The Cultural Baggage: A Reading of Stephen Gill's Immigrant. By Professor Dr.D. Prameswari.


All post colonial literatures attempt to efface history and work on the assumption that history is irrelevant. The history specific term Diaspora which refers to the Jews settlement outside Bethlehem has been now used in these writings as a blanket

This historically connotative word is culture specific as well. It implies a cultural travel, a journey through several varying cultures. The Indo Caribbean writer in Canada, the poet Rambai Espinet observes: AIt is vital to remember that we are travellers moving with a lot of cultural baggage. We have not properly assessed this baggage

1. Ramabai and Madeline Coopsamy talk of Migration, Multiple Identities, the aftereffect of racial mixing, cultural hybridism and the need for developing a new, synthesized identity. Their exile sensibility is one that first relates them to a blurring, questionable identity, subsequently paving a way for a new heterogeneous one. At present, they no longer subsume under a homogeneous Indian/Caribbean, or South Asian identity. The poet Espinet explains, AWe are people who emerged out of the South Asian Diaspora and are forming another Diaspora here

2. In the poem AOrthodoxies, Espinet cuts across edges, margins, boundaries and categories; she is cynical: AAre you a feminist? or simply a person? /Black feminist / Caribbean feminist / Asian feminist/Man loving feminist /..cookist, womanist /super womanist /Not a feminist

3. Construction of a multiple identity becomes an ongoing process and a strategy for survival among these immigrants.

The same phenomenon can be sighted in the South Asians settlement in Canada, a phenomenon that was commonly seen after the World Wars. By the 1970s, over one quarter of the new immigrants in Canada came from Asian countries such as Hong Kong, India and Philippines. Dislocation, settlement, culture and home are the recurrent themes in the writings of these immigrant writers, as the writers were either victims or beneficiaries of transactional displacement. While analysing problems of the Indian Diaspora in Canada, Dr. Uma Parameswaran writes, Ahome is where the feet are, and we had better place our heart where the feet are.

The man who settles abroad as an immigrant finds a location, though he continues as an exile suffering inevitable isolation. Then, which is his home-- the new land of which he has many dreams, or the one he has left behind?

The theme of home / homelessness is an age-old issue pressing the mind of the indigenous population and the settlers ever since man started travelling from place to place. One of the Trios in Indo Anglian writing, Raja Rao once said, AI carry India with me wherever I go.

Living away from Ireland, James Joyce wrote only about his native land, his Adear, dirty Dublin. Katherine Mansfield declared, AWherever I live I write with New Zealand in my bones.

4. The Poland born Conrad, having left his country while it was struggling for freedom from the Russian rule, wrote volumes of essays and novels on every subject other than the slavery and theindependence of his country and subsequently suffered an acute sense of guilt lifelong. For all immigrants, intense nostalgia is an inevitable outcome of their displacement.

The Palestinian, Edward Said born in Jerusalem but self exiled to the US, emphasizes the schizophrenic inclination of the migrants caused by cultural dislocation and cross fertilization. To Said, the migrant in the course of his journey from homeland to an alien soil first becomes tender, then strong and at last perfect. He laborates, Athe person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong, but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign place. Survival is in fact about the between things5. The last phase is a very difficult one for an immigrant to attain.

5. Cyril Dabydeen, the Indo Guyana Canadian writer who has authored several volumes of poetry, short stories and novels, shunts between the 'tender' and 'strong' poles. In his essay, AIndia in Me: Reflections, Dabydeen proclaims that he will continue to write (about) India while longing for a real home or place6. He went to Canada from Guyana.

6. Stephen Gill went to Canada from India. He continues writing about the land of his birth in one way or the other, particularly about the fanatic atmosphere that he mentions in the introduction of his collection of poems, Shrine, where he says AThe suffocation caused by the thick smoke of fear and distrust shaped my decision to leave India.

