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How to Listen to the Peripheries?

By Jahnabi Mitra

On 28th June 2017, Hamilton released a song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done).” The video of this particular song starts with people crammed in a storage box of a train. They look like individuals from several races across the world. The storage box is dark and has no seats and no order. We see images of people squatting, sitting on storage boxes, children hanging hopefully to the adult’s arms, and faces tinctured with hope and despair at the same time. We hear an announcement on the radio stating – “…it is really astonishing that in a country founded by immigrants, “immigrant” has somehow become a bad word. So, the debate rages on and we continue…”

A quarter past into the prelude of the song, we are transported to a dungeon-like space which are imagined places of where these immigrants live. They sleep in bunk beds. They wake up to broken clocks, at a time before the white collared workers get up and go to work. And where do they go to work? The ones without documents, the ones without formal education, the ones without social security numbers, and probably false visas – where do they go to work? Seamstresses sewing the USA flag, butchers working in cold storage, orange pickers in orchards, dishwashers and cleaners in restaurants, janitors in schools, the housekeeping staff, the nurse, the nanny, the construction worker, the drycleaning staff – these are the jobs that the immigrants are portrayed to be carrying out in the video song.

It would have been convenient for me to bracket each of these jobs under the label of unskilled labour, but I chose not to, because terminologies have the power to remove nuances and also negate their corresponding histories. In montage, we hear these immigrants humming in unison “we’re America’s ghost writers, the credit’s only borrowed.”

Who is an Immigrant?

When we hear the word “immigrant”, our mind’s eye floods with images of the people in distress or images of refugees in shelters; people crying, people caught in statelessness, people without a stable ground to call their own and people struggling. Be it legal or illegal, forced or wilful, when we hear “immigrant” our mind does not discriminate while conjuring up this psychic image before us.

And perhaps this struggle is real.

But there is also an alternative narrative. While there is a formal definition of an immigrant which constitutes mostly of discourses on forced migration, I am talking about the immigrant who despite the costs of migration has the zeal to move. The migrants who move for change, to reinvent identities and the ‘self’ in question are what bring to light the nuances of the question who this this immigrant is. Wilful migration despite illegal methods used is the collective we want to hear the voices of here.

To understand what I mean by this desire and courage, Zizek’s thoughts on this is a good place to start. In his “stream-of-consciousness” manner of speaking, he states that when we think of immigrants, we think of distressed people who are under terrible socio-political conditions, but in reality, it takes courage to immigrate.

The ones in the lowest rungs do not think about getting out of their current state of existence. It takes a few hundred dollars and courage and an agent who helps you move – legally or illegally. So, it’s mostly the law breakers, the criminals and dealers who are actually ‘able’ to cross the borders. We need these people in our economy.  (In loose transcription) 

Why do we really move?

One way of answering this question of why we move would be to state that we do so to survive; survival from existing trauma, violence, war, and law. However, we also move because of our desire. The large population representing the Indian diaspora is the culmination of this desire.

Desire embodied in capitalist goals of ambition, fame, and wealth and the seldom talked about desire to change the ‘self’. The rising number of legal immigrations is an embodiment of all that capitalism glorifies, i.e., longer working hours, discontinuation of communally rooted identities, and staggering increase of people living isolated lives, a moving away from relational ties established in childhood, caste and class barrier, from known to the unknown. In the book On Borrowed Words, Ivan Stavans writes, “Isn’t immigration, by definition, a search for a different self?” This illustrates that movement and shift might not be elementarily about fulfilment of basic needs but also about hopes and dreams.

In January 2021, we read the news of a Gujrati family of four freezing to death while crossing the US-Canada border. A closer look into the report takes us into the world proud Gujarati families who hold closely the legacy of people who ‘escaped’ their native place. Similarly, households in Punjab boast of having at least one relative abroad. Households hold dearly connoisseurs and memorabilia of their NRI cousins and children. About four million Sikhs living outside India, Canada, and the USA, is an answer to dreams and deprivations born in Punjab. While Sikh immigration was catalysed by the relaxed immigration policies in Canada and promised job opportunities by agents in the late 1800’s, the partition as well 1984 anti-Sikh riots across the country gave further impetus to their wish to migrate. Immigration dreams precipitate into incidents of contractual marriages in Punjab, where the wife with good English proficiency immigrates to study abroad, gets a job and ‘rescues’ the rest of the family from India.

The interviews and vlogs of Punjabis residing in Brampton capture the collective voice of this capitalist hunger. Gujarati families paying in lakhs to agents to ‘cross the border’ quite literally by walking is not the deprived immigrant that we tend to imagine. These migrant communities do not move from conditions of lack to abundance but many move from good conditions to ‘promised better’.

And what is this better? An economist would ignore the psychic space of an individual immigrating but ‘lack of opportunities’ is perhaps a too simplistic reasoning passed around. The images that conjure up in the minds of the immigrants, when they imagine ‘migrating’ to a city or state or a country, are the only reality that provides us a peep into why immigrants migrate despite xenophobia, racism, colorism, and general fear of the other. When I say the desire to enter a psychic space, what I mean is to enter a different soundscape and visual space of the other. When one escapes India, one escapes the sounds of neighbours shouting in the afternoon hours, vendors on the streets, maids creating elaborate noise of utensils to portray functionality, street noises and all the sounds that play in our unconscious when we imagine Indian neighbourhoods. A promised visual landscape of first world countries is a collective desire in the global southeast. What changes as one imagines their desired country of immigration? The psyche transports them to a new space with textural quality, colour schemes, architectural planes, the nature-man symbiosis, smell that hits the memory of place unknown and yet somewhat sanitised and sharp in its flavour. And finally, there exists a desire of the capitalist body to live in materialistic abundance; not necessarily personal abundance but ‘being with’ materialistic abundance.

