Imagining Bombay, London, New York and Beyond

South Asian Diasporic Writing from 1990 to the Present

by Maria Ridda (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 281 Pages


This book examines new literary imaginings of the interconnected city spaces of Bombay, London and New York in South Asian diasporic texts from the 1990s to the present. It charts the transition from London-centric studies on postcolonial city spaces to the new axis of Bombay, London and New York.
The book argues that two key dynamics have developed from this shift: on the one hand, London, once the destination of choice for migrants, becomes a «transit zone» for onward movement to New York; on the other, different cities are perceived to coexist and come together in one single location. To investigate these new webs of interactions and power relations, this monograph employs Bakhtin’s model of the chronotope. Serving as a magnifying lens, the chronotope inserts different spatial and temporal segments within wider narratives of urban space. This book promotes a new understanding of the cities of the South Asian diaspora as subversive sites for defining processes of cultural signification.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • Chapter 2: ‘Homing’ the Postcolonial City
  • Chapter 3: London, Bombay and the ‘I’ in Second-Generation Diasporic Writing
  • Chapter 4: Local Globalisms and Global Localisms: The American Dream, New York and Western Capitalist Urbanity in South Asian American Writing
  • Chapter 5: Bollywood’s Bombay
  • Chapter 6: The Inheritance of Loss and Midnight’s Grandchildren: The Collision of South and North, Kalimpong and New York
  • Conclusion: The Evolutionary Trajectory of Transnational Urbanism
  • Bibliography
  • Filmography
  • Index

← viii | ix → Acknowledgements

Thank you to the following publishers for permission to reprint material previously published elsewhere:

Extracts from ‘Thinking Global? Local Globalisms and Global Localisms in the Writing of Jhumpa Lahiri’, Postcolonial Text 6, no. 2: 1–14. Copyright 2011, Open Humanities Press. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

Extracts from ‘Inside the Temple of Modern Desire: Recollecting and Relocating Bombay’, ed. by Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan, Postliberalization Indian Novels in English (Wimbledon: Anthem Press, 2013), pp. 78–87. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

I would like to thank Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah and Professor Rod Edmond, who gave me the opportunity to start this project a long time ago. Professor Susheila Nasta provided invaluable help by showing me how to expand the scope of this study.

This book was completed during a difficult time of my life, thanks to the support of my friends and colleagues Jany Joseph, Florian Stadtler, Stella Bolaki, Derek Ryan, Leonora Scott and Ole Birk Laursen. Special thanks go to my amazing friends Declan Kavanagh, Tara Puri, Ben Hickman, Maggy Hendry and Pauline Mc Gonagle for helping me with the final stages of publication. My mamma Franca provided me with a combination of love and motherly wisdom. Most importantly, if it weren’t for the support and care of my dearest husband, partner and comrade Ben Worthy, this book would not exist. His careful readings and feedback on the project, alongside his encouragement to carry on with my academic pursuits, kept me anchored.← ix | x →

← x | 1 → CHAPTER 1


This book explores literary representations and imaginings of Bombay, London and New York in South Asian diasporic texts from the 1990s to the present. It traces an evolutionary path of analysis that foregrounds the way in which socio-economic shifts have shaped the re-imagining of these cities. By looking at South Asian diasporic texts and Bollywood films chronologically, this book investigates how travel between cities influences the process of identity construction both in the home and host countries. It posits an alternative to familiar journeys between India and Britain and charts the transition from London-centric studies on postcolonial city spaces to the new axis of Bombay, London and New York. This theoretical and literary shift points to the centrality of two key and often overlooked issues: on the one hand, London, once the destination of choice for migrants, becomes a ‘transit zone’ for onward movement to New York; on the other, different cities are perceived to coexist and come together in one single location. As one of Rushdie’s characters puts it in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), ‘a kind of India happens everywhere’: in London, New York and even in Bombay.1 As a symbol of the country’s economic modernisation, Bombay establishes translocal relationships of interdependence with London and New York.2 Representing the real and imaginary ← 1 | 2 → ‘movement of objects, people and ideas’,3 Bombay, London and New York become symbolic points of reference to investigate the intersections of the colonial past and the postcolonial present and the effects of US-centric economic globalisation.4 Standing as crossroads of colonial, postcolonial and global relationships, Bombay, London and New York foreground new dynamics of power and dispossession within the diasporic communities.5

