Here's Our Labor. Now How About Our Lives?

The Karma of Brown Folk. By Vijay Prashad. Hardback - 253 pages (April 2000). University of Minnesota Press: ISBN: 0816634386. Price: $25.00.

Passport Photos. By Amitava Kumar. Paperback - 308 pages (May 2000). University of California Press: ISBN: 0520218175. Price: $17.95.

South Asians are here: with our histories, our multiple identities, our labors, our loves, and our lives. This is what both Vijay Prashad and Amitava Kumar boldly proclaim in The Karma of Brown Folk and Passport Photos, respectively. These two books mark a watershed moment for South Asians on the American stage. No longer concerned with perceptions of marginality within mainstream or even Asian America, Kumar and Prashad assume the importance and legitimacy of their subject matter, and their books give powerful and eloquent voice to the conditions of South Asian migrants in the United States. While both books focus on the waves of South Asian migration that began in the wake of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, neither author takes this as a pure, "unprecedented" inaugural point. Instead Prashad and Kumar look at the relationships between post-65 migrants and their predecessors; such as turn-of-the-century Indian labor on the North American West Coast, migrants to other parts of the Americas, and the parallels between these groups and other communities of color in the United States. From this vantage point, The Karma of Brown Folk and Passport Photos articulate specific, critical political visions. These visions are personal political manifestoes, and narratives adamantly written in and through our shared history and tied together by a vision for our collective future.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois asks his fellow African Americans, "How does it feel to be a problem?" DuBois refers to the color line, the "problem" of race that is at this country's core. A century later Vijay Prashad opens The Karma of Brown Folk by asking us, "How does it feel to be a solution?" He thus begins in dialogue and solidarity with African Americans, and implicates South Asians in a passive compact with racism. This is in specific reference to the fact that the model minority myth that haunts Asian Americans, and South Asians in particular, is a weapon in this nation's ongoing anti-black offensive. Prashad warns us that all of our real and perceived privilege, and the praise it garners, is the mirror image of the "why can't you succeed if they can" question leveled at African Americans. This in spite of the fact that the history of South Asian migration repeats the same lesson: we are valued for our 'labor', not our 'lives'. The book takes passionate aim at the model minority myth, by recounting a different history of South Asian migration to North America, a history that is far richer than the '65-centric' myth that so often passes as the official version of desi migration. We read of shining moments of early activism, from a lascar in revolutionary Salem, Massachusetts to the Ghadar party of California in the 1920s and the irrepressible Sikhs of British Columbia. The engagement of these migrants with their environment provides a vital counterbalance to a menagerie of desi conservatives: the conservative spiritual apothecaries like Deepak Chopra, the sellouts to white supremacy like Dinesh D'Souza and the corporate-funded zealots like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad volunteers who collect money for the murderous agenda of their parent organization in India. Prashad also emphasizes the history of solidarity between South Asians and African Americans, one that is complex, engaged and mutually respectful. A wonderful example is a 1943 poem by Langston Hughes that Prashad quotes:

Mighty Britain, tremble! Let your empire's standard sway
Lest it break entirely -- Mr. Ghandhi fasts today...
All of Asia's watching, and I am watching too
For I am also jim crowed -- as India is jim crowed by you.

Indeed, the interaction between Indian leaders during the freedom struggle and African American activists (Gandhi and Tagore with DuBois, Lala Lajpat Rai with Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey with other Gandhians) makes the current strains of racism among middle class South Asians even more distressing.

If we do wish to shrug off the model minority label, what avenues exist for us to develop an authentic engagement with our immediate environments? Prashad offers incipient answers to this question in the final chapter of the book, 'Of Solidarity and Other Desires'. It is an inventory of contemporary South Asian organizations engaged in a variety of struggles: against religious violence, the violence of global capitalism and the exploitation of domestic labor, as well as gay and lesbian organizations, college groups, and labor organizers -- to name a few. He concludes with a blow-by-blow account of the taxi drivers strike in New York in 1998, where a constituency that had been deemed 'unorganizable' ended up bringing the city to a grinding halt. Here is a present day incarnation of the progressive South Asian, one that will not drift as an aloof victim, but instead takes a stand as a protagonist in local struggles with global dimensions.

