Why Are Migrant Histories Not Written?

THE WRITE LINE By Manishankar Prasad

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There is hardly any contemporary work on migrant diasporas in the Gulf (Photo: Pixabay)

May 17, 2020, Pune: Wherever they go, migrants are always focused on earning a living. But somehow, from hard-working so-called blue-collared labourers, to the industrious middle-class, to the opulent trade diasporas – migrants on all rungs of the social ladder somehow do not write their stories.

I spent a good amount of time in the West Asian Sultanate of Oman. If it were not for my sheer interest in history and museums, I wouldn’t have known that the Indian trade communities that can be seen in Oman, which largely hail from Kutch, have actually been there for the past 400 years.

But these compelling histories are not seen in national museums in the Gulf region. In fact, they are not visible in India as well, where diasporas are not considered mainstream enough apart from when it comes to enjoying the ‘remittance riyals’.

There is hardly any contemporary work on trade or migrant diasporas in the Gulf. The little that is available is there in the form of documents in vernacular languages within communities. Scholars, however, are more interested in mainstream archives. British historian James Onley confidently writes that there’s hardly any written archives of Indian communities in the Gulf, which may be the case in English. But then what about Kutchi, Gujarati, Sindhi, and other South Asian languages?

Just because such accounts are not available in English does not mean they don’t exist. Upon researching for an article on Omani Banias (merchant/trader class) last month for the American Gulf State Institute in Washington, DC, I could hardly find any recent material except for a book by Prof. Fahad Bishara, which talks about the community, based on documents reviewed from the Ratansi Purushottam clan and a paper by Sandhya Rao and James Onley (again).

I feel Deepak Unnikrishnan’s book Temporary People is a priceless contribution to this area of research, even though the book is categorised as a work of fiction.

I am happy that migrant workers in Singapore and Malaysia write their own stories, their own poems – and they do it in Bangla, Tamil, Bahasa, and Tagalog. If these migrants don’t write their own histories themselves, then some western academic will step in and write it for them, on a Routledge contract. And that book will cost a hundred quid.

Writing history is too important and sensitive to leave it to academics or to the state. There are good nonfiction writers researching through the popular publishing route such as Manu Pillai, Anam Zakaria, and Aanchal Malhotra.

If migrants are unable to write their own histories, then they should take the other path to the historical documentation of their life and times: take photos, archive them, and create digital spaces on a platform such as Instagram. Instagram is a digital museum from the ground up.

Migrants are unwittingly always creating history. If they don’t document those histories in the form of their lived experiences, the stories will be lost.

As the old adage goes: until the lion learns to write, it is only the hunter’s story that will be glorified.

(Manishankar Prasad is an independent researcher, writer, consultant, and an expert in migration studies. He lives in Pune, India)

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