To investigate these relationships, Imagining Bombay, London, New York and Beyond employs Bakhtin’s model of the chronotope. Intended as a strict connection between time and space visible in any point of a literary work, the chronotope acts as a magnifying lens that inserts different spatial and temporal segments within wider narratives of urban space.6 It promotes an understanding of the city as a site of ← 2 | 3 → multiplicity and contradictions that subverts established orthodoxies of national belonging. In presenting a number of imaginary and real spaces within the city, South Asian diasporic fictions also attempt to create a ‘home’, an important synecdoche for wider issues concerning the status of the host countries as sites of settlement,7 but also the role that the Indian subcontinent plays among the dislocated communities. I use the metaphor of ‘homing the city’ to discuss how the negotiation of colonial, postcolonial and global relationships results in the re-imagining of urban space as a site of subversion.

In the following sections I explain the significance of the statement ‘A kind of India happens everywhere’, the coexistence of Bombay, London and New York in one single location and the meaning of ‘beyond’ as both a literary space and a theoretical framework of analysis, and I end by suggesting a way of reading this book.

A Kind of India Happens Everywhere: Multiple Homes

A central idea of this book is the notion that cities are defined by the imaginary and real movement of ‘people’ from the Indian subcontinent to the UK or the US. Primarily textualised spaces for important processes of cultural signification, Bombay, London and New York are located at the symbolic crossroads of different segments of time and space. Investigating cities as dialogical spaces of encounter provides a key to understanding the effects of immigration in the UK and the US as well as the role that diasporic communities play in the shaping of notions of national and transnational identity in the Indian subcontinent. Urban space as the confluence of different spatial and temporal segments also displaces the theoretical and literary centrality of London as the old metropolitan heart of empire. I want to reprise these notions in relation to two texts that have been influential in the development of the central idea of this book: The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) by Salman Rushdie and Bombay-London-New York (2002) by Amitava Kumar.

In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rai Merchant, the narrator, observes the New York skyline and remarks: ‘A kind of India happens everywhere […] if I’m honest I still smell, each night, and the sweet jasmine-scented ozone of the Arabian Sea’ (GBF 417). Here the simultaneous existence of two distinct locations creates a synesthetic image that combines the visual and the olfactory. Both dimensions, precisely because they are instigated by sensory acuity, situate Bombay and New York in a concrete and multi-local setting. Straddling three continents, the novel narrates the story of three Indian-born characters – Ormus, Vina and Umid/Rai – and their simultaneous dwelling in two worlds – Bombay and London/New York. The notion of double spatiality is complicated by the existence of imaginary locations in which doubles of the ‘real’ characters provide alternative threads to the development of the story. Rock music expands the narration of events in different places. Retracing its roots in Bombay, music follows a reverse journey through the rock ‘stars’ and protagonists Ormus and Vina. Yet, this passage is not unidirectional; on the contrary, as with the characters’ relocations, it constantly defers its spatiality to multi-local scenery that includes ‘shards’ of Bombay, London and New York. The Indian city contains traces of the English capital, primarily because of its anachronistic colonial legacy which used to posit it on the fringes of the British Empire. However, ‘Bombay is not on the periphery any more’, asserts Rai (GBF 78). The narrator suggests that it is because the city and the nation are ‘[now] too many things at once’ (94). The multi-temporality of translocal sites, as the narrator puts it, suggests that New York is also ‘Bombay writ large’ (78).

