry (“Elegy: To His Mistress Going to Bed”); Nina’s and Ananda’s fall from the “grace” of marriage in the “Edenic” land of Canada (paradigmatic of the overseas Indians’ plight) is paralleled to the paradigmatic condition of Adam and Eve, with an allusion of Paradise Lost (p. 58); Nina’s encounters with Western feminism and her own identity as a woman are through feminist classics like The Second Sex or The Female Eunuch; she sees London through Edmund Spenser and Joseph Conrad (p. 103). But the most informative literary reference might be to D. H. Lawrence (pp. 122-124), since what happens to Nina and to a certain extent to Ananda has parallels to the kind of sexual awakening (and quasi-hysteria) seen in many of Lawrence’s characters.
1. Lawrence, Freud, and the Indian Diasporic Family:
Lawrence’s fiction shares the basic Freudian idea that “feeling comes from a level out of reach of consciousness,” although he rejected the notion of feeling as something “duplicitous” and to be repressed (Kirsty Martin, Modernism and the Rhythms of Sympathy, p. 159). Lawrence’s novels often feature hidden and alternate family tensions (son and mother bonds, son and father conflicts) as being influential (even in unconscious ways) on a couple’s psycho-sexual relationships – something that shares more than passing resemblance to Freud’s Oedipus theory, although again Lawrence would see this as informative and liberating rather than repressive and duplicitous.
Kapur’s reference to Lawrence in a fairly lengthy reference near the middle of the novel, and as part of an exchange that shows the gap between the 2 main protagonists), is thus quite apt. Even if the psycho-sexual drama in Immigrant is neither fully Freudian (not darkly destructive enough) nor fully Lawrencian (too much of an Indian, extended family/society flavor and influence), there are clear parallels. The relationship between Nina and Ananda centres around sex, as a means of and metaphor for self-discovery, actualization, identity-formation. Sex is seen as crucially important for each character’s identity. Sex in this novel, however, is never straightforward, but inflected with all kinds of conscious and unconscious influences and parameters: anxieties about Asian masculinity in a white country, the secondary position assigned to Indian women, money and power/powerlessness, profession and status, race and difference, the position of the immigrant, etc.
Ananda, driving to Clayton Park, thought of all that Mandy had done for him and regretted that its novelty was wearing off. Her charm had lain in her generous, white, uninhibited body. His gratitude that at last he had entrance to an unexplored country had been strong. But Mandy was also fixated on receiving, and therein lay the rub. No country should levy such high taxes. (p. 281).
His emptiness during [Nina’s] absence brought home to him how comfortable he had grown with his Indian counterpart by his side. Maybe he could only have sex with white women once his older self was housed, safe and secure….For seven years Ananda had yearned for a Canadian wife, but his body had made its preferences clear and he had followed its dictates. (p. 293-94).
In this sense, sex and sexual exploration become proxies for the anxieties of the Asian migrant. The characteristically Indian institution of arranged marriages just reinforces this proxy sexuality, as the imagery of the novel makes clear: marrying, having sex with a woman was like marrying or having sex with a country, a social network, the extended family. Cheating on one’s spouse was thus like cheating on the extended family:
He had chosen according to his family’s wishes, but in doing so had experienced a fresh set of difficulties. And how would he not? He was not the boy they had planned for, he was as much someone else as he could possibly be. There was not a single other immigrant like himself that he knew. They all clung to some notion of home, gathered at the India Club, trying to recreate the motherland. (p. 328)
Kapur’s Lawrencian turn thus creates a kind of psycho-sexual drama of the global Indian, for whom the (partial) escape from the strictures of Indian society/family must be completed by or centred in the sexual exploration that is impossible within that society/family. Yet the escape can ever only be partial, just as the individual in general (not necessarily Indian) can never fully escape the psychological imprint and determining influences of parents, childhood. Nina’s story is a Lawrencian story inasmuch as it is a story of self-discovery through the discovery of her womanhood, including in its sexual appetites and freedom; significantly, this freedom can only be realized with the death of her mother, the last tie to Indian society and family. Of course, the question that the ending of the novel deliberately begs is: what happens to the global Indian when the ties of family and society are completely gone (or seen as completely gone)? Nina’s closing thoughts, of seeking to be “less lonely for a while,” “everything temporary” (p 330), suggests the bleakness of that answer.
