The condition of subalternity is still a strong spectre within the Indian diaspora: Dr. Shanthini Pillai


There has definitely been a tremendous change to the role that women play within the diaspora. The space for both physical and social  mobility for women within the contemporary diaspora has tripled from that of their nineteenth century counterparts, says Dr.  Shanthini Pillai, Director of Research and Development for the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA) in an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, Editor, Roots and Routes.

You have been working on a range of issues related to language, literature and diaspora. How do you think about the role of language in the construction of diaspora?

This is dependant on the context within which language is placed. When seen within the context of the retention of the communal language by the diaspora of classical imperialism, it is often a fossilized form of its form in the nineteenth century. When seen within the context of the link between the diaspora and its ancestral land in present times, it often becomes a marker of difference. The Malaysian Tamil who visits modern day Chennai might very well be identified as foreign based on different modulations and intonations of the language. Then there is also the issue of the generational distancing from the communal language among with the younger generations, who might only retain a dormant knowledge of the language, which ultimately leads to its shadow presence. Ultimately however, the role that language plays would depend on the role of India in the lives of diaspora, whether she is still a homeland or an ancestral land. For when it is the former, the aspects of language retention are often predominantly seen in ritualistic and cultural contexts. If the country of domicile has replaced India as its homeland, then the retention of the ancestral language might well  be nativised into local contexts, thus revealing too the syncretic nature of diasporic identity. It is this latter that informs most of my work on the Malaysian Indian diaspora. 

Do you find there is increasing interest among diaspora to learn the literature and language from India these days?

Looking at it from the context of Malaysia, I would say that the interest lies more in learning classical and Carnatic music and dance. I cannot say that there is no interest to learn the language among the Malaysian  Indian community, as some families do engage personal tutors of the Language for their children. I would also say that the expansion of Indian channels on the local Satellite television network also plays an informal role in developing the use of the Tamil language. I must clarify here  that most of the programmes that cater for the Malaysian Indian community on the Satellite television network are mainly Tamil, with Telegu and Malayalam interspersed in the margins. Other programmes like Zee TV, which are Hindi based,  are targeted not only at the minority group of North Indians among the Malaysian Indian diaspora but also the Malay community, with its penchant for “Hindustani” culture that reaches far back to the 1950s. However, I would say that there is an  increasing interest in terms of engagement with India appears to be on commercial grounds, with a burgeoning of transnational enterprises, especially of in the creative and cultural sectors.


Can the Indian diaspora be viewed from a subaltern perspective?

It certainly can, as long as social class and regional affiliation still reside within the diaspora. These create concentric circles of domination and subordination, visibility and invisibility, voice and voicelessnes. These can take place within a particular community in a specific locale, for instance the Malaysian Indian community of which I am part of, or between regional locality, of perhaps between the  overtly represented Indian diaspora in the Metropolitan  as well as the Caribbean islands and the Indian diaspora in the Asian regions. New contexts of subalternity are also evident in the Gulf Indian diaspora and their similarities with the plight of the indenture experience of the Old Diaspora of nineteenth century imperialism. As such, the condition of subalternity is still a strong spectre within the diaspora.

How do you contextualize the role of diaspora women in the society? Do you think there have been any substantial changes in the gender role as compared to colonial times as well as in comparison to present day India?

There has definitely been a tremendous change to the role that women play within the diaspora. The space for both physical and social  mobility for women within the contemporary diaspora has tripled from that of their nineteenth century counterparts. There are also numerous diasporic women scholars and creative writers who are actively contributing to highlighting the various experiences of gender within the diasporic context.  However, and this is tied to the previous point of subalternity, the experience of women within the diaspora, is heteregenous in nature and subsumed within this heteregenous experience are  the subaltern conditions of patriarchal hegemony that may still exist, whether overtly or covertly as well as  class division  and its  rendering of many women to the margins even as their more socially elevated sisters rise up the ladder of success. This applies also to the comparison with India. A woman who occupies the higher rungs of the social ladder in modern day India may well have more agency than a woman in the lower rungs in the Metropolitan diaspora. It all really depends on context and social elevation and feminist agency.


As a diasporic scholar, how would you perceive about on the challenges on working on South Asian diaspora?

One of the greatest challenges for me has been the investigation of the early migrants to Malaya in the communal memory of Malaysia. A significant part of this is tied to the word ‘coolie’ and its association. Dissenting voices constantly highlight that  it is a word that is volatile and that it should not make its way into my scholarship. However, my counter argument has always been that the word is tied to imperialist and classist sign systems that have saturated its frame as a  linguistic signifier of dearth and paucity interlaced within this significant historical folk figure of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia.

Another challenge that I have faced is the hegemony of scholarly representations of a homogenous view of the experience of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia as one of a deeply  resonant space of angst and exile. Many choose only to highlight the web of an inextricable dilemma of a failure of belonging and acceptance within Malaysia. While I do not dispute the fact that  this is a valid point of contention, I do wonder whether these articulations pander to the hegemony of a heavy handed reading of the politics of discrimination within the country. For even as many highlight these, they often forget the concentric circles of subalternity within communal grounds, of class and regional affiliations. Even contemporary Malaysian Indian writers that now reside outside Malaysia, forming a diaspora of the Malaysian Indian diaspora, reveals such nuances of classist representations that echo colonialist representations of the disenfranchised Indian immigrant. Perhaps what is necessary is a  heteregoneous notion of the Indian diaspora, and the many facets of nation and belonging, of unhomeliness and syncretism. My preference has always been to focus on the former and this is often missing from many scholarly writings on the South Asian diaspora of Malaysia.

