HL90 EZ: The Global South Asian Diaspora

Classes start in just a few weeks! We’re ready with lots of new HL90s we’re excited to share! Up first, read more about Vikrant Dadawala’s class, The Global South Asian Diaspora:

Tell us about your class!

This class offers students a chance to think about migration, labor, and literature in a global and comparative spirit. Our popular understanding of the South Asian diaspora tends to be based on very recent history. This class will explore older stories of South Asian migration that aren’t as well known–indentured laborers brought in to work in Caribbean sugarcane plantations after the
abolition of slavery, sailors who jumped ship in London or New York City, and merchants
who lived on the shores of east Africa. We will read literature in English as well as in translation
from five South Asian languages.

Is there something you’re especially looking forward to share with the class?

I’m looking forward to our sessions in Weeks 3 and 5, that reconstruct nineteenth-century voyages across the Indian Ocean using a mix of autobiographies, diaries, and other fragmentary sources. I think of myself as a well-travelled person. But my experience of international travel has always involved the banal routine of applying for a visa, sitting still inside an airplane for a few hours, and queuing up to get my passport stamped at my destination. This is not how humans travelled for most of history! By the end of the semester, I hope students can have a real sense of what it was like to sail across a vast ocean towards an unknown destination – whether as a “lascar” in the crew of a British clipper or steamer, or as an indentured “coolie” who has signed away his or her freedom for the next five years.

What’s something surprising that students might not know about this topic?

That east Africa was described by a colonial official in 1901 as the “America of the Hindu.” Or that the word “shampoo” was introduced to English by Sake Dean Mahomed, a Bengali Muslim who migrated to England in 1784, and wrote what is probably the first book in English by a South Asian author. Or that Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis on temporary visas comprise close to sixty percent of the population of the contemporary United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Do you have any cool assignments planned?

For the final project, students are free to write about any book of their choice, placing it in conversation with the historical context from which it emerged. Meanwhile, as we move from region to region, we’re going to keep track of the new musical forms and dishes that emerged from interactions between South Asian migrants and local traditions. My favorite of these dishes is definitely roti canai, from Malaysian Indian cuisine. I’m also very impressed by the cheerful bawdiness of chutney soca music from Trinidad.

How can students learn more about the class?

You can see the syllabus by visiting the Canvas site for the class. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at vikrant_dadawala@fas.harvard.edu or set up an appointment to meet in person or virtually.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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