2. Structure and POV
As we have seen in some of the other novels, narrative point of view is a big part of meaning-making in these novels. This is true of all novels of course, but the particular Indian Anglophone nuance is that narrative POV is key not only to determining the reliability of the narrator and the meanings that the reader derives from him/her (as it is in general), but more particularly in trying to locate the value-centre of the novel and of the community. i.e. since Indian Anglophone literature struggles so much with the communal values which are central to Indian identity, and struggles to convey stable and unified values (if they at all exist) when that society is challenged by globalization, the narrative POV gains added emphasis and importance in expressing the condition of Indian values in globalization (according to each writer/novel).
In GST, the POV is sometimes that of a kind of surreal omniscience, floating through the landscape, in and out of houses, giving particular insights that individual characters couldn’t possibly know. But overall, the main perspectives are probably those of Ammu and Rahel (and to a certain extent, Estha). The narrative tone is most sympathetic and sentimental when it aligns itself with that of these women (and with Estha as a child), in contrast to the more marginal role played by that other underdog figure, Velutha, and in contrast to the more distanced and mocking tone which emerges with figures like Baby Kochamma and Chacko. This alignment of perspective makes the novel’s sympathies and values clear: a protest against the caste-based oppressiveness of Indian traditionalism. In Londonstani, the narrator perspective is almost exclusively tied to Jas, which captures the wavering, self-deluded nature of identity in the diaspora, the persistent need for belonging (even if that is belonging to a community not really or originally one’s own). In TWT the perspective is again almost exclusively that of Balram, which (in some ways like Londonstani) focusses the reader’s attention on the cynical ruthlessness of Balram’s values, and possibly the need for this in order to rise above the discriminatory pressures of Indian society. CC’s POV is deliberately fragmented, heterogeneous, making a point about the loss of coherence amongst transnational abject Indians.
Immigrant’s perspective is apparently simple, but also problematic. It seems at one level to be Nina’s story: it begins and ends with her, she seems to be the eponymous “immigrant,” and like GST, the novel seems to be a version of the story of the Indian woman’s struggle against social conventions. However, the difficulty arises because the novel splits perspective with Ananda, who is depicted much more sympathetically than most of the Indian men in the other novels (the ruthless and morally dubious Balram, the arrogant and oppressive Thakurs, the posturing lost young men in Londonstani), and perhaps even more sympathetically than the other male characters in immigrant. (Uncle Sharma is smugly unreflective about his Canadian status and his transition to meat-eating husband to a white woman; Gary just as smugly co-opts Ananda as tenant for his parents, junior partner with the smaller office in their practice, and takes the upstairs apartment as a fixed rent; Anton is just a repulsive exploiter, adulterer and rapist). The novel’s split perspective allows us to sympathise with Ananda’s sexual dysfunction, the psychological need to prove himself through sexual conquests (especially of white women), the handicap of losing his parents and being under the control of his older sister and uncle, the struggle to find his identity between being “Canadian” and “Indian.” While we may not sympathise with him quite as much as with Nina (at the end of the novel, especially, he seems to become something of a caricature of the assimilated successful Indian migrant), nevertheless the novel’s structure, and his characterization, give him a somewhat sympathetic treatment.
In an otherwise straightforward linear narrative, the split perspective (and resultant split sympathies/values) makes this something more complicated than the story of a minority woman’s journey of migration and self-discovery. If Nina is not the moral and perspectival centre of the novel, then the novel may be more akin to CC than to GST: seemingly unified characters/psyches seem to disintegrate at the end, the clash of values and perspectives seems inevitable, identity may be an ephemeral and elusive thing.
