The term ‘diaspora’ is generally understood as a people belonging to one ethnic group originating from a place, but dispersed geographically. Though scattered, the diaspora groups usually tend to maintain relations with their place of origin and also with the other dispersed groups. Estimatedly, about 10 percent of human population live in diasporic situations (about 700 to 800 million). This is a huge number. Countries of origin have started looking at the diaspora communities as assets: economic, social, political, technological and so on. The concept of ‘soft power’ and its exercise has diaspora communities as one of the important dimensions. The issues surrounding the diaspora has given rise to a new field of study called ‘diaspora studies’. Though this genre emerged in the late 20th century, the significance of the field is evident from the establishment of numerous research centres and academic departments all over the world in the recent decade.
Nepali diaspora is one of the interesting diasporic communities in the world present in over 30 countries spread across all continents. It is the only community which is present in all SAARC countries. In this context, the book under review asks certain pertinent questions: ‘In diverse contexts to what extent do Nepalis reproduce their culture and pass it on to subsequent generations? How much of diaspora life is a response to social and political concerns derived from the homeland? What aspects of Nepali life and culture change?’
Edited by noted anthropologists David N. Gellner and Sondra L. Hausner of the University of Oxford, the book tries to answer all the above questions with contributions from 21 authors. The contributors use 18 detailed case studies extending in US, UK, India, Southeast Asia, West Asia and even the Pacific. It should be noted that each of the contributors is an expert in her/his own domain making the book highly scholarly.
Part I of the book deals with the old diaspora in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Fiji. Parts II and III dwell on new diaspora in Singapore, Gulf, United States and United Kingdom. Part IV analyses the impact of Nepali diaspora in its homeland (Nepal). As outlined by the editors, the book was ‘the outcome of a three-year project entitled “Vernacular Religion: Varieties of Religiosity in the Nepali Diaspora” (2009-12).’ The conceptual and historical aspects come out clearly in the Introduction.
The editors, in the Introduction, identify three distinct waves and types of Nepali migration abroad: the first wave that occurred during the Rana period (1845-1951) in the eastern direction was mostly in search of new pastoral and agricultural lands; the second wave that pervaded throughout had been towards Indian urban areas to seek employment; and the third wave of migration is most recent (since 1990s) towards regions beyond South Asia. The common motive for all these migrations was predominantly to seek livelihood and to a lesser extent for education. As a corollary, five categories of Nepali diaspora are present:
1. Old diaspora at far flung areas like Southeast Asia and Fiji, who have retained their culture, but not the language;
2. Nepali Labour population living in India that are predominant in numbers due to geographical and cultural proximity;
3. Workers in the Gulf who ‘find themselves at the bottom of a radicalized hierarchy of roles, paid less than workers from other countries for the same work’;
4. Gorkha soldiers in UK and India who have decided consciously to settle outside Nepal; and
5. Highly skilled Nepalis who are ‘able to migrate to “big” countries as doctors, nurses and computer technicians.’
All these five categories have maintained strong links with the host country. Economically, they contribute immensely to Nepal through huge remittances. According to the Nepal Remitters Association, remittances contribute about ‘25 percent share in GDP and have surpassed the incomes received from tourism and national exports.’ They have also managed to form ethnic diasporic organizations with strong international links wielding diplomatic leverages in favour of the country of origin (Nepal).
In terms of maintaining Nepali consciousness, Sandra Hausner pertinently observes: ‘When Nepalis move away from Nepal, for many, Nepal remains home.’ This reminds of a famous quote on the Nepali diaspora: ‘You can take a Nepali out of Nepal, but you cannot take Nepal out of a Nepali.’ But such consciousness is not uniform: the ‘new’ wave of migrants tend to maintain active and close connections to their kin back home compared to the ‘old’ whose links are there, but weak and have a hyphenated identity that includes ‘Nepali-’. This aspect also determines, by and large, how they pass on the Nepali identity to the next generation.
Most of the chapters are written lucidly. Bibliography and Index are exhaustive. The book is enriched by tables, figures, photographs, and a map. Since most of the chapters came out of field visits, they are interesting and empirically sound. Undoubtedly, the book is a comprehensive study of Nepali diaspora communities in multiple countries around the world. The book is not only useful for students, scholars, policy makers, and teachers pertaining to diaspora, but also those who wish to know about the history, culture, society and politics of Nepal in general.
N Manoharan is Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies and History, CHRIST (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru.