· Gnanaseelan, J. (2010). . Puthiya Panuval : An International Journal of Tamil Studies, Chennai - 600 005, India. Vol 2, No 01, ISSN: 0975 – 6213 ; available at
The “Translocal” Nationalism of the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora:
A Reading of Selected Short Stories of V.N. Giridharan *
The Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora has a strong presence now in North America, Europe, etc; The ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka necessitated migration since the mid 1980s. Like many modern diasporic communities, the Sri Lankan Tamil community has developed linkages between the diaspora and their homeland, as well as between different diasporic settlements across the world as part of the diaspora’s “translocal” political practices (Appadurai, 1996). The characters in the stories of V.N.Giridharan are culturally alienated and ethno-politically helpless and guilty; that is, living in Canada, materially well off, they can neither feel real oneness with nor participate in the Srilankan Tamils’ cultural collective living in the homeland, and their determined struggle against human right violation, political discrimination and exploitation. A strong feeling of empathy and guilt pervades their living. Though the stories do not directly narrate incidents to bring this out, the narrative features of these stories bring out the social psychological causes entrenched in the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora, expressing their transnationalism and translocal politics.
Article Type: Conference Paper
Key words: Diaspora, nationalism, ‘translocal’ politics, identity, cultural and political alienation, conflict
*Paper presented at the UGC National Seminar Session on “Issues of Identity and Culture in Recent Asian Diasporic Fiction”: Department of English, New College, Chennai-14, on March 13th and 14th 2007.
** Dr. Gnanaseelan Jeyaseelan is a Lecturer of the Vavuniya Campus of the University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, firstname.lastname@example.org
A growing Canadian writer in Tamil, V.N. Giridharan, places the reader of his short stories in the isolated Northern American dominated culture of Canada as well as in the struggling homeland soil in Sri Lanka. His exploration of the effects of asylum-seeking as well as immigration in Canada on the most vital and cherished components of traditional Tamil culture and Tamil homeland of Sri Lanka – from where he had moved to Toronto at a very early age – is pervaded by wry irony and satire. His treatment of character, however, is not without pathos and a prescription for cultural enervation and eventual prevalence of translocal consciousness which is, as explored by Sriskandarajah (2004), the consciousness of
“linkages within the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora so that, despite being numerically small and geographically dispersed, it has emerged as a vocal and influential force in shaping political developments in Sri Lanka. The diaspora’s economic, cultural, and political importance in relation to the Tamil community in Sri Lanka has also increased.” (p.496)
Further he succinctly demonstrates the causes behind the boom of these literary and non-literary support by observing that
“the collective self-identification of a diaspora as a distinct community in a triadic relationship with host society and home society also has political implications. Collectively, the diaspora community is strategically positioned to engage in both immigrant politics (say, to better its situation within the host society) and homeland politics (say, to better the situation in the land left behind). The latter, a form of “translocal” political involvement, has come to be labeled as ‘long-distance nationalism’ (Anderson, 1998) or ‘diaspora nationalism.’” (ibid. p.496)
These themes are perhaps more relevant today than ever before since the Canadian Tamil population is undoubtedly better able now to empathize with certain tensions informing the migrant experience as V.N.Giridharan depicts it. Perhaps his stories are the illustrations of Sollors’ description of the complex psychology of national and ethnic affiliation, "ethnicity ... is a matter not of content, but of the importance that individuals ascribe to it" (1986).
The short stories translated by Latha Ramakrishnan are under analysis here. The writer is a novelist in Canada. He has his publications in Tamil Nadu as well. Indira Parthasarathy, a popular writer of Tamilnadu, had included the story ‘Co (w)untry Issue’ in the book titled ‘Paniyum Panaiyum’ (‘The Snow and The Palmyra’). The Singapore Government had prescribed his novel ‘Pondhu Paravaigal’ (Birds of burrow’) for the students of Tamil. In addition, he is the editor of a literary website: pathivukal.com.