The spirit of Passport Photos is quite similar to The Karma of Brown Folk, but the cadence is very different. Kumar asks: what does it mean to be a migrant, to be itinerant, to forever engage in a "dialogue of civilizations"? How do migrants make sense of their identity in a world where every aspect of it is constantly under negotiation by border-keepers and original settlers and earlier immigrants? Passport Photos begins to answer these questions through an extremely inventive play on the categorical structure of the passport, a document "that chooses to tell a story about us," but one that is not necessarily of our own choice. Kumar interrogates and opens up these categories, creating different stories for the markers "Name", "Photograph", "Place of Birth", "Date of Birth", "Nationality", "Sex", "Profession" and "Identifying Marks." Through this play on language and agency he explores the newer words that are "being minted in the streets of our native cities" (and also here). On the one hand is a word like "powertoni," a contraction of the term "power of attorney", which is used by Shiv Sena goons in Mumbai to describe the extra-legal protection they enjoy when they kill minorities, communists and trade unionists. Alternately we find "ghadar", a term for rebellion that traveled from the first war of Indian independence in 1857 to the US in 1913, when a group of Indian nationalists formed the Ghadar party in California. "Ghadar" was rekindled in 1997 when the Forum of Indian Leftists (FOIL) launched a magazine named Ghadar (

There is more to these terms than mere word play. Throughout the book, Kumar uses these "word games" to open the door for principled action. The spiritual survival of the immigrant can only come from an engagement with the homeland, either through bonds of love or through bonds of activism. The homeland must be fondly imagined, not merely as a place where rotis were crisp and the anklets tinkled. It is a place where people fought for their dignity, a fight that sometimes spills across national boundaries. As he writes in his poem "A Letter to India Abroad":

This is not a song or an anthem
This is only a letter.
This is a letter in search of the name
of the taxi driver in Queens
who calls each week to talk to his daughter in Ambala...
The students in Pittsburgh burdened with their own studies
who print pamphlets to fight those
who from this distance dream of destroying old mosques.

What is the date of the immigrant's birth? For some, it may be the moment when staying back in the homeland was not an option any more. Through his use of prose, poetry and photography, Kumar creates a collage of the forced migrations due to religious and ethnic bigotry, the complete betrayal of minorities by the nation state and the dismemberment of diasporic communities by purported "nativists" all over the world. Nor does he forget the equally important displacements produced by capitalism. When the metropolis becomes an agent of sucking out all the resources from the hinterland, the native has no option but to move.

Tum na jaane kis jahaan mein kho gaye,
Hum bhari duniya mein tanha ho gaye
You got lost in another world unknown,
I was left in this one alone.

Ultimately, both books end up as manifestoes of activism. Prashad leaves us with the challenge of furthering the progressive genealogy that he begins remembering. His bibliography is a veritable source book for future thought, action, and work. Likewise Kumar ends Passport Photos with an appendix titled, "Against Solitude: A Manifesto." He urges South Asian writers in the diaspora to create texts that "simultaneously invent and embrace its public." Indeed, it is a joy to read these two books, which simultaneously invent and embrace a different South Asian immigrant, one that will walk hand in hand with immigrants and oppressed people of all hues and races.

Read these books!


I need to know the source of this article, it's well done and objectively. I am writing a local story about a legend and I need more sources of inspiration. An objective point of view is all that I am looking for because people then to believe a story if it is written objectively. South Asians are here: with our histories, our assorted identities, our labors, our loves, and our lives. This is what both Vijay Prashad and Amitava Kumar angrily affirm in The Karma of Brown Folk and Passport Photos, respectively.

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