Material Nostalgia in the Diaspora


Maggi noodles have been my favourite snack food for as long as I can remember. I would say that Kurkure—it looks like spicy Cheetos but tastes way better—follow closely. I loved those snacks as a kid in India, and when my family moved to Canada when I was eight years old, I was overjoyed to find out we could get them here, too. The same goes for Bollywood movies; my family has watched more Indian films in Canada than we ever would have were we still living in India.

I considered those things to be quirks of my personality. Little did I know that they were a sort of coping mechanism, a metaphorical bridge.

All this fuss over instant noodles and old movies may sound silly, but they make me comfortable and connected. In a time of growing division and personal battles with racialized identities, I’ve realized truly how much I rely on objects to make me feel like I am still Indian, even if I am thousands of miles from Mumbai.

If you Google “South Asian grocery stores GTA” you can pull up a list of dozens of shops specializing in imported South-Asian goods—everything from Indian grains and spices to Bangladeshi rice to Pakistani rose syrup. I love walking through these stores; they have aisles upon aisles of everything you could possibly need to continue eating the same food you ate when you lived in South Asia. My grandmother’s recipes have been followed in my mother’s kitchen seamlessly, because everything we need to make those dishes is available here. That is because diasporic South Asians recognized they could profit off each other’s connectedness to South Asian culture.

These stores sell more than just food. Lining the metal racks are bootleg Bollywood movie DVDs—sometimes in black plastic cases with homemade cover art, and other times in square white envelopes with a sticker telling us the movie’s title—with no regard for the wrongfulness of movie piracy. When Bollywood movies are released in Canada, they only play in select theatres and for a short amount of time. Usually, they are gone in the blink of an eye, and sometimes, I don’t even realize that there was a new Shah Rukh Khan movie. Diasporic Indians solved the problem of missing new Indian movie releases by making all the movies available, old and new, all the time. The DVDs are usually incredibly cheap—no more than three or four dollars—and over the years, my family racked up dozens of them. Watching these movies was always exciting; I looked forward to sitting in the living room with my family to watch the newest action thriller or romantic comedy. When we would visit India and my uncle, a big fan of the movies, would ask me about the latest titles, he would be surprised that I had seen them all already.

The business of movie piracy is big. The News Minute reported in 2016 that Bollywood movie piracy makes 35% more money annually than the movie industry itself. Most of the reason that these movies are pirated within India itself is because there are millions of people who cannot afford movie tickets or legitimate copies of movies, but the reason the DVDs make their way to Canada is because diasporic South-Asians want to stay in touch with Bollywood.

Another business in Canada started by diasporic South Asians is that of Indian jewelry and clothes, but even though dozens of shops exist in the GTA that sell beautiful handcrafted necklaces and sarees (most of them undoubtedly imported from South Asia and re-sold here at a higher price), my family only purchases traditional jewelry and clothes from India. This is because we are aware of the hiked-up prices and have a large circle of Indian family friends who can bring back everything from jewelry to clothes to spices to books for anyone who asks. This is a process I am very familiar with, as my parents have done the same for friends here—if someone from the community is making a trip to India, they ask their relatives and friends who are there if they would like anything from Canada. They also ask their Indo-Canadian family and friends what they need brought back from India. In 2015, we took boxes of adult-sized diapers for a bedridden family friend who couldn’t find a specific brand in India, and upon our return, we gave my aunt, cousins, and family friends the snacks they wanted, and my aunt the bridal sarees she wanted for her son’s wedding. Sometimes, we even bring small things that need to be fixed to India on behalf of our friends who know that the cost of having the repairs done is much cheaper than in Canada.

Regardless of whether they ask, every time we go to India my mother packs kilograms upon kilograms of gifts for everyone we know we are going to see. We make a trip to Costco and buy huge tubs of chocolate almonds, granola, you name it—then we make sure everyone we visit gets something. This is not because all Indians are poor and my mother takes pity on our family and friends there; it’s because she feels like she owes her successful life in Canada to everyone she grew up with. The bags full of my and my brother’s handed-down clothes that we give to our old maid Rekha are not something my mom thinks of as gifts. To my mother, the gifts are actually remittances, a physical thank-you and show of affection to the people she misses everyday in Canada.

Diasporic subjects are feeling subjects. Nostalgia is not just something we feel from time-to-time; it’s a big part of us. It affects us everyday whether we’re thinking about it or not. Nostalgia is the reason my mother still buys the same brand of basmati rice and insists that we eat roti sabzi at least once a day. It’s why my father brought back a box full of books in his native language, Marathi, read them over a matter of a couple of months, and now has me downloading Marathi e-books for him. Nostalgia is what drives me to collect beautiful Indian jewelry. It’s why I love wearing bindis; it’s what makes me want to see every new Bollywood movie I possibly can. Nostalgia for diasporic beings, or at least for me, is tied intrinsically to spending money, to my proximity to objects that represent India. I cannot be in India whenever I want, but little parts of it can be with me everyday.


View more of Jessica’s photography for Lucky Penny here and a recent Sophomore Mag shoot here.