The Body Redux: Sexuality and Immigrant Identity
Whether seen as an Indian Lit potboiler, or in the Lawrencian light hinted at by the novel itself, sex is unmistakably at the centre of the novel – thematically and plot-wise, as well as quantitatively (in terms of how much of the novel deals with sex). There are many ways to look at sex in the novel:
1. At the crudest level, titillation – selling sex (little different, except perhaps in degree, from selling sex in non-Indian discourses, e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey, soft-core porn.
2. The exoticism of Indian sexuality (repressed, virginal, under-realised) from a Western (liberal, liberated, “Masters and Johnson”) perspective – a kind of sexual orientalism, the picture of the poor confused repressed Indian (a bit of that is also evident in the treatment of Ammu, and to a certain extent Rahel, in GST).
3. The Freudian schema (at the risk of reducing, slightly) of sex as a displacement of unconscious drives: most evident in Ananda, for whom obviously his erectile problem causing him to overcompensate, but also his sense of socio-economic inferiority in Canada, his immigrant anxieties, manifesting in a display of sexual “potency” with multiple partners when he finally arrives (or “comes,” to make the parallel between immigrant arrival and sexual gratification more evident). Perhaps less evident in Nina, but the novel does tie her need for sexual fulfilment (initially from Ananda, and then from Anton) to her feelings of loneliness and isolation in Canada, her lack of a purpose and identity (initially meant to be filled with a baby and motherhood).
4. (Overlapping with point 3) The Lawrencian schema of sex as discovery and fulfilment: i.e. a less desperately Freudian reading of Ananda’s and Nina’s sexuality would be to say that being outside of Indian society and the family network is a kind of “terrible freedom” (as it were) for individuals, from which sexual exploration and experimentation are necessary conditions. i.e. a bit like point 2 above – the Indian, like the Victorian or Edwardian woman, is only an identity in potentia, until sexual exploration happens. (The result may be more confusion and turmoil, but Kapur, like Lawrence, seems to see this as inevitable and representative of global modernity).
5. A geopolitics of sexuality? Sex as a proxy (symbolic or psychological) for international relations, the power dynamics of different (Indian-Canadian, Asian-white) cultures and societies. India seems to be identified as sexual object or commodity, to be sought and possessed. Even Nina seems to buy into this sexualisation of the Indian:
From there her mind wandered to all the soaked heroines she had seen in Hindi cinema and how very buxom they had looked.
There she was, doing it again. At home, wet sari clad heroines were ignored as part of the blatant devices of commercial cinema, certainly never identified with.
Misery such as hers could have no immediate end, she decided, as she stroked herself into another morning in Canada (p. 175)
And certainly Anton sees Nina as sexually desirable because she is Indian.
In contrast, White Canadians/Americans are in the position of sexual power and control, partly because they represent the dominant culture (and sleeping with them, as Ananda remarks when he calls Mandy his “Newfoundland,” is to sleep with the nation/land). When Anton rapes Nina, he literalises this sexual power relationship, taking the sexual relationship from desire to force.
Whatever the level of reading we ultimately make about sex in the novel, what is unmistakable is its centrality in the novel – something we saw in The Body, VD, and elsewhere. Apart from the obvious fact that “sex sells,” there is also a complex politics of the body that gets activated in a transnational context. Bodies are both the “rough” particularities that resist the smooth surfaces of capitalism’s “body without organs” – difficult sexual appetites (that defy convention, do not get satisfied, etc). But they are also (potentially) commodities that then get re-assimilated into capitalism. The play of white and non-white, Indian and non-Indian bodies also involves a complex and unequal politics which exposes the myth of global equality.
