Saturday, April 19, 2008

Accepting exile, sweet exile

From Mint

The Tibetans are willing to die for it. The Americans are in a recession partly because of it. In India, we take for granted just how many we have, how complex it actually is.
Everyone, it seems, is fighting, longing, searching for a place to call their own. I don’t make light of that struggle, but this week—against the backdrop of the alternative Torch for Tibet relay and my own journey to a place that is allegedly mine—I wondered if the concept of home, as in one geographical location to which we are anchored, committed, rooted, might be inherently flawed.
The epiphany came around 1 o’clock in the morning on the Assamese new year known as Bihu. With my husband and daughter, two cousins and a friend, I sat in a cracked red plastic chair sinking into the mud made by a recent rain and watched a woman crooning into a microphone. She didn’t sound bad, but not great either. Nearby, a pack of young men smoked and I resisted the urge to ask them not to, so close to my three-and-a-half