7. It is the same fear that he describes and analyses in detail in his articles. The situations on both sides of the border have taken the shape of violations of human rights even legally that he condemns in his writings from Canada. Describing about the situation in 1947, at the time the country was divided, he writes:

AI cannot forget the newspaper reports of how persons were being killed mercilessly on the street, in the houses, trains and other places. People were changing their religion under force, and forced marriages to men of other faith were common. Young girls were kidnapped and were passed on from one man to another for pleasure. I cannot forget the reports when young girls were stripped naked in procession; their breasts were cut off and on their bodies religious signs were carved. Old men and women were butchered on the spot.

Hundreds of women killed themselves with poison. Hundreds of them jumped into wells to end their lives. Hundreds of them committed suicide in other ways. Those who fell in the hands of fanatics, preferred to remain unknown, instead of facing their families. It was a chapter of violence and terror, insults and degradation of women. Jam-packed trains ferried hundreds of thousands of people back and forth across the border of India and Pakistan, who spread the stories of horror caused by religious bigotry.

Stephen Gill describes a different type of fear in his novel Immigrant. Dr. George Hines in his book Stephen Gill & His Works discusses Immigrant from the point of alienation. The cover of the novel says that the story is about the hopes and the fears and the struggle of a newcomer from India settling in Canada. The story also gives an insight into the views immigrants hold of white people and vice versa. The novel is the diaspora of Reghu Nath, its protagonist.

The Indo Canadian Stephen Gills second novel Immigrant waxes eloquent over the trials and tribulations of an Indian immigrant in Canada. Reghu Nath's existence in Canada signals a shunting between a wilful regression to India and a forced progression towards Canada, between the tender and strong phases. AGill creates a text and a context to cope with the politics of sharing and survival, the communication problems and socioeconomic and political ontradictions, ambiguities and racist and ethnic prejudices that cause disillusionment and distrust in an immigrant in everyday life

9. The protagonist who suffered in India feel the pains deeply in the country of his adoption. W.F. Westcott says, AImmigrant does a fine job portraying a new Canadian's plight. The problems, language barriers, cultural discrepancies, and a longing for the mother country can easily be seen in the strife faced by any new person in any new country. Westcott adds: AImmigrant will, I am sure, be a satisfying read for anyone who has encountered prejudice and adjustment pangs as an immigrant, anywhere.

10. As the novel opens, the young Reghu Nath from India is flying over the Atlantic and his flight landing late by seven hours causes him anxiety and he enters Montreal when Canada is in the midst of its centennial celebration, Expo67. Reghu must reach Ottawa Aat least three days before in order to register himself for admission to a Ph.D. programme in the University. In an alien soil, he is restless and disturbed, with not a soul to help him. The rigid, demanding and prejudiced professors at the University, the unfamiliar Canadian accent and register of the English language, the confusing grading system, the adamant Canadian bureaucracy and the stubbornly haunting memories of India are troubleshooters to Reghu Nath. Within a week Reghu found himself surrounded by many different problems. Financially, his position was not sound; educationally he did not know where he headed. Psychologically, he was yet not adjusted to his new environment

11. At the University he finds himself open to the whims of his instructors and is compelled to accept what they demand from him. As for social life, it was almost nonexistent. AThe professors and students used to come to class on time, then disperse mechanically soon after class was over

12. He finds the Canadian women totally uncompromising and difficult. For the girl sitting next to him and with whom he was talking during his flight, he Amustered all his courage to say politely AI love you. The girl glanced to one side, then the other, before finishing her whisky in a gulp

13. New words, unintelligible expressions and the Canadian slang take him unawares and baffle him totally.

Reghu next experiences a culture shock, the one that he could least digest. While shopping he holds the hand of a compatriot from India; the man instantaneously severs his hand and retorts, This is not India. Surprised by his curt behaviour Reghu demands: AWhat do you mean? The man casually replies, A Don't you know it yet? Reghu pleads ignorance: AThere are many things for me to know. The man explains, APeople will think we are homos? Not knowing the real meaning of the short word Ahomo, Reghu becomes quiet and then clarifies, Do you mean homosexuals?