History of Sri Lankan Diaspora
The origin of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora could be traced back to the Northeast of Sri Lanka, called Ceylon during the colonial period. While Sri Lanka’s total population (around 20 million) is differentiated along ethnic, linguistic, religious, and regional lines, the Sri Lankan Tamils are identified as a distinct community. However, it is in the context of growing political conflict in Sri Lanka that the formation of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora numbering around 7,00,000 should be seen. In the decades after independence, rivalry between the island’s minority Sri Lankan Tamils and the Majority Sinhalese became the source of intense violent confrontation. The Sinhalese perceived the Tamils to have been a privileged minority during the colonial rule and began to discriminate against the Tamils in the Sinhalese-dominated state apparatus. Several incidents of anti-Tamil violence, such as the 1983 riots in the capital Colombo that resulted in the death of an estimated 3,000 Tamil civilians, led to fear and anxiety among the Tamils that their human security was at stake in Sri Lanka. Consequently, the island descended into a separatist civil war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and several Tamil militant groups, which turned much of the northeast into a war zone (Sriskandarajah, 2004). In its first two decades, Sri Lanka’s civil war claimed at least 60,000 lives directly, and resulted in death, destruction and displacement in the northeast. These insecure situations forced the Tamils to seek asylums in the West. Sriskandarajah (2004) says that it is likely, therefore, that one in every four Sri Lankan Tamils now lives outside Sri Lanka and that as many as one in every two Sri Lankan Tamils has been displaced.
Canada has experienced the heaviest influx of immigrants with many recent immigrants having come from the nations of Asia. These Asians are typically faced with varying degrees of prejudice, resistance, and exclusion from the dominant culture and must also straggle to find a space for their own indigenous tradition and ideology in the new home. These have become increasingly prominent literary themes. The quest for self-definition and the generational divide among members of first and second generation Tamil immigrant families and communities have encouraged many to revisit the homeland during the recent Ceasefire Agreement period (2002). R. Dharani (2004), a critic writing on V.N.Giridharan’s fiction has this to say:
There is an other group of writers who represent the tenuous nature of freedom of the Tamils and tend to reflect not only of the deep and sturdy roots of their struggle in an alien land, but also of the growing and deep felt need of Tamils, living as political refugees to go back to their roots - in search of their own identity. Some had given expression to this need in English. The literature of these people is called ‘Pulam Peyarnthor Literature’ (the literature of the expatriates). (www.geotamil.com/ctamils/R_DHARANI_ON_VNG.htm)
V.N.Giridharan reveals the altered fiber of a community that has tried to adhere rigidly to the traditional ideals of an idealized Tamil culture in a North American nation that physically serves as home, yet remains insistently alien. Recognizing the ambiguity of the boundaries of diaspora, he presents the plight of the diaspora which can not still feel a homeland as a place that has to be imagined by nurturing a sense of communal distinctiveness, socially though not geographically. Under these circumstances, the imagination of "home", however, does not have to take the shape of a particular community rooted in a particular sort of place, whereas modernist theories of nation conceptualize nations as a particular community rooted in a specific place, geography, or physical setting (Billig 1995).
Whenever the homeland people who have their relatives and friends in the immigrated countries contact them over the phone or letter, the immigrants never fail to express emptiness, a sense of boredom resulting from the mechanized life style and a reservation to mingle with the host community resisting assimilation into their socio-cultural framework. Though they express a yearning to be in their mother land within their familiar social and physical setting, their priority for personal, political and economic security lures them to settle in these new lands.
The long-hour monotonous odd jobs and labors do not satisfy their fundamental longings for socio-cultural identity. They are not able to find themselves a political identity in their host countries. These are the identities which can give fulfillment and complete meaning to their personal and social life. As a result, their social conscience pushes them to see a wide gap between what they feel as a ‘wild freedom’ in their new land and what their kith and kin feel as a ‘wild fiefdom’ in the homeland. This gap creates a vacuum in life in the west and instills a thrust to practice a long distance nationalism and culture in their host land. It also persuades them to support the political struggle financially and instills in them a moral commitment to the political resistance in their homeland.
