HL90 EZ: The Global South Asian Diaspora

In addition to all of the new HL90s this year, we’ve got some great classes returning if you didn’t get a chance to enroll last year! Vikrant Dadawala teaches “The Global South Asian Diaspora,” Thursdays, 35. Vikrant told us more about one of the exciting additions (between “Tasting Place” and this, we’re getting hungry!) to the class this year!

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 American 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. I’m very excited to offer this class again, to a fresh group of students.

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 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 California was home to a small but vibrant émigré community from Punjab in the early twentieth century. Or that Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis on temporary visas comprise close to sixty percent of the population of the contemporary United Arab Emirates (UAE).

I heard there’s going to be a food component to the class this year?

Yup, we’re going to be sampling a lot of the hybrid dishes that developed out of interactions between desi migrants and local food cultures – roti canai, doubles, African samosas…

How can students learn more about the class?

You can see the syllabus by visiting the Canvas site for the class. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to email me at vikrant_dadawala@fas.harvard.edu.

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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