Similarly, in Bombay-London-New York, the Indian-born author Amitava Kumar is constantly ‘shuttling between places’ (BL 9). The ← 3 | 5 → evocative title of the text points to the multi-temporality of the diverse urban experiences, where each metropolis is interconnected and interdependent with numerous local and translocal sites. As the author puts it, ‘the cities mentioned on our tickets actually hide secrets of other places, small towns and villages’ (BL 32). Kumar is not simply highlighting the hybrid nature of the city but is attempting to provide a narrative that includes individual and collective stories of movement, where displacement is signified by a number of physical relocations affecting the cityscape itself. Attentively treading the terrain of commonality and difference, Kumar provides a detailed account of the choral and singular stories concerning these cities. From a personal account tracing the origins of his journey to the small town of Patna, the author moves to Bombay, a city that visually and emotionally evokes his hometown on a larger scale.

As a literary and textualised space, the city posits itself at the cusp of a transitional moment, one that marks the shift from Bombay to Mumbai. Arjun Appadurai and Rashmi Varma have argued that the name change that occurred in 1995 also implies an ideological and political allegiance.8 Whereas Bombay indicates the cosmopolitan character of the entire nation, Mumbai points to the exact opposite: the process of de-cosmopolitanisation and provincialisation the city underwent under the control of the nationalist party Shiv Sena. As discussed in Chapter 4, the name change also coincided with a progressive Hinduisation of the city and the arrival of free market speculation engendered by global capitalism. This book focuses on the role that the city has assumed since 1998, when the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the general election coincided with the country’s assertive policies of economic liberalisation. Kumar and subsequent authors discussed in this book use both names interchangeably to capture the double connotation of Bombay/Mumbai as both a symbol of cosmopolitanism and as the embodiment of the nation’s desire for modernity. Viewed from a multi-focal perspective, which regards it in its singularity as a modern superpower but also in relation to ‘many things at once’, contemporary ← 4 | 6 → Mumbai is a local and global nodal point, connected to ‘the rest of India, to its small towns and villages’ (GBF 94, BL 58). The city establishes translocal relationships of interdependence with other urban spaces located in the metropolitan centres of London and New York.

The second section of Bombay-London-New York tells the history of Indian migration to England through a literary perspective. Most of the descriptive modes derive from the Dickensian archive which, by the author’s own admission, has permeated the collective imagination via colonial education. Kumar reviews the London cityscape through the texts written by a number of Indian writers in England both before and after 1947. He begins by surveying authors as diverse as Sake Dean Mahomet, Mohandas Gandhi and Mulk Raj Anand to demonstrate that relocations to Britain from the Indian subcontinent were already taking place as early as the eighteenth century. Moving on to a discussion of the cultural and political influence that Indians are exerting now on the English capital, Kumar dedicates a substantial section of the ‘London Chapter’ to second-generation diasporic ← 5 | 4 → writing. Contemporary authors such as Hanif Kureishi and Meera Syal replace the older generation’s nostalgia with an ‘active’ engagement with the city as a response to a collaborative and synergetic interchange between Britain and the Indian subcontinent (see Chapter 3). This renewed attitude brings new possibilities denied to earlier generations: the increased access to communication and travel.

In the final part of the text, Kumar introduces New York. The interconnectedness between the Indian subcontinent and the US is described as a comparatively new and powerful phenomenon. Not only does Kumar scrutinise the recent literary enclave of Indian American writing, but he also explores the contributions that his compatriots have made to the host economy. By the author’s own admission, New York is now exerting an immense fascination on people of Indian origin residing both in England and in the home country.