Another challenge is the access to a wider range of scholarly network when working from within South East Asia. Research meetings and conferences often take place in the Metropolitan and this may sometimes pose problems for scholars working in Asia.

Tell us something about your book “Colonial vision, post- colonial revisions: Images of the Indian diaspora in Malaysia”. How does the post colonial revisioning (as your book title suggest) help to reconstruct the Indian diaspora in Malaysia?

The book , which emerged out of my Phd thesis, focuses on repositioning and thus revisioning  the established tables of value judgments of the  nineteenth century Indian labour migrant (or “coolie” as they were known then) population of Malaya. It accomplished this through firstly reading colonial archival documents against the grain, laying bare the moments in which the seemingly smooth countenance of colonial control is fractured by undercurrent of tensions in the encounter with its seemingly subordinate labour force. In so doing it revisioned the signifier of passivity of the Indian coolie, showing that it was a trait that had to be manoeuvred and manipulated by the colonial parties. The book then moved on to show how colonial planters too revealed such dissenting scenes, as they reveal, through narrative irony and comic humour, the effort that was required for the planters to keep their labour force well within the boards of imperial control, as every so often, they would present  the coolies crossing boundary lines and claiming more space than what was prescribed for them. Thus this revisioned again the signifier of the malleable coolie. Most significant about the book though was the integration of a significant  voice  from within the Malaysian Indian diaspora, KS Maniam, the community’s  pioneer writer of creative fiction in English. Here, drawing from an allegorical framework formulated on three motifs from Maniam’s works,  Lord Nataraja the Cosmic Dancer, the Indian caballa-like artform of the kolam and the South Indian architectural form of the thinnai or verandah, I show how the representation of the pioneer diasporic Indians in Malaysia reterritorialised the vestiges of ancestral culture-scapes in new soil and revealed the strength of  transfigurative power, and thus work to revision the oft repeated refrain of exile that normally accompanies the works of many critics.


Can we draw any parallel among Indian diaspora in other countries where your book would throw some light?

There are definitely many parallels with the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. As a matter of fact, the seeds for my Phd thesis were sown as I worked on my Masters thesis on the Indo-Caribbean diaspora , for I was struck by the many similarities, especially with regard to issues of hybridity and the syncretism of different cultures. Parallels can be drawn between the early works of Indo-Caribbean writer Sam Selvon and the  works of KS Maniam, set as they are within the colonialist  plantation context. Both writers reveal diasporic Indian characters who reach out towards the land of domicile , instead of merely focusing on the angst of exile and the fossilized Motherland of India.


Do you think the Indian media and film industry have shown increasing engagement with the diaspora? How do you see this in the Malaysian context?

There certainly has been an increase in India’s engagement with its diaspora in Malaysia within the context of the media and film. Malaysia now appears quite frequently in the South Indian or Kollywood productions such as Polladavan, Sivi, Kanden and Kurivi. Music artistes such as Yogi B and Dr Burn too have become notable figures in music scenes from the movies. A number of movies have also shown the Malaysian Indian rappers rapping in their national language Malay and this is a siginificant signifier of the interpolation of the diaspora from margin to centre.  Yogi B has made a number of appearances in broadcast advertisements in South India, and both he and Dr Burn as well as other newer artistes are now familiar figures in the line up of star performers at South India’s numerous media industry award ceremonies. These thus point to the revisioning of the  relationship between India and its diaspora in Malaysia, as both become partners on a global scale.


Do you also find the increasing interest among diasporic music and film industry having interest on India?

I believe this is more rampant among the music industry , than it is in the film industry. For while many Malaysian Indian rap artistes  are now looking towards India for recognition and collaboration, the movie industry remains localized. However this said, there is a tendency for local media producers to appropriate entertainment shows from India and localize them into Malaysian contexts. Some have  also begun to feature South Indian artistes as judges. This certainly reveals a burgeoning of interest within the world of media. The world of film however remains to be seen. 


Shanthini Pillai, Phd is Associate Professor at the School of Language Studies and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, National University of Malaysia (UKM). Her research interests are anchored primarily in diaspora and transnationalism in literary and cultural texts with particular reference to the global South Asian diaspora. She is author of Colonial Visions, Postcolonial Revisions: Images of the Indian diaspora of Malaysia (2007) as well as numerous articles in various journals of Literary Studies. She is also a recipient of the 2006-2007 Australia-Malaysia Institute Fellowship, as well as the 2013 Asia Research Institute Visiting Senior Fellowship, and is currently Director of Research and Development for the Malaysian English Language Teaching Association (MELTA).







Interview Date:   Friday, Jan 11, 2013
Person Name:   Dr. Shanthini Pillai

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