Wednesday, October 22, 2008

THE DIASPORA...............!!!

Diplomats, Immigrants and the Diaspora
Ravi Perera

Although unintended, recent high profile judgments and sensational assassinations of political figures also bring into focus another live reality of this society, the phenomenon that could be called the other nation, the Diaspora.

The other nation although genetically made up of the same ingredients as the rest, in outlook, aspirations and possibly even sense of well being constitute an entity very different. Domiciled mainly in metropolitan Western countries with high living -standards, they now amount to almost a million, i.e. roughly one in twenty Sri Lankans.

Sometimes we need a death or even a finding of a court of law to realize, though physically absent, how prevalent the Diaspora is in our daily routine. Invariably if the deceased is a person of middle class professional background the chances are that most of his near and dear once will be in far flung places like Melbourne, Toronto or even California.

London - a melting pot

Recently when a former diplomat passed away his immediate family attended the funeral from the country he was formerly based in. Even in matters of a legal nature increasingly we find many carrying local names are in fact citizens of other countries.

It is a statement of the times that even the former leaders after playing their clamorous part on our somewhat chaotic national stage retire with their immediate family to richer environs. There they apparently gather, in cold undistinguished living rooms, a few countrymen of similar emigre status to talk of Kings, cabbages and the great things they did in the native land.

Generally it is said that a diplomat represents the interests of his home country. But since of late it has become the norm that most of our diplomats, particularly those in Western countries either have their immediate families living in that country or soon ensure they migrate there, tacitly admitting the inferiority of living standards and opportunities in the home country.

Although in an emotional sense they may identify with their land of birth in every other sense they could make common cause with their adopted countries. Gaping differences in living standards and easy transport make national borders porous.

The eager hands and cheap labour provided by the newcomers for the massive economies of the recipient countries confuse their policy makers when it comes to regulating the immigrant intake. We have seen in recent times unprecedented gatherings of diverse ethnicities within previously secure national boundaries.

Today if one goes by the gaggle of voices at tube stations or the food on offer at corner stores it will be hard to conclude that London is a British city. For more than three decades now Western countries have been the targets of endless migrant movements simply looking for something better.

In this context the following paragraph from VS Naipaul’s “The Mimic Men” makes interesting reading.

“ ...Just the other day I was in the West End, in the basement of one of those department stores where assistants carry their names on little plastic badges. I required a folding wooden clothes-airer. An assistant had her back to me. I went up to her. She turned. Her face was familiar, and a quick glance at the name pinned to her blouse left no room for doubt.

We had last met at a conference for non-aligned nations; her husband had been one of the firebrands. We had seen one another in a glittering blur of parties and dinners. Then she had worn her ‘national costume’ giving her a seductive appearance, colours of her silks setting off her rich Asiatic complexion.

Now the regulation skirt and blouse of the department store converted her breasts and hips into untidy bundles. I remember how, when we were saying our goodbyes at the airport, the third secretary of her Embassy, breaking the precise arrangements of protocol, had run up at the last moment with a bunch of flowers, which he offered to her, the personal gift of a man desperate to keep his job in the diplomatic service, fearful of being recalled to the drabness of his own background......”

For clear unsentimental depiction of the progress of the post colonial coloured immigrant in the chosen land, the Nobel Prize winning writer cannot be rivalled. However impressive the immigrants standing in the native country, he is an awkward refugee in the adopted country.

Grudgingly accepted if not tolerated, he can never hope to be fully assimilated in the new land. But he remembers the country where a fistful of dollars is a fortune and a foreign qualification a magical mantra. The rules are hazy and personal influence carries the day. So, the regular visits, with constant engagement with his country of birth.

In different ways the immigrant now outside of the national cage as well as those well and truly enmeshed in its various manifestations are victims of circumstances. The globalized world is small, glittering allurements tantalize while the obvious deprivations of life burn deep.

One cannot fault anybody for wanting a better life. But in the process the Diaspora form a group with dual identities. It is very likely that this duality will lessen with the second generation who will probably have only tenuous ties with the land of their fathers. But for the time being the easy mixing of the Diaspora with their country of origin does create piquant situations.

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