Dreams take flight across oceans

Rakkee Thimothy
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DESI DREAMS — Indian Immigrant Women Build Lives Across Two Worlds: Ashidhara Das; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 795.
DESI DREAMS — Indian Immigrant Women Build Lives Across Two Worlds: Ashidhara Das; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 795.

Rakkee Thimothy

Labour mobility has become an indispensable feature of the ongoing phase of globalisation. A multidisciplinary approach is required to understand the impacts and implications of the global exchange of labour on both sending and receiving countries as well as its effect on the lives of migrants. From an anthropological perspective, it is a challenging task to study the ‘other’ in the western world, contrary to a plethora of literature that located the ‘other’ in the colonial and capitalist periphery. Within this framework of locating the ‘other’ in the developed West, an overwhelming number of studies have focused on issues pertaining to the low skilled migrants who are highly likely to encounter a range of vulnerabilities and insecurities in the migration process. As the global exchange of labour is increasingly coming under the scanner of labour sending and receiving countries, in an effort to control and regulate migration, the conditionality imposed on immigrants is becoming cumbersome even for professional and semi-professional migrants. This may even impact their working and living conditions. For instance, a significant share of Indian immigrants in the United States, including software engineers, doctors and PhD holders, are employed in conditions that are undeniably less attractive for their American counterparts. Both in obvious and subtle ways, immigrants are constantly reminded of being the ‘other’ at the destination, in economic, social and cultural arenas. While the conventional approach would explore the theme from a reductionist economic perspective, Desi Dreams adopts the framework of cultural anthropology to deftly illustrate the dilemmas of immigrants facing ‘unequal and unjust’ treatment at the destination and how they negotiate by (re) constructing their self and identity in the Western world.

Multiple identities

With an estimated 1.7 million Indian immigrants, the U.S. continues to be an important destination for Indian workers. A significant share of Indian immigrants in the US, including women, works in the Silicon Valley. Although a number of studies have been carried out to understand the gender differentiated impacts of migration, capturing its nuanced specificities and complexities, a majority of them focus on issues pertaining to low-skilled migrants.

In Desi Dreams the case of professional and semi-professional women immigrants is the focus of discussion as the author seeks to unravel how ‘they construct a self and identity that is adequate to negotiate the racialisation and sexism perceived to be features of the workplace in the U.S., and the gender bias and parochialism found at home’. As argued by the author, Indian immigrant women in the U.S. straddle dual selves and multiple identities to meet the expectations of American society and workplace on the one hand and the Indian immigrant home and community on the other.

During the initial years of immigration to the U.S., Indian women experienced an identity crisis due to a social process of discontinuity of their ethnic identity: their social habits, skills, behaviours and values became redundant in the new situation, amid a quest to adopt locally accepted customs and moral standards. After a few years of stay, Indian immigrant women became skilled at ‘being American’ and could identify with the host population. Immigrants’ assimilation and accommodation with mainstream American society increase with the length of residence and employment. However, as noted by the author, the process of ‘Americanisation’ continues to be an incomplete agenda and Indian immigrants at best are viewed by ‘mainstream’ Americans as ‘model minorities’. Ironically, at this stage, the immigrant home becomes a principal site for the re-composition of Indian culture by the strengthening of transnational ties to their homeland and women become repositories and transmitters of traditional ethnic culture. The study rightly stresses the fact that self and identity formation is a continuous process, often intervened upon and impacted by the responses to the ‘other’. With an engaging text, the author captures the psychic costs of uneasy Americanisation, social misrecognition, gender battles and incessant transnational journeys of the self and of identities.

A member of the Indian diaspora, the author provides a much-needed insider perspective in analysing the contested self and identity of Indian immigrant women in the U.S. Interweaving anthropological fieldwork with strong theoretical insights, she presents an absorbing narrative of a less analysed aspect of the quintessential American success story of migration. Although based on the experience of Indian immigrant women in the U.S., this ethnographic work contains insights that would be useful in analysing diaspora communities elsewhere in the world. Of course, the self and identity formation of an immigrant is conditioned by the intricate interplay of gender, race, class, religion and state response to migrant labour, among others. For instance, nuances have been added to the self and identity formation of an immigrant at the destination by the stress laid by recent immigration policies on temporarisation and short duration migration.

In the process, the experiences of immigrants become delicately layered, depending on how they perceive their self and how their identity is conceived as the ‘other’ by the host population at the destination. Situating immigrant women at the centre of this discourse, the book offers a fresh perspective in understanding diaspora communities and is a worthy contribution to the growing literature on gender, work and immigration.

After a few years, Indian immigrants became skilled at being American



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