Where does the question of diaspora identities come into play in Naipaul's In a Free State?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Naipaul's In a Free State is a collection of three short stories introduced by a Prologue and closed by an Epilouge. These two elements are as important as the short stories in between them. In fact, Naipaul's ending remarks in the "Epilogue" summarize and epitomize what he has been illustrating concerning the question of diaspora identities in what is believed to be a free state of being or a free state politically:

[T]here were ...peasants in bulky woolen uniforms [who] were to know total defeat ... [and] news photographs ... were to show them lost, trying to walk back home, casting long shadows on the sand.

Those who are experiencing life in a diaspora, Naipaul suggests, are metaphorically or actually wandering, lost, trying to get back home with the shadows of themselves, of their identities, casting long shadows of substanceless reality on the sand of their exile.


Let's backtrack and define "diaspora." In recent times, diaspora has taken on a new, broader meaning and covers an ever-growing range of people in an ever-increasing range of circumstances. Some applications of "diaspora" may in fact be extreme, like applying it to scientists who voluntarily accept jobs in other parts of the world for excellent pay, for instance, those who leave the US or UK to work at CERN or at Chile's E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope).

"Diaspora" is defined as the forced removal of a group of people from their homelands. There are defining elements of force, of urgency, of unwillingness, of compulsion. There is a further defining element of a strong desire to return from the lost homeland.

In a diaspora, like the Armenian diaspora, people are not given a choice or the choice given is untenable, like requiring Jews living in Spain (1492) to leave or to convert to Christianity or to face the loss of all property (like Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice) or even death.

Originally, diaspora was applied exclusively to Jews dispersed throughout the world, then evicted from European countries beginning with France and England c. 1290. Beginning in the twentieth century, diaspora came to be applied to a few other groups who were forcibly expelled from their adopted homes, like the Armenians massacred or expelled during the pogroms (c. 1890s).

Now diaspora is applied to a complex range of situations in our complex sociopolitical world. The context of diaspora in Naipaul's writings in In a Free State fits with this complex development of diasporic situations. Take, for example, the case of Santosh in "One Out of Many." Here, the diasporic element of forcible compulsion occurs when he leaves his employer--and is left by his employer--and is seen to be the very fabric of our sociopolitical and cultural reality.

"One Out of Many"  

Santosh has a wife and family in the hills and was happy being a servant to the government official whom he served. He and the neighboring servants, with their trousers held up by rope belts and their bare feet, were happy living and sleeping in the open air on the street beneath the windows of the men they served upstairs during the day. One day his employer gets a promotion and is sent to Washington D.C.

For Santosh, this would result in humiliation and a sorrowful change of circumstance: he would lose his prestigious employment as the servant of a man of high office and would have to return to the hills and eke out a living there without the benefit of friends on the street or the luxury of sharing the government official's life. He opts to beg to accompany him to D.C. and, when his request is accepted, he chooses to leave his family in the hills and go to D.C.

Washington D.C. is for him a land of foreign habits. There are no open spaces, no sleeping on bedrolls on the sidewalk, no friends wishing him well as they recognize him at night as they walk past. When the 1968 Washington D.C. race riots occur following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Santosh panics because of the overwhelming fire burning in all the streets and the displaced people running about looting but with no place to go; all things around them were smoldering or in ashes. Santosh made an escape and ran to his compatriot friend who owns a restaurant.

Santosh thinks he has escaped but later comes to realize, when his green suit is returned to him, that he was abandoned: his employer might have found and reclaimed him but chose to abandon him. Santosh has lost the hope of reconciliation and has nothing but the hopeless status of a displaced person living in the U.S. illegally.

I felt a hole in my stomach. I couldn't think. ... I was alone. I hadn't escaped; I had never been free. I had been abandoned. I was like nothing; I had made myself nothing. And I couldn't turn back.  

Santosh's Diasporic Identity

Santosh chose to go to D.C. He was not violently forced to choose like the Sephardic Jews of Spain in the 1490s or the Armenian Christians in the 1800s. He chose of his own free will but, having gone, he floundered there, lost, confused, out of his element (literally--no outdoor living--and figuratively).

It might have been because of the half-caste appearance of the dancers; ... and their accent. I thought that these people were now strangers, ... a lost people, ... and had forgotten who they were. ... I lost my pleasure in the dancing; and I felt for the dancers the sort of distaste we feel when we are faced with something that should be kin but turns out not to be, turns out to be degraded, ... deformed ... I didn't stay.

Perhaps Bipti's old father in Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas might have said, Santosh was dispersed, landing a diasporic state, because of Fate: "Fate. There is nothing we can do about it."

In contrast, we can say that Santosh had a diasporic experience and loss of identity because the sociopolitical situation first terrified him, then stranded him, him and his employer both: both were equally demoralized and horrified by the social and political environment and cultural ways of the land they had come to. Gone from them were the quiet sidewalks lined with open-air sleepers; gone were the peaceful conversations with friends in a safe, welcoming habitat. Present for them were confining living indoors and violently burning living outdoors.

it might have been their bad Sanskrit pronunciation ... I thought that these people were now strangers, but that perhaps once upon a time they had been like me.

As a new member of the postcolonial diaspora Santosh found himself lost: wanting to know nothing more of the strange place he lived in, desiring to but unable to walk back home--home being separated from him by more than one wide sea--seeing the cast of his long substanceless shadow stretched behind him on the hot asphalt of his own desert sand.   

[Home's] smells are strange, everything in it is strange. ... my strength ... is that I am a stranger, I have closed my mind and heart to the English language, to newspapers and radio and television, to the pictures of hubshi runners ... on the wall. I do not want to understand or learn any more.

New Diaspora and Identity

The new definition and dilution of the concept of diaspora results from, in part, the redefinition of colonial peoples needing to reidentify with their lives in the postcolonial era. For an example, before decolonization, an Indian studying in London held a British passport and was a member of the British Commonwealth but, after independence, was a foreigner needing a permit and a visa though, perhaps, already living in London.

Identities were gnawed down, dug up, overhauled and torn out; people were made into a diaspora by the sociopolitical and cultural realities surrounding them. Identities were abandoned, like Santosh's identity, and realigned, as Santosh tried to realign his by marrying the hubshi woman whom he didn't much like or enjoy ("my strength in this house is that I am a stranger, I have closed my mind and heart").

Each story, from the Prologue "The Tramp at the Piraeus" to the Epilogue "The Circus at Luxor," describes one of the ways postcolonial individuals have unwittingly entered a diaspora having made a choice that turns out to abandon them and demand from them a reconstruction of their identity in ways that leave them floundering and yearning to return home, in some way or another, to what they had known before.

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In a Free State

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