Promiscuity, Appetites, and Liberal Individualism
Promiscuity – having multiple sexual partners, committing adultery, etc – seems to be triggered by globalization. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the set-in-India novels (CC, TWT, GST) are less concerned with adultery and promiscuity. Sex is central to GST, but in a desperate, soul-fulfilling needful kind of way with just one partner (Ammu with Velutha, Rahel and Estha – even Baby Kochamma and her unrequited love for her priest is in the same vein). To use a cliché from Jerry Macguire, that one lover “completes” the individual. And sex doesn’t feature significantly in CC and TWT.
In contrast, adultery, “serial” sexuality (about a series of actual/potential partners), promiscuity and sexual commodification all feature prominently in the novels set overseas. On the one hand, this again could be part of the “price” of writing in the West – there is normative pressure on more promiscuous attitudes and behavior? (Including the kinds of sexual identity issues in VD)?
But there also seem to be other nuances and ideological drivers for this ideology of promiscuity. One is the crisis of masculinity that was so clear in Londonstani – Anada’s drive to commit serial adultery is on the one hand an attempt to compensate for his perceived deficiencies. In the case of the gang in Londonstani, the over-compensation comes in part from being Asian, from the fear of being cast in the position of the passive minority, the feminine, the “batty boy.” In Ananda’s case, the fear of being the powerless, despised minority is compounded by his initial sexual dysfunction, and then by the long-distance pressure of Indian family expectations, and Nina’s unexpected show of sexual desire and independence. Masculinity – whether to compensate for fears of being a minority, despised, lacking money and social capital, struggling with the weight of Indian custom and familial expectations, or dealing with unexpected female behavior, continues to be a challenge for Indian men once they leave the cocoon of Indian society (or the outside influence of the global penetrates into Indian society).
Another is the link between sexuality and the ideology of “freedom” that is commonly associated with the “free world,” the “West” (whether or not this is strictly accurate). We see this in the novel’s emphasis on consumption and choice – a trope that belongs to a literary strand of the “novel of consumption” from Picture of Dorian Gray to Martin Amis’s Money to Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. In each of this, the conspicuous display of material possession, abundance, luxury, is linked to a modern condition of ennui that finds solace in promiscuity, cruelty, perversion or strongly anti-social, anti-conventional behavior. (The ideology of freedom, of liberal individualism, can of course be represented in a variety of ways – the novel of consumption, focusing on consumer choices including sexual ones, is just one of those ways). It is not so much that shopping becomes a proxy for sexual gratification (if interested, see Rachel Bowlby’s classic Shopping with Freud), although as we have seen there is some truth in that, particularly in the migrant condition. Rather, it is that both commodity-consumption and sexual play are part of a common psycho-somatic impulse – appetites, sampling, experimentation, freedom of choice – that is particularly pandered to in market societies.
The novel makes these associations clear in its depiction of Nina’s (and to a certain extent Ananda’s) behavior. Nina’s life as a migrant is characterized by indulgence in a wide range of choices, including TV:
She keeps the radio on, listening to music, advertisements, the CBC and its take on Quebec separatism and Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It seems to be a big issue here. (p. 122)
She…wended her way to the nest of shops across Hollin Court, that semi-circle of magic and desire….Each shop felt like a treasure trove. These very things Indians yearned for at home, here hers to possess. Alone she could exhibit her third world immigrant self, no witness to the depths to which a former academic had fallen. (p. 125)
Friendships and social relations:
‘Why shouldn’t I join a group? When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ (p. 213)
And ultimately sexual liaisons too:
You might as well do this, and see what it is like….He pulled a condom from his wallet – his wallet, he must have been prepared….She had lived. Who can feel guilty about living? Judging from the evidence and the sexual therapy centres, every citizen in North America regarded good sex as their inalienable right. It was her right too (p. 259-260)
Likewise for Ananda, his affairs (especially the one with Mandy) are conflations of various forms of appetites and desires. In one particular episode, he seems to want to mentally compress his wife, mistress, prized possessions (car) and food into a single moment:
It was marriage too that had given him Mandy; in his mind his wife and his mistress were inextricably linked. He neared Hollin Court and automatically began to think about the evening menu…. Ananda parked his beloved Saab, quickly a shower to get Mandy’s smell off him, put the rice on to cook, took out a portion of dal from the freezer, cut up onions and tomatoes that he would fry to spice it up. (p. 251)
Since his relationship with Mandy is based on his paying her by buying her goods and presents, it is literally a conflation of consumption, commodities and sexual choices.