Locating the story in the homeland context
In the short story An End and A Beginning, a unique turning point takes place in the plot and theme which is very radical within the setting and the context of the socio-cultural standards of the Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. The story is about two childhood friend—a young married woman Yamuna living in Jaffna and a young bachelor Rajendra working in Colombo during the relative calm period “after the exit of foreign battalions”. During the conflict, people living within the intensive conflict affected Northeast were rarely allowed to travel to the southern Sri Lanka and those who travelled would be either employees working in the public and private sector establishments in the South, or traders or would-be migrants planning to leave the country. It would them take years to pay a visit home. It is when Rajendra comes back to his village in Jaffna from Colombo that, the story unfolds: his childhood friend Yamuna, now married and a mother of a child, is facing a family crisis due to her becoming a sexually abused victim of a soldier.
I couldn't attend her marriage at all. It was during that time when our country was full of war and bloodshed that the marriages took place and on that day many youths were taken into custody on suspicion and I was one among them. So much had happened in these two years.... so many changes have taken place. Our very life is but a warfare. A constant struggle to escape for our life... as like a warfare within a warfare and a run within the run for life... all those that have taken place... all those unwanted happenings... Today, even after the rains have stopped there is still some drizzling... (http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_story_ANENDANDBEGINNING.HTML)
Thiayagarajah, Yamuna’s husband, unable to bear the shock of his wife’s present state begins ‘treating her with utmost disdain and contempt at a time when his support and companionship were needed by her the most’. He abandons her. Rajendra cannot bear this atrocity:
Such a gloom should not have come over her' so I told myself. Anger and frustration against this damned and cursed society swelled in me. For, it is the viewpoints and thought-process of this society that have turned her so. (ibid.)
Rajendra takes a radical decision—a decision which, he knows, everybody would generally oppose, that is, to marry her.
Here, the interesting idea is that a diasporic writer fictionalizes the traditional themes of chastity of women and sanctity of marriage from a western radical point, in the setting of the Sri Lankan conflict. The writer might have acquired this radical thinking of marrying a divorced or abandoned woman, especially a mother, from his host county where this is taken for granted. It is noted that among the Sri Lankan Tamils marrying a widowed woman is an appreciable thing and many have exemplified it, but marrying an abandoned and sexually abused mother in Sri Lanka is really radical thinking! But by making the character Rajendra, who is not a migrant but a native, carry out this radical act, the writer locates his translocal radicalist thinking within the Sri Lankan society and through, the character, the writer expresses his yearning for a social transformation to take place in Sri Lanka.
Generally for the homesick immigrants, their countrywomen embody the fidelity and acceptance that elude them in a hostile new land. This nostalgia drives them to create a romanticized ideal of these women onto which they project their memories of and desire for their homeland. But in this story, the writer sees his homeland’s victimized woman from a new perspective of radical reform.
Locating the story in the diasporic Context
‘Co(w)untry Issue’ is a story about a character called Ponnaiya, who, on his way to get his vehicle serviced, sees a cow fighting for its freedom in the middle of the main road. It has escaped from the nearest slaughterhouse and is now blocking the road. Some including the slaughterhouse men are trying to chase it away from the road. Ponnaiya is really astonished to watch the cow fight to get away from these people and to be free. This evokes the memory of his own native land, where his people are treated in the same manner. Here the cow struggles for its freedom from its slaughterers and wants to go back where it lives with its family. The choice for the cow is to oppose the crowd or be put into the slaughterhouse again. Ponnaiya finds it a heart-rending because he too has witnessed its pathetic situation and empathizes with the cow:
Poor cow, it is not able to realize the tenuous nature of the freedom it has won, and that is why it is struggling with all its might to protect this freedom". And he couldn't help thinking of those in his native land. "How many are there who are exactly in the same situation as this cow? There are those who escape in a haphazard manner and then are caught again, and those who, unable to find any way, die where they are.