An article on The Wire writes in detail about this phenomenon where individuals with professional degrees do not hesitate to wait tables at chain restaurants in America. I see it as a desire of the west, rather than a desire for opportunity.

What I find common between legal and illegal immigrants is this creation of a phantastical world in the psyche before the movement, and it continues to exist in a migrant’s mind and body that is an escape from the current reality. This fantasy in the migrant body doesn’t touch the social reality and constantly behaves in compensatory ways to reach that fulfilment but is never quite able to reach it. Clients in my therapy session who migrate from rural to urban, semi-urban to metropolis state that their move was motivated by a need to find themselves, what they themselves often state as “a search for a different self.”  

If you could live anywhere, where would you choose to live?

Perhaps, a commonly encountered statement is, “If you could live anywhere, where would you choose to live?” The statement undoubtedly points towards class privilege where a person can “choose to move.” Yet choice is exercised by the lower middle class and lower class too when they dare to move despite socio-political forces working against them. Choice mobilised by lower class dreams to break into the upper echelons of society while still struggling to afford the middle-class life. And some of these dreams and desires that convert into a need over time, make one transgress boundaries – literally and metaphorically. Understanding that migration has much to do with class, caste, and capitalism, much beyond generic forced migration narrative, helps us see the matter in an empathetic way.

Well, we do not come close to empathy for their narratives. To be honest what we come close to is an emotion closer to pity. It is the pity we see in the eyes of white patriarchs for the brown skinned who had to cross the border to have what they already had. It is also the look in the eyes of elite India who have to bear the rural migrants every day for their everyday petty tasks. The eyes of the privileged across listen to the voices of the other in either a dehumanised or exoticized fashion.

But what would help us to truly empathise? Will acknowledging that refugees are in fact created and we part of the process, help us change the lens? If we acknowledge that we all are equally vulnerable to the state’s power to strip us away from our existent positions of citizenship, will that help us listen to what immigrant narratives are actually trying to tell us? 

Where can I look for their narrative?

A few days back I took an auto home when the driver kept apologising to me for not knowing the routes properly. I myself didn’t know the routes well and had to look at Google maps to guide him. Despite my efforts, I guided him wrong. The driver took it on himself and said – “Apka baat alag hai. Mujhe toh pata hona chahiye” (It’s different for you. I should have at least known).

What I see in their eyes, the rural-urban migrant population, is a sort of fear. Fear of being denied opportunities propel them to constantly try to prove themselves. Fear of being pushed back to prior circumstances. And this fear makes them almost apologetic; as if they are sorry to occupy public spaces…as if they are sorry to exist.

A good place to start looking for these narratives is in the slums, the jhuggis and the urban villages where even many young educated migrant professionals live. Architect and housing rights activist, Jai Sen, gave us the concept of “unintended city” – parts of the city where people live in the fringes under poor conditions. The unintended city is never part of the formal master plan but always implicit in it.

It is possible that we can draw parallels with where we start listening to migrant narratives. Sen talks about the city’s elites disregarding the urban poor as ‘parasites’, although the city is run by the parasites while the elites form the minority of the actual urban populace. A similar parallax can be drawn to the cultural narrative – the elite cannot create ‘culture’ without its parasites. The intellectuals of the modern city pick up themes to debate and theorise or create art as ‘product’ while refusing to sit in the same room as the city’s obsolete citizens.

The elite narrative of the obsolete and migrant population is the one that laces collective memory and history and goes on to live forever. But the true narrative of the obsolete is a mirror held against us because they show us how ‘we’ treat ‘them’. And perhaps this is why they have the power to unnerve us, haunt us, and make us reimagine these narratives in ways that fit the conversational codes of posh soirees. We tend to deny and dismiss immigrant narratives as much as we tend to deny caste narratives in India. Many recent dialogues point out that a high percentage of caste discourse published in India is in fact primarily published in English language publications. This is precisely the paradox of why we misunderstand and misrepresent all forms of marginal narratives.

Categorising this piece as a dialogue between the margins and the fringes is in itself problematic in re-establishing the binary of ‘us and them’. Instead, I insist on reminding ourselves of the fact that social locations are subject to state power and that ‘their’ desires are also our desires. 


My intent of starting this piece with imagery of the song “Immigrant” was to draw a psychic image for the readers. While the imagery is highly nuanced and powerful, it however continues to portray the word “immigrant” in a stereotypical manner. The way book jackets of books on refugees, war and crisis pull out generic images of people in distress – a rather “visible” distress. Not negating the fact that the distress is quite tangible, the intent of the piece then becomes one of pulling the reader out of the narrow lens and dissembling their own psychic image of who an immigrant is. 

Photo: New York Times

Jahnabi Mitra is a psychologist and works as a Research Associate. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. Previously she worked as a faculty at the Department of Psychology, The Assam Royal Global University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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