Beyond and behind clichés about “Western” society being simply promiscuous and sexually free, the novel (and other Indian Anglophone novels) look at this from the perspective of a society/culture that isn’t as “free,” and makes the link between a society that values poseessions and consumption, that has a political doctrine of “inalienable rights,” that inevitably begins to conflate people and possessions. Indian literature – writing from a cultural moment that is still marginal to this globalizing ideology, exposed but not yet fully interpellated – allows us to see that ideology with the fresh eyes of the developing/marginal society, much in the same way that the working-class or “condition of England” novel in the mid- to late-19th C allowed writers to critique industrialization and capitalism from a simultaneously inside-outside perspective.
“India” in the Novel
One of the interesting things about Immigrant is that it has more of an explicit and concrete India-Other (here, Canada) contrast than most of the other novels on this module. There is actual movement from India to Canada and back again, there are running comparisons, influences and contrasts between the two societies, that is instructive. Yet the main question has to be: How exactly is India depicted (vis a vis Canada)? Where does the novel stand, in this comparison?
Another way to ask this question is: Which India is depicted? Note that in her 2008 novel, Kapur chooses to depict an India of the 1970s and 1980s, with Indira Gandhi in power, the transition to Morarji Desai’s government, and the issues therein. This is a very different India from the time the novel is published: a much more backward India socio-economically speaking, an India with a government with arguably despotic leanings (Gandhi instituted things like forced slum clearing, mandatory sterilization of slum people – depicted in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, alluded to in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – and ruled her government with an iron fist. It was her forceful reaction to the problem of Sikh militantism that led to her assassination and the Delhi anti-Sikh riots. Altogether, a time of political turmoil and destabilization). Things depicted in the India of the novel – the long waiting period just to get a phone installed, the horrendous infrastructure in the college (the unsanitary sink, the water rationing) and crowdedness on the buses, the “who you know” nature of Indian politics embodied in Ananda’s politically-ambitious brother-in-law, the exploitativeness of Nina’s paternal grandparents – all heighten the huge gulf between India and Canada (a gulf that would be somewhat less apparent now, at least for the Indian middle class who would have access to a wide range of consumer goods, be able to travel, live in comfort etc). The fact that both Nina’s and Ananda’s families are middle class, and yet are forced to live somewhat straitened, contingent lives in India, makes Canada that much more attractive by comparison.
Not that Canada is ideal, of course, and the novel (as the title makes clear) is very much concerned with the struggles of the Indian immigrant, even in a land as relatively welcoming, as materially superior to India, as Canada. Although Canada, seen from the eyes of new arrivals like Ananda and Nina, is a rather impersonal place, lacking the kinds of tight family support that India has, it also doesn’t have all the infrastructural and political problems of India (nor the suffocating element of that family support either).
Kapur’s intent in backdating the India in her (2008) novel seems to be a version of the “stacking of the cards” against India that we saw in GST and possibly TWT: a kind of “worst-case scenario” India that sympathises with Ammu’s sexual release, Balram’s violence, and Ananda’s and Nina’s migration. We need to ask ourselves if this “stacking of the cards” is a kind of orientalism, a version of the “poverty porn” treatment of India that plays into the hands of a global Anglophone readership? In the case of Immigrant, the stacking of cards against India is not to lead to a simple alternative (Canada, freedom, fulfilment) – even if there is no explicit infrastructural problem with Canada, immigrants like Ananda and Nina find difficulty in settling in. The novel’s point – unlike that of GST and TWT – seems to be the dislocation of the NRI, his/her irrevocably transitory and unsettled position, once s/he decides to leave India. Nevertheless, we should recognize that this position is predicated upon a certain denigration of India.
