Being Vilayati, Becoming Asian
Keeping up with the Kapurs, the Chawlas, the Kalias,
and the Aggarwals in London
At one time, Vilayat was England, but [now] it could be anywhere [in the Western Hemisphere] that was not India.
Interview with Karnal Bhandhari, teenage migrant who moved to Britain from Africa because of the Amin exodus
Ethnic identity terms are sometimes crude, other times nuanced. In Britain, the people I studied were known as “Asians, ” an ethnic referent for all those having origins in the Subcontinent. The term arose from a distinctly postcolonial British sensibility about the postwar migrants who landed on its shores from South Asia. In comparison take the Punjabi term “Vilayat, ” which refers to a place that has come to mean “outside” India. A person who went to Vilayat became a Vilayati, someone from the outside. As Karnal Bhandhari makes clear, “Vilayat” at one time meant England, and those Indian migrants who had lived in England and returned to India during the colonial period and afterward were known as “Vilayati”—“Vilayat”—returned. The Punjabi term “Vilayati” is rarely a self-referent, unlike “Desi, ” a term used by those in the diaspora to refer to the community originating in South Asia. By becoming Vilayati, the migrants' movement to Britain marked them as being from outside “home. ” 1 These terms give a sense of the ways that migrants simultaneously became outsiders to India and Britain.