When I was a child, years before streaming services and video-on-demand brought the totality of human cinematic achievement to our fingertips, the world of media available for my consumption was for the most part limited to the collection of DVDs that lined the shelf next to the TV in my family’s living room. Because neither of my parents were particularly devoted cinephiles, our library was fairly small—my father’s James Bond and Indiana Jones box sets, my Disney classics and Dreamworks animations. Also lining the dusty shelf, however, was a small collection of Bollywood films that my parents had picked up over the years, from the Indian grocery store in our town or during occasional visits back to India.
One of these films was Swades, Ashutosh Gowariker’s award-winning 2004 drama starring Shah Rukh Khan as an Indian-born engineer living in the United States. I don’t remember how old I was when I saw it for the first time, but I remember falling in love with it almost immediately.
Early in the film, after taking a temporary leave of absence from his work at NASA, Khan’s character Mohan boards an Air India flight to return to the country of his birth in search of the woman who helped raise him—his first time going back, the audience is told, in years. As the plane begins its descent into the Delhi airport, Mohan looks out the window at the landscape below—a warm pastoral patchwork of greens and reds and browns, just visible through a haze of wispy clouds. The camera shows a close-up of Mohan’s face as the music in the background begins to swell, and we see in his eyes a look of wistful awe—perhaps even the faintest hint of a tear.
In an essay written last year for her column in Catapult Magazine, Nadya Agrawal describes the nostalgia that many immigrants feel for the countries they left behind as “a Hydra—a lashing, many-headed thing made of grief.”
As Agrawal points out in her essay, nostalgia often plays an outsized role in the lives of immigrant communities. Indeed, nostalgia is in a way baked into the very essence of diaspora itself—the word comes from the Greek diaspeirein, meaning “to scatter”, and originally referered to the displacement and dispersion of the Jewish people after the Babylonian exile. In its original usage, the term thus carried a sorrowful connotation, evoking an experience of displacement and dispossession coupled with a profound sense of yearning for that which had been lost. Even today, though it has been expanded in common parlance to refer to any scattered population whose roots remain planted in a different soil, the tumultous and often violent forces that drive global migration mean that the word has not yet been wholly rinsed of its linguistic baggage.
Given these connotations, it is not surprising that nostalgia features so prominently in the diasporic experience. As with ‘diaspora,’ a look at the origins of the term ‘nostalgia’ can tell us a great deal—first coined by a 17th-century Swiss physician to describe the “affliction” suffered by Swiss mercenaries fighting far away from their homes, the concept of nostalgia has since its inception remained closely intertwined with the experience of migration. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, nostalgia was viewed by most doctors as a psychiatric disorder that was closely linked with feelings of homesickness, and some 20th-century psychologists described nostalgia specifically as an “immigrant psychosis.”
Indian-American psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar describes immigrant nostalgia as “a poignant mixture of pain and joy,” in which “pain is evoked by the awareness of separation from the now idealized object and joy by a fantasized reunion with it through maudlin reminiscences.” This duality manifests, according to Akhtar, in two types of fantasies, which often coexist simultaneously in the immigrant imagination—the “if only” fantasy, which idealizes the life that the immigrant led before leaving their homeland and wistfully mourns what could have been had they never left, and the “someday” fantasy, which dreams of an eventual return to the homeland, whether in old age or as a final resting place. These nostalgic fantasies serve for many immigrants as a defense mechanism, a way of contending with the harsh realities of an unfamiliar (and in many cases, unwelcoming) environment by redirecting their attentions elsewhere—whether towards an imagined past, in the case of the “if only” fantasy, or an imagined future, in the case of the “someday” fantasy.
What makes nostalgia such a potent defense? Arguably, the answer lies in the very nature of memory itself, which derives its seductive power from the fact that the moments and experiences which constitute its subjects are located in the past—and therefore, by definition, are no longer with us. Their absence makes them uniquely malleable, subject to whatever interpretations and reimaginings we wish to project onto them. It is from within the space created by this absence that nostalgia extends itself to us, siren-like, simultaneously deadly and irresistible as it beckons us back into the comforts of the bygone. We flirt with it regardless, most of us aware on some unspoken level that this flirtation is not without its dangers. To give into nostalgia’s seductive draw is to risk being consumed by that seduction altogether—when we immerse ourselves too readily in the idealized, quasi-illusory images of the past that nostalgia offers us, we all too often lose the ability to discern between illusion and reality.
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In an increasingly turbulent world, the line between finding solace in nostalgia and being consumed by it is both narrow and delicate. The deeply disturbing resurgence of far-right nationalism across the globe is a sobering reminder of just how easily that line can be crossed, and how quickly the joys of nostalgia can turn sour. The central role that nostalgia plays in ultranationalist politics is well-documented—as Swedish sociologists Gabriella Elgenius and Jens Rydgren argue, nostalgia is “a key ingredient of the ethnic nationalism and populism that defines the rhetoric of the radical right.” Nationalist leaders of all stripes use nostalgia as a political tool, galvanizing their bases around mythic narratives of a so-called “golden age” that has been corrupted by an ever-expanding array of internal and external enemies. Playing on the nostalgia of their audience, they couple these narratives with messianic promises to lead the nation—that is to say, the “true” nation, purged under their benevolent leadership of foreigners, minorities, and other disloyal defilers—into a new age, where the glory that has been lost can be recouped. The most extreme version of this, of course, is outright fascism.