Schizophrenia the Global Citizen
The novel’s ending emphasizes the transitory, the unsettled – in keeping with some scholarship on migration and multiculturalism (see for example the volume edited by Barnor Hesse, Un/settled Multiculturalisms: Diasporas, Entanglements, “Transruptions”). Ananda’s perspective has dropped out of the horizon at the end, although we assume that he will continue on his way, with serial sexual conquests to try to prove his masculinity, perhaps re-marrying an Indian or Canadian, continuing with his material and professional ambitions – i.e. without much qualitative change. With Nina, we are more clear on her unsettled status:
Perhaps that was the ultimate immigrant experience. Not that any one thing was steady enough to attach yourself to for the rest of your life, but that you found different ways to belong, ways not necessarily lasting, but ones that made your journey less lonely for a while. When something failed it was a signal to move on. For an immigrant there was no going back (p. 330)
On the one hand, this seems like a condition peculiar to Nina: an Indian woman in the diaspora, unhappily married, childless, without a familial support system, without rootedness and stability. The relevance of Nina’s specific condition to a reader who is white in a white society, or who is contentedly married, or in a satisfying high-power career etc, may be less obvious.
Yet it is possible that by the end of the novel, Nina’s condition has gone from a specific one to a paradigmatic or representative one. The clue to this realization comes during and right after her visit to India: Zenobia calls her life and situation “totally schizophrenic” (p. 290), a phrase which echoes Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence that capitalism and schizophrenia are inextricably linked, that the schizophrenic is the representative capitalist man, the “universal producer” (Anti-Oedipus pp. 5-7). Schizophrenia should not be confused (in the way that Zenobia seems to be confusing it) with multiple personality disorder, Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome, where a person compartmentalizes his/her life into discrete and radically different personalities each unaware of the other. Rather, schizophrenia as a clinical condition is a “failure of logic, customary associations, intent and the organisation that usually accompanies human thought” (Tamminga and Medoff, “State of the Art,” in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience). As Fredric Jameson argues in Postmodernism: or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, schizophrenia is the condition of late capitalism: it inheres in capitalism’s abstracting quality, the “body without organs” quality that D and G stress, the functional sameness of beings/bodies in a global world (the “McDonaldisation” of food, the Amazonization of reading, the “international style” of architecture).
i.e. What Nina ultimately finds, after leaving India and fumbling her way through Canadian culture, is a condition of the global capitalist schizophrenic: equally at home (and equally homeless) wherever she ends up, each stopping point merely a temporary halt and not a home. As she acquires Western-recognised qualifications she discovers job mobility, but that is as much a curse as a blessing, as she moves away from Halifax and Ananda. The realization of her lot as schizophrenic “universal producer” begins to dawn on her after her return from the contrastive state of India:
Back to Canada….Back to cleaning, shopping, borrowing books from the library. Back to walking the streets, gazing at the maple trees and admiring their beauty. Back to eating chips, Cheetos, brownies, and drinking root beer. Back to waiting. Waiting for Ananda to come home. Waiting for term to start….
‘It’s strange being so alone here, after India,’ she remarked.
‘At least you don’t have a thousand people poking their noses in your business.’
‘It’s a small price to pay.’ (pp. 292-93)
On the one hand, freedom, individualism, bewildering consumer choices, occupational possibilities, greater gender equality (compared to 1970s India); on the other hand, and by the same gesture, flatness of existence, emptiness of defining (and differentiated) social relations, isolation, loss of direction.
This loss of direction is the essential schizophrenia of capitalist globalization. In this the novel’s ending reinforces and edifies the ending of CC, the loss of individual personalities within the cacophony of voices that is transhuman transnationalism; and also the abrupt ending of Body, with Adam-Leo (in Mark’s body) caught in limbo between the old life he cannot return to, and a new life of endless possibilities but also rootlessness and endless commodification.