14. The friend confirms in turn. After this incident he keenly observes others but never finds a man holding hands with another man. This is one incidence of the cultural differences between Canada and India. Reghu's friend has already turned a North American and Reghu thenceforth starts withholding his native mannerism and peacefully rejecting what has become part and parcel of him, i.e., his native culture.
Next Reghu meets his neighbour, Mrs. Wallace, a freelance writer cum frustrated artist. At the age of sixty she was more interested in sex than in money. The unemployed boy whom Reghu runs into tells him Ahe was a handyman for Mrs. Wallace, and received $15 every time he rendered her personal service at night

15. Another neighbour who lives in a high rise complex down the street from his room, a musician who plays a blues song on his guitar, during a courtesy visit, pulls out an empty beer bottle from under the bed and asks him to return it and buy a new one. When Reghu resists, with a pain in his voice the man strikes: AWhy don't you go now and leave me alone

16. A resident of the building in which he lives thunders amidst an argument, AWhy don't you go back to your country? You should go back to India and leave us alone too

17. While the relationship with the neighbours is thus disappointing, as Bluebell S. Phillips observes, Reghu Atries to fill his vacuum by mankind's most natural instinct- relationship with someone of the opposite sex.

18. But, the white girls expect Ato be treated as special, almost as China dolls, and disliked being touched in any way on the first date

19. They contend, Aa woman has to be emotionally involved with a man before she gives herself to him

20. They Areject him in bars because he has money for no more than one drink or because of his colour

21. The idealist Reghu is not able to cope with the corrupt practices in his educational institution. He quits the university without obtaining his degree. He also realises that Canada does not need scholars or people specialized in one branch or field. Canada had a handful of openings, usually filled by persons born here or by British and American immigrants, who encountered no prejudice because they were not a visible minority like the Africans and the Asians who spoke differently and looked differently.

22. Due to Canada's discriminatory policy the Indian Prabha, graduated in Library Science but forced to do cataloguing, though persons with less education and experience are given better positions, is driven to eventually commit suicide. The Ph.Ds who have given almost half of their lives to learning and whose Indian parents anxiously look forward to the day when their children would hold responsible positions in Canada and bring credit to the family, end up Arusting, first stinking

23. Dr.Hafeez, a renowned scientist from Bangladesh, with his extensive research in liquid fuel combustion, is forced to accept the offer as laboratory assistant, despite his established reputation in the U.S. Another Ph.D. in Political Science, Reghu reads in a newspaper, after a number of years of university teaching in India, finds himself jobless in Canada and at last becomes a waiter in a Toronto restaurant.

Ethnic and racial prejudices and biases grow in leaps and bounds day by day. AAn Asian immigrant is slapped and pushed by white boys from Toronto station platform onto the subway track

24. Athe victim spent four and a half months in a hospital, and eight months in bed. He lost both legs. AThe matter was dismissed by the Police

25. Further, the immigration officials strategically discouraged the Asians from coming to Canada. A Children's Aid Society in Ottawa discourages adoption of white children by Asians. Many school councillors in the Toronto area do not permit the Asian children to select certain subjects for study. AAn Asian in Toronto was harassed by a child. Angry, the Asian hit the child slightly. Someone reported it to the police and the Asian was fined 200 dollars. In another incident, though a white man bumps a car from behind and admits his mistake, the police give tickets to both. Racial assault is widely prevalent.

AIn Brampton, a Tanzanian, mistaken for a Pakistani, had his house painted by racial slogans by five boys. Later they were arrested and punished by the judge who ordered him to write an essay on Pakistan. They were also ordered by the judge to spend an evening with the family of the Canada Pakistan Associations President, which included a spicy meal!

