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Of elephant gods and fish curry in a clay pot: Memory, identity, and cultural reproduction

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At home with Ganesha. Source: Mohnish Landge on Unsplash.

The September sun breaks gently over the small group in Indian sarees as they walk briskly to Ruffey Lake Park, Melbourne. As she walks with her fellow expats, Lata Gollamudi holds up a small idol of the elephant god Ganesha that she has fashioned out of clay: ‘... just the way I used to make it as a young girl at home in India! Every year, here in Australia, we dress in festive clothes and carry our Ganesha to the lake to do the visarjan (immersion in the waters) as per our religious custom (my husband Rajesh always takes leave on that day). So, on the same day that my relatives in India are doing the visarjan, we do it in our home town in Australia!’


Meanwhile, Dr Manoj Nair spends the morning Skyping with his sister, and watches her cook fish curry in a clay pot, on a wood fire back in their ancestral house in south India. He listens to her grumbling about the quality of fish and they reminisce about the days of their childhood, even as he goes about his own chores in his house in Chelmsford, Essex; thus, living and sharing their lives simultaneously across continents. ‘It’s emotionally satisfying. I do it every weekend and I feel connected to India. I have been shaped by both countries… Though I am now a British citizen, and happy to be one, I hold an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) card too’.


These interviews foreground the liminal spaces migrants occupy, their homeland consciousness, and conflicted subjectivities. They point to the fragility of conceptual binaries that mark studies of migration and mobility.


Connecting through visual media such as Skype helps to create spaces of transconnectivity within which families can practise belonging across great distances. It is a sense of being part of the old and familiar even while one is part of the new; perhaps best understood when examined through the conceptual lens of simultaneity. Thus, migrants slip into their new lives in a new land even as they stay connected to their land of origin, nursing notions of dual belonging. 


Lata and Manoj represent the many transnational families embedded in kinship networks, keeping notions of ‘home’ alive through acts of cultural reproduction in the host country. Memory translates into lived, embodied practice, thus constructing a sense of self in a spatial and temporal frame. ‘Home’ swivels easily between the past and the present; experienced by the subject as a multi-sited, affective sphere of belonging.


Migrating to Australia in the year 1999, Lata and Rajesh Gollamudi lived and worked there for 16 years. All through those years, the couple kept nostalgia alive. Lata recalls: ‘We kept telling our kids – Papa only works here, Australia is our temporary home. We belong to India, not Australia. In all the time we were there, I never allowed myself to buy an expensive house, or even good furniture, because I always thought – we are going back to India anyway… we kept watering the roots of the idea of return’. Nursing memories of the homeland, buoyed by thoughts of giving their children unbounded access to their beloved ‘Indian culture’, and perhaps, finding answers to their own lingering disquiet about identity and belonging, they returned to India in 2014.


The transnational spaces Lata and Rajesh occupied facilitated the faithful enactment of cultural customs and traditions even while living in the host society. They sent remittances back to India, voiced political opinions at social gatherings, and shared information about Indian culture at their children’s schools. The longing to ‘return home’ was kept stoked by annual visits to India, acts of care-giving, and participation in family events like weddings and funerals. 


Cultural reproduction in the host society draws on memories of the past to create spaces of belonging in the present. In the safeguarding of an authentic ethnic identity, cultural practices tied to religious rituals become important and sustain a sense of self. It is this longing to offer cultural resources to their children that has diasporic migrants turning to Indian associations and temples, allowing them access to appropriate cultural symbols and signs. 


The Edinburgh Mandir (Temple) is one such space. The weekends find children running about dressed in Indian ethnic wear, while adults sit cross-legged on the floor praying to a long array of colourfully decorated deities. The chanting of mantras merges with a steady murmur of conversation as men and women move about, greeting others and enquiring about their lives. The tangible merges with intangible, sensorial imaginings to create a wellspring of shared memories. 


‘I rejoice in the colour’, smiles Ankita who is a software engineer like her husband Laxman Subbarao. ‘We live almost two hours away from Edinburgh but we come here every weekend. We enjoy hearing native languages being spoken – Hindi, Tamil, Marathi’. Laxman hands out pedas (an Indian sweet), and remarks, ‘This place reminds me of my visits to the temple with my grandparents back in Andhra Pradesh, I feel bad sometimes that my children will not know that life…’ He remembers how once, when he had bought a Yamaha bike to celebrate getting his first job, everybody in the neighbourhood gathered around to admire it; a box of sweets was opened and distributed, as was the norm. Distributing sweets at the Edinburgh Temple evoked the memory of his previous life in India. He adds ruefully, ‘But even if I buy a big house here, there is nobody to see it! I feel we are in a vacuum now’.


Perhaps that is why it falls upon Laxman, Ankita, Lata and others in their situation, to create and perform a customised form of Indianness. Smitha Radhakrishnan, in her highly nuanced ethnography of Indian IT professionals, describes it as ‘cultural streamlining’. Here, the diverse palette of Indian cultural norms is whittled down to a more generic, manageable set of practices that allows for ‘appropriately Indian’ cultural narratives. It is also a reflection of how Indian migrants in a host country engage with the concept of ‘being global’ – by adopting new ways of living or thinking, without actually letting go of their ingrained Indian beliefs or cultural practices. Thus, they create cultural bridges for themselves, which loop back into a quest for identity.


As Ganesha’s elephant head and potbelly swirl gently before disappearing into the liquid depths of the lake, thus returning to his own home after his stay with his devotees, Lata Gollamudi dips her hand in the swelling waters, closes her eyes and for a few brief moments, connects with ‘home’.

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Mini Chandran Kurian

Mini Chandran Kurian is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the return migration of highly-skilled Indians, their notions of identity and dual belonging, and their reflexive selves. She also has a Master’s Degree in Ethnicity and Multiculturalism from the University of Bristol. Kurian has previously led a 2-year UNESCO research project across six Indian states and parts of Sri Lanka, titled ‘Cultural Mapping of Intangible Cultural Heritage’. She has also researched and published her findings on the cultural exchange between South Asia and the world as a result of trading practices over the centuries.

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