Monday, March 02, 2009

"Indian": Perhaps the most abused term in history

VS Naipaul explains why in his brilliant essay East Indian*:
…this word Indian has been abused as no other word in the language; almost every time it is used it has to be qualified. There was a time in Europe when everything Oriental or everything a little unusual was judged to come from Turkey or India. So Indian ink is really Chinese ink and India paper first came from China. When in 1492, Columbus landed on the island of Guanahani he thought he had got to Cathay. He ought therefore to have called the people Chinese. But East was East. He called them Indians, and Indians they remained, walking Indian file through Indian corn. And so, too, that American bird which to English-speaking people is the turkey is to the French, le dindon, the bird of India.

So long as Indians remained on the other side of the world, there was little confusion. But when in 1845 these Indians began coming over [as indentured laborers] to some of the islands Columbus had called the Indies, confusion became total...

But what were these immigrants to be called? Their name had been appropriated three hundred and fifty years before. “Hindu” was a useful word, but it had religious connotations and would have offended the many Muslims among the immigrants. In the British territories the immigrants were called East Indians. In this way, they were distinguished from the two other types of Indians on the islands: the American Indians and the West Indians. After a generation or two, the East Indians were regarded as settled inhabitants of the West Indies and were thought of as West Indian East Indians. Then a national feeling grew up. There was a cry of national integration, and the West Indian East Indians became East Indian West Indians.

This didn’t suit the Dutch. They had a colony called Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, on the north coast of South America. They also owned a good deal of the East Indies [Indonesia], and to them an East Indian was someone who came from the East Indies and was of Malay stock. (When you go to an Indian restaurant in Holland, you don’t go to an Indian restaurant; you go to an East Indian or Javanese restaurant.) In Surinam there were many genuine East Indians from the East Indies. So another name had to be found for the Indians from India who came to Surinam. The Dutch called them the British Indians. Then, with the Indian nationalist agitation in India, the British Indians began to resent being called British Indians. The Dutch compromised by calling them Hindustanis.
Hilarious, isn’t it?

*East Indian is an essay in the collection Literary Occasions, by VS Naipaul


pdileepa said...

Have been a regular reader of your blog -- you do a great job with it!

Are you on Twitter, at all?

Hari said...

Thanks much, Dileepa (if I have you name right!) Do keep visiting! I have been contemplating twittering, but haven't quite gotten to it. Also, wasn't sure how it exactly it would be useful.

pdileepa said...

It's worth giving Twitter a try, at least as a means to let more people know about your blog (not suggesting spamming tweeters :) )

And yes, you got my name right! It's Dileepaaaaaa :)