26. The Canadian government disgraces welfare recipients like Reghu; the manpower office is silent or indifferent. There is an unending conflict between the white and the settlers. Many white Canadians blame the immigrants, particularly the visible minority, for their unemployment. They complain that the immigrants take up any work on far below the minimum wage set by the government. AThey accepted jobs in a pinch and quit as soon as they qualified for unemployment

27. The white employers are extremely satisfied with the studious nature of the immigrant workers who, they say, are Aprepared to work after service hours and on week ends

28. A sense of jealously and a climate of uncertainty widens the gulf between the white Canadians and the newcomers, particularly from the regions of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Lino Leitao, an immigrant author of several collections of poems, criticizes Immigrant for portraying one side of the picture. He points out that ABy accentuating only one side of the story, Mr. Gill has looked at the speck in Canada's eye while he has ignored the log that is in India's eye. Mr. Gill who comes from India, knows well the prevalent prejudices that are in India's caste ridden society. If Mr. Gill were to expose both sides of a coin, then Immigrant would have read like George Orwell=s story: Down and Out in Paris and London.

I think, Mr. Gill realizes this flaw and as such conveys the message through Immigrant that the better understanding of mankind can be achieved by rooting out ignorance. To Mr. Gill ignorance is the root of all prejudices among mankind.

29. Though placed in the midst of struggle Reghu is not prepared to advocate any malicious notion, vindictive attitude or egoistic response. He gradually understands that if the immigrants suffer harassment and violence it is not because of the ordinary fellow Canadian citizens. It is the people with power who spread the venom of discrimination. AObviously, it was a tactic of the ruling power to divert the citizen's attention from the country's growing economic unrest.

30. With such a seed of maturity sprouting in his mind, Reghu, at the end, realizes The whole world is my country. I am a world citizen.

31. Subsequently, he tells himself, AI don't see any difference. Men and women all over the world are the same basically. These so-called cultures are man made and cause anarchy and confusion

32. Reghu now willingly rejects what had become part of him in order to adapt the values of the new land. Reghu's merger with the Canadian culture is symptomatic of his newfound knowledge that Ahome is where the feet are, and we had better place our heart where the feet are

33. His home now moves from India to Canada, the wheat granary of the world, which at last comes forward to feed this one Indian also. Reghu, at this stage, one can safely contend, follows the suggestion of Homi Bhabha who indicates the need for cultural liminality with the nation. Bhabha points out how hybridist is the only meaningful rubric that could be used in the context of problemetization of contemporary culture. To Reghu's observation on men made cultures and te margins causing Aanarchy and confusion, Bhabha's concept of hybridist is a meaningful alternative.

34. Critics like Arun Mukherjee celebrate the writings of the immigrant writer Cyril Dabydeen in contrast to those of Michael Ondaatje on the ground that the latter obscures the political and social realities by taking a universalist stance. Apparently, the subversive and nourishing strength of the works of Cyril Dabydeen and Stephen Gill emanate from their political reality, and this kind of Aencounter with history. . . is a powerful expression of the colonial situation.

35. says Arun Mukherjee. Such an experience as Gill's or Dabydeen's, Ondaatje did not have. He was never an outsider in Canada. Hailing from a very wealthy family from Sri Lanka, sponsored for his stay in Canada by his brother who was one of the richest industrial bankers in Canada, and being fortunate enough to mix with the affluent people of Montreal even as a young boy Ondaatje did not live in the Indian ghettoes of Canada, with all their restrictions and reservations, whereas the encounter of Dabydeen and Gill is more authentic and genuine owing to the hardships they were put to as immigrants. What, then, would be the remedial strategy of an immigrant writer? In the words of Professor Dr. R.K. Singh, a prominent poet and critic of India:

As a novelist, keenly aware of Asian life and experiences, and cultural differences between Canada and India, he faithfully portrays Reghu Nath, an Indian student's difficulties in adapting to a foreign socio-political scene: He highlights the plights of the Indian settler-- culture shock, ethnic and racial prejudices, inequality, discriminations and biases in a culturally pluralistic society (which Canada appears to be from a distance), not necessarily to criticize, but to seek a change in a culturally tolerant society, accommodating diverse people and practices. He affirms the need for reculturation of both the individual immigrants and the host society with a sense of mutual `give and take', fulfilment and enrichment, justice, equality, access, and participation.

36. The remedial strategy, which Stephen Gill recommends to a fellow immigrant, is integration, with the white majority, an ideology advocated by another marginalised poet, Countee Cullen from the Harlem Renaissance Movement, to his brethren in the black community.

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