He wants to buy the cow and take it to his own apartment, but knows that would be impossible. Further, he identifies his life in the living is similar with the present plight of the cow. He realizes that he cannot help it in this land, which is not really ‘his’. If it had been Jaffna, he could tie the cow in the backyard thus saving it from these slaughterers, but it is not possible in his narrow apartment. At last, the tragedy comes to an end when the cow is shot with a tranquilliser and taken to the slaughterhouse again. Ever after, Ponnaiya feels strongly for the cow. Its determined fight for freedom makes him vow not to eat meat in future as he had done while in Sri Lanka. There is a symbolic allusion to the oppressive forces of the Sri Lankan majoritarianism and the indifferent attitude of the International Community towards the Tamil’s plight:
The cow is involving in a life or death struggle, fighting to save its life. There's one part of the crowd to overpower it and do away with it, another part to enjoy watching the excitement, another to photograph it, and also fourth that is indifferent or impotent to do anything!
Further the spread of slaughterhouses alludes to the increase in oppressive violent forces on the globe in various forms: on ethnic, colour, and religious lines. The narrator reveals that the diasporic community has a necessity to accept and adapt to these forces in the globe:
On the left side, the Beef Packers slaughterhouse has spread, occupying a vast space. A great, grand butcher house stood there where hundreds of cows were put to death and cut to pieces every day. By nature, Ponnaiya was kind -hearted. He would prefer to love one and all living beings. As long as he was in his native place he had remained a strict Vegetarian. But after coming here, he gradually changed. Yet for the kind of climate prevailing here, if man is not to eat meat he would be gone in no time! (ibid.)
The story ‘Manhole’ unfolds the tragic tale of the life of most of the refugees who live in the manholes. There are two characters—an Indian Refugee, and a Nigerian taxi-driver, who is happy to address himself as ‘chief’.
“What of me… I’m always ok,” saying so he laughed. The person standing next to him also laughed. He was a real chief. In his motherland Nigeria there were some three thousand persons under him relying on him for their very livelihood. He belonged to one of those ancient clans of Nigeria. Every time they would send documents for his approval. The people not know of his taxi driving here. If they know they wouldn’t leave him here. So he would say. He had said once that so many other chiefs were also driving cabs. (http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_story_manhole.html)
The pain of living away from the homeland is reflected in a different perspective, which includes the blacks, and the Indians in addition to Sri Lankan Tamils. The empathy shown mutually among them is really heartening. What binds them together is the identity crisis of living as refugees doing odd jobs. They were well off in their country with social respect and they found some meaning in life over there. The mysterious Sami (saint) sitting on the manhole, looking sarcastically at the Parliament building, is an apt description of symbolic value, decrying the significance it has to ‘the real natives’ of Canada and the callous disregard for the refugees settled in the country politically, culturally, and economically.
“Hi, chief…..How are you?” asked he. An African chief was enquiring after the welfare of a Canadian chief. The tribes of Sami were once the rulers of the entire continent of America. One of the heir-apparents to a clan that reigned supreme. Today they live a marginalised existence of minority within the minority. (ibid.)
The refugees have to find their own ways of survival in the distant wealthy land which alienates them individually and collectively, not recognizing or valuing their identities at all levels—human, familial, social, political, cultural and economic ‘living and being’ in Canada. Wit and humour are displayed in the native white Canadians calling everybody–no matter which part of South Asia they come from–‘Indians’. This mere over-generalized, indifferent naming suppresses or hides the diversity of linguistic, ethnic, national, religious and social identities they have. At last, Sami dies in the manhole itself in isolation, devoid of any respect and meaning either for his living or for his dying. Only the refugees feel pity for the fellow-refugees, nobody else. The story winds up with a paradoxical juxtaposition of the glowing light of the Ontario Parliament building with that of the darkness of the manhole.
The story ‘Husband’ further illustrates the condition of migrant labourers doing odd and ordinary jobs in these lands of hope and prosperity. In a code language they have evolved among themselves, ‘playing guitar’ means ‘washing the dishes’ in a restaurant. Here the dish-washer recalls his friendship with Greeks, before coming to the restaurant. He identifies his Tamil people with the Greeks in talking about their past glory. The narrator is now exposed to the vagaries of winter in Toronto. This strange and extreme physical climatic condition is compared with the figurative climate of conflict in his homeland. He begins to think of his homeland nostalgically.