The weaponization of nostalgia in service of a political agenda has significant implications not just for the country whose politics are shaped by it, but for the populations elsewhere in the world who have roots in that country. While much of the popular discourse about the global resurgence of right-wing nationalism—and by extension, about the politicized nostalgia that it engenders—has focused disproportionately on the emergence of such movements in Western countries, this phenomenon can be clearly observed across the Global South as well. Given that many of the non-Western societies where chauvinistic nationalism is on the rise have far-reaching diaspora populations—including, most notably, India, whose 18 million-strong diaspora is the largest in the world—it seems inevitable that the politicized nostalgia of the motherland and the immigrant nostalgia of the diaspora should, eventually, intersect.
It’s no secret that India’s Hindu nationalist government, led by Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), enjoys broad support in the diaspora, particularly in the United States—the BJP is by far the most popular party among Indian Americans, of whom nearly half (including a vast majority of Hindu Americans) hold favorable views of Modi. In September of 2019, when Modi appeared alongside then-President Donald Trump at a massive stadium rally in Houston, Texas, the stands were packed with more than 50,000 cheering Indians. And anyone who’s ever had an argument with a Modi-supporting aunty or uncle at a Desi gathering can attest to the fervent conviction of many in the diaspora—particularly among the older generations—that the BJP is the best thing to happen to India since Independence itself.
What drives this support? It seems to me that without understanding the power of immigrant nostalgia, it is impossible to fully understand the forces underlying what Benedict Anderson termed “long-distance nationalism”—the continued engagement of diasporic communities with nationalist politics in the mother country, years and even decades after crossing borders and oceans to seek out a new life. This phenomenon is closely linked to nostalgia—as sociologist Prema Kurien writes, “the personal, cultural, and social dislocation caused by migration often strengthens immigrant nostalgia for home, which feeds into nationalist romanticism.”
If nostalgia drives immigrants to idealize and romanticize the places they left behind, then it logically follows that they should be especially drawn to the weaponized nostalgia employed by mother-country nationalists, who place the homeland on a pedestal—in the Indian case, literally deifying it—while simultanously bemoaning its degeneration under the pernicious influence of alien forces. Flag-waving stories of national pride, transmitted to the other side of the world through Facebook shares and WhatsApp forwards, play upon the rose-tinted memories of the “if only” fantasy, while fearmongering about the menace of disloyal minorities and anti-national elements threatens the imagined stability of the “someday” fantasy.
Immigrant nostalgia, in other words, is not merely cultural in scope, nor is it a purely psychological phenomenon. It is also profoundly political, capable of being mobilized in service of any number of agendas. It is extraordinarily powerful—and therefore, if seized upon by those who seek to weaponize nostalgia for hateful and chauvinistic ends, it can be extraordinarily dangerous as well.
How should we navigate this politics of longing? Some may find it tempting, given the reactionary connotations of any ethos which places such a great emphasis on the past, to distance ourselves from nostalgia and dismiss any potential it may have to form the basis of a progressive project. But despite the many pitfalls of nostalgic seduction, I’m not convinced that abandoning nostalgia altogether is right way to go. As I have written elsewhere, regardless of whatever dangers may arise from allowing ourselves to be consumed by it too fully, the fact remains that the comfort that nostalgia offers us is both unique and universal. To simply cast it aside would be to cast aside the most secure refuge that any of us knows—and in the process, to sever the most powerful ties linking the diaspora to the mother country.
The challenge, then, is not to bypass nostalgia in the process of articulating a progressive diasporic politics, but to figure out how best to engage with it. Perhaps the answer may lie, at least in part, in the fact that immigrant nostalgia looks forward as well as backward. After all, the “someday” fantasy is as much about envisioning the future as the “if only” fantasy is about idealizing the past. Perhaps we can somehow capture this forward-facing nostalgia and orient it towards a future in which the mother country has been freed from the clutches of neocolonial exploitation, its marginalized communities are no longer subjected to age-old systems of oppression, and the forces of reactionary nationalism have been overcome.
“There is a step beyond nostalgia,” Agrawal writes in her essay, “and that is creation.” In many ways, to be any sort of immigrant is to be engaged in a constant process of creation—the first generation must create home and community in an unfamiliar environment, while the second generation faces the Herculean task of creating an identity which balances the best of the two cultures between which they find themselves suspended. In the sense that reconciling nostalgia with progressive values means forging a new path forward for the diaspora, the task of navigating the politics of longing is essentially about creation—perhaps even the most urgent in a long list of creative acts that have come to define the immigrant experience.
no more mangoes is a blog by Pranay Somayajula, a London-based fiction writer and essayist. Click the button below to subscribe for free and receive new essays in your inbox:
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i loved this! i'm iranian and i can definitely see some of what you're talking about re: nostalgic nationalism in some iranian-NAs attitudes towards the "home country." great post!