Both Rushdie and Kumar indicate a new trajectory in the metropolitan journeys of the South Asian diaspora accounting for the notion of multi-locality. Ruth Maxey points out that critics have regarded the move that some South Asian novelists, film directors and academics have made in the mid-1990s from London to New York ‘as representative of a change ← 6 | 7 → in the cultural composition of the diaspora’.9 In particular, Bruce King argues that ‘Rushdie and his main characters moving to New York was part of a process that was driven by the emergence of the United States as the world’s main power and its entrepreneurial capitalism as the source of global liberalisation’.10 Anshuman Mondal believes that the shift in location in The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury by Rushdie indicates a ‘[move] away from the global South to the North, from the postcolonial stage to the hegemonic arena of the world’s only current superpower’.11 The continuous change of locations across these fictions is, in Mondal’s opinion, the result of Rushdie’s new ideological alignment. While in his early collection of essays Imaginary Homelands (1991) the author attempts to dismantle the hegemony of the ‘West’, adopting a postcolonial perspective which strives to erase binaries, in Step Across This Line (2002) his assumptions appear fundamentally different. By invoking a number of bipolarisations which consider the world in terms of the two opposing factions, the US against Others, good versus evil, Rushdie appears to embrace the rhetoric of the administration of George Bush, evident in the ‘mainstream US media responses to the events of September 11’.12 Mondal explains that Rushdie’s ideological transition indicates a renewed perception of geo-political space: ‘the globe is now a singular […] space […] and appears ubiquitously’. Fictions articulate the existence of cultural/epistemological rather than geo-political borders: ‘not once, however do [the principal tropes of The Ground Beneath her Feet] refer to the borders between nation-states or other political entities’. Without transcending the concrete spatiality of these texts, Rushdie ← 7 | 8 → considers Bombay, London and New York as ‘nodal points of a frontier-less – and largely post-national space’.13

In addition to boundary crossing, transference and dislocations as direct results of a widespread feeling of uncertainty inherent in the human condition, I want to argue that the emphasis on the Global North, in particular on New York as a symbol of US-centric globalisation, is strictly dependent on the new orientations of South Asian immigration. Both Mondal and King have pointed out that these fictions consider the hegemonic role of the US ‘as the world’s only current superpower’ not only in the Global North but also in the Global South. As discussed both in Chapter 5 and 6, just like the US, post-liberalisation Mumbai becomes a synecdoche for the country’s self-fashioning as a global superpower. From 1998 to 2004 India’s endorsement of economic liberalisation was marked by a free market economic policy of non-intervention and the expansion of foreign investment. It was felt that the country could compete with a global super power of the calibre of the US. The emphasis on foreign investment also reinforced the links with the diasporic communities overseas, acting as intermediaries of the globalisation processes in the South. In diasporic texts and films of the period, Bombay becomes a textualised space that represents, using Kumar’s words, the ‘opposed modernities’ of India (BL 51), where extreme poverty and wealth coexist and collide.

Positing the texts analysed in a time frame that goes from the mid-1990s to the present allows for an investigation of urban space that accounts for post-liberalisation India’s increased links with the diasporic communities in the North, the overall effects of US-centric economic globalisation evidenced by the centrality of New York and the legacies of the colonial past. The ‘interurban trajectory’14 of Bombay, London and New York locates the metropolitan poles of the South Asian diaspora as points of arrival and departure for the movement of ‘objects, people and ideas’. Without wanting to cover the totality of the South Asian diasporic urban experience, the texts selected capture the historical significance that Bombay, ← 8 | 9 → London and New York have acquired in shaping notions of national and transnational identity. As with Kumar’s task, the cities in this book are literary constructions objectifying the multiple homes inhabited by the South Asian diaspora. Using Kumar’s words, ‘this book is primarily about how we read’ (BL 1); it is a literary journey that defers to a number of real and imaginary locations, what Avtar Brah would call ‘homing desire’. In Cartographies of Diaspora (1996), she argues that the desire to find a ‘home’ does not correspond to a specific national territory, a fixed place of origin. Home is primarily ‘a mythic place of desire in the diasporic imagination’.15 Developing this idea further, Joel Kuortti draws attention to this process as ‘a construction of multi-locality’, the ability to find a home beyond established geographical, physical and psychological boundaries.16 Literature is where authors locate an extremely mobile and contradictory conception of urban space as ‘home’. The authors’ and their characters’ relocations across the metropolitan centres are emblematic of a world which is increasingly becoming frontier-less. Rushdie suggests that a literary map of the city becomes ‘a map of the world’.17 Locating cities at the crossroads of a number of real and imaginary locations shows the potential of fiction as an act of subversion. As Iain Chambers puts it succinctly:

Art [defers to] the aesthetic (and ethics) of disturbance [revealing] a gap, an interval in the world, that signals a limit and establishes a transit, a passage elsewhere [here] art as interruption […] brings to light our prescribed state – its limits in time and space – while also opening the possibility of revisiting, reciting, and resisting languages elsewhere.18

← 9 | 10 → Art is consigned to language in which both vocal and written utterances create a ‘grammar of expectancy’. The reader/observer/listener is constantly confronted with the necessity to create and look for connections ‘which cannot and should not be made’.19 This understanding of art punctuates and interrupts the homogenous temporality and spatiality of the West to reveal a gap in which the ‘prescribed’ is replaced by the ‘inscribed’. As with Gianni Vattimo’s thesis, theoretical syntax de-provincialises and dislocates the Occidental view of the world.20 Chambers suggests that in ‘breaching the borders of the local and the familiar to travel in a space authorized by language, the ethical and the aesthetic are radically reconfigured’.21

Through a combination of the ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘ethical’, this book re-maps the ‘beyond’ of Bombay, London and New York in contemporary South Asian diasporic literature. The locations associated with the ‘South Asian framework’ of analysis, Jigna Desai argues, include vast areas connected by similar histories and economies.22 The label also seeks to consider a wide plethora of political and religious antinomies under the rubric of a utopian commonality. In Desai’s view, the strategic alignment with South Asian identity dismantles India’s cultural hegemony.23 The term is used as a heuristic device to explain the idea of commonality and difference underlying the diverse regions that constitute the South Asian framework of analysis.

Similarly, this book employs the ‘interurban trajectory’ of Bombay, London and New York as a heuristic point of reference to discuss the same ideas of commonality and difference inherent in the use of the label South Asian. Through a number of fictional, non-fictional texts, films and documentaries written from either the UK or the US, I investigate urban space in relation to socio-economic shifts, focusing on the process that transforms cities into multiple homes.

← 10 | 11 → Neo-diasporic Formations and the Interurban Trajectory of Bombay, London and New York

The postcolonial cities of the South Asian diaspora discussed in this book are shaped by the ‘movement’ of both characters and authors. Salman Rushdie, Amitava Kumar, Hanif Kureishi, Pankaj Mishra, Amit Chaudhuri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Suketu Mehta, Vikram Chandra, Aasif Mandvi and Kiran Desai all share a common South Asian diasporic legacy, as they were born either in the Indian subcontinent or to Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi parents in the UK or the US. All the texts analysed include at least one relocation to either London or New York, with Bombay frequently (but not always) a point of departure or return. Their chronological arrangement functions as a template to investigate the development of the new South Asian diasporic trends: post-war immigration to Britain, new destinations and relocations, the entrance into the US and the social disparities of diasporas at the beginning of the new millennium.

Central to my argument is the experience of translation, how it affects the process of imagining the home country from abroad and how it calls into question established orthodoxies of national belonging in the diasporic locations of London or New York.24 The cities investigated in this book are often discussed alongside the position they occupy in relation to their respective countries at a particular historical conjuncture, one that evidences ← 11 | 12 → the increased links between the Global North and South shaped by the forces of colonialism and globalisation. I want to position the idea of movement in the context of the South Asian diasporic formations that has been influential to this book and explain my approach to the interurban trajectory of Bombay, London and New York.


X, 281
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
literatures in English Bollywood cinema Salmon Rushdie Hanif Kureishi Vikram Chandra Bharati Mukherjee Aasif Mandvi South Asian diaspora Suketu Mehta Jhumpa Lahiri
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 282 pp.

Biographical notes

Maria Ridda (Author)

Maria Ridda is Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, and at the University of Kent. Her main research areas are postcolonial theory and contemporary South Asian writing with a focus on the city. She has published articles and essays on South Asian diasporic literature, Bollywood cinema and Italian postcolonialism.


Title: Imagining Bombay, London, New York and Beyond