The way our men are being ruined it is all because of our country’s prevailing climate. It is this climate that forces every one of us to run hither and thither for shelter. This is the source of all kind of problems. Therefore, if our country’s condition could improve then all the mischiefs and mismanagement would rapidly go down’, so another friend was reasoning out. (http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_story_husband.html)
The story also focuses on the suspicion of the narrator about his wife. This points to the psychologically and culturally torn situation of immigrant male refugees whose spouses, while being illegally smuggled in, are, many a time, sexually harassed or abused by the agents of the illegal human trafficking. This creates suspicions among the males who are continue to map their cultural identity exclusively on to the chastity of women and thus, hesitate to marry non-Tamils. Ironically, this too forces them to morally support the cultural revival, one of the many offshoots of the Tamil nationalist struggle in Sri Lanka.
In the story The Homeless, the narrator encounters a bushy moustached middle aged South African man, Clarke who holds a plastic container with a label written as 'Clarke for Toronto Mayor'. The man is determined to contest the election of Toronto Mayor though he is homeless and dwells on the streets. This surprises the narrator and, on further inquiry, the South African reveals the secondary treatment the refugees get here. By winning the election, he hopes to fight for the emancipation of the refugees in the city. The narrator, amused at his decision, compares his saying to a lunatic’s statement taken from a fictional Sri Lankan comic story, but finally realizes his worth. “Though Toronto city is bustling with activities, the narrator perceives it in chaos”. Thus, he alienates himself from this immediate environment and views the brave albeit poor Clarke as a rebel fighting against the injustice meted out to them. The narrator identifies his social homelessness with Clarke’s physical homelessness. Clarke’s determination to fight back symbolizes the Tamils’ determination to fight back in their homeland. In the past he had been a drug seller and a pimp but now he is a changed man. He says:
Then only I came to realize that life is not just money. Now, my one and only aim in life is to love all my fellow-beings. Love them all sincerely and in all seriousness. You don't know. Moreover." - He stopped. "Why did you stop?" asked I eagerly. "If I am to go past, crossing this signal I will be stopped. And, advices would be handed over to me, unasked. If I were to be seen by the policemen they won't leave me. They won't leave you too. But, do you think that such a situation would befall a white-man? The immigrants, minorities are all so much affected and suffer a lot. I should help them all. And that's why I am going to stand in this election. (http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_story_homeless.html)
Like Clarke, he too yearns for a change in the life style of the diasporic community! It symbolizes a thrust for altered socio-cultural and translocal political practices in Canada. The narrator says:
This great city, despite all these years spent here, has never failed to supply me with new, different experiences every day. Its mysterious self seems something that can never fully apprehended. So much so that it drove me to coin a new proverbs saying that the real depth of this city indeed be deeper than the great grand sea itself. (ibid.)
Here, he is struck by both the positives and the negatives of the city life in the West. The diversity of human identity seems to him really a diversion from a real life purpose for people like him–the asylum seekers. The development seems to him a subtle discrimination against the powerless, the landless, the homeless, and the jobless. In this story, the writer insists on the concerns of the diasporic literary writers addressing the issues of the land of settlement relating to the diasporic community as being apart from the concerns of traditional immigrant literature, which has become suspect precisely through its tendency to reinvent "nationalism" in order "to substantiate politically motivated feelings of peoplehood" (Sollors, 1986).
In the story titled Mice, the narrator encounters the problems of cockroaches in his apartment first, and later, when he moves with his family to another apartment, he encounters the problems of rats. To pacify his wife, who complains about this, and to safeguard his child, he tries to catch the mice using mousetraps. One day, he stealthily watches the movement of a mouse and its attempts at reaching the food at the dining table by working hard to climb the table. Philosophically, he reflects and wonders at its determination, speed and hard work in attaining its objective. This story bears many symbolic allusions to the Sri Lankan Tamil conflict and the revival of their language and culture. His wife symbolizes the revival of their language and culture in Canada; for, the narrator says:
Within six months from setting foot in Canada the mother tongue becomes kind of alien to many. But even after six years my wife continues to speak in uncontaminated pure Jaffna Tamil. If I spoke of those who’ve forgotten Tamil “that is all humbug…dirty presentation.” so, she would say. (http://www.geotamil.com/ctamils/vng_story_mice.html)
He finds a similarity between the struggle of the mouse and the struggle of the Tamil refugees in Canada to establish themselves and that of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. He reflects:
Every life in the world tries and tries hard all through its existence. As like this mouse or as like me, we can say. Because war has come to be, since the day of leaving our land what all efforts in what all ways…If one turns out not ok another attempt. Even if one succeeds, one more trial. What a wonderful, great grand world. A world full of mystery.(ibid.)
While describing the struggle of the mouse, he uses many conflict terms to allude to the struggle of the Tamils: unbearable troubles, attaining the grace to accept defeat and valiantly moving over, untold agonies, added to our woes, to find some solution to this burning problem, to meet in the battlefield, various strategies awarded for victory in warfare, to know about our enemies, The more we gather valuable information about them the easier their capture could be. He wonders at the constant, repeated struggle of the mouse:
Sometimes it might succeed in its attempts. Sometimes it might not. But it didn’t seem to be the type which would get disheartened by failures and stop trying. Till the final victory is achieved or till it falls down utterly exhausted it would surely continue its efforts. What an awe-inspiring will power in this tiny piece of life. What grit and determination!(ibid.)
The short story ‘Where are you from?’ deals with the critical issue of political alienation. The immediate question the ‘native’ White Canadians the immediate question ask whenever they meet asylum-seekers is, “Where are you from?” Here too, the narrator, a taxi owner cum driver, encounters two ‘natives’ asking this question. The narrator, now a Canadian citizen in a legal sense—it has been ten years since he came from Sri Lanka—is sickened by this socio-culturally painful question, which reminds him of the bitter truth that the immigrants don’t belong to this land. He does counteract the natives by asking them the same question, for they too came here as settlers some centuries ago. However, while attempting to reveal the bias of the ‘natives’ towards the non-natives in terms of the land of origin, the writer also wants to reveal another hard fact—that the recently settled asylum seekers too are biased because they ask the same question when they meet a fellow immigrant from Sri Lanka; thus exposing the fact that they do not identify themselves with the land in which they have settled. The writer might indeed be warning us that "unless identity politics can transcend the nation, escaping the bounds of the homeland, the radicalism of the challenge to old images and narratives is critically constrained within the assumption of nationalism" (Gilroy, 1993).
The hard, indigestible fact is that after having experienced discriminatory treatment on ethnic and racist lines in Sri Lanka, this Srilankan Tamil diaspora faces the same treatment again not only on ethnic and racist grounds but also on colour lines. This is the underlying cause for their positive as well as negative translocal political practices. On the whole, these prevalent conditions in Canada have made them feel culturally and politically alienated and induce them to engage in translocal nationalist practices which give vent to their pent up, suppressed feeling. However, the characters portrayed in these stories are located neither "here" nor "there" but in an increasingly hybrid space. Therefore, V.N. Giridharan’s work is an instance of the new "intermittent time and interstitial space" in literary studies (Bhabha,1990).
Diasporic literary writing, therefore, has been a medium of relief for these culturally alienated. The literary writers too practise this translocal nationalism through their creative work. V.N. Giridharan’s (2004) statement on his literary career provides an appropriate conclusion to the arguments of this paper:
Based on my own experiences as a migrant and at the same time having the plight and problems of my country as the focal points my writings have taken shape. As regards my Tamil writings of today that has left its soil and survive in an alien land, it leads a life in a world that hangs suspended, struggling to come to terms with life in between the strange climate of the land that has given them shelter and the memories of their motherland. As I too belong to this hanging suspended generation I cannot help but depict the living conditions of the land of refuge' and also the plight and perils of my motherland. The problem of color is a very important issue that one has to face in an immigrant existence. It is something that every immigrant is bound to face. Our generations of tomorrow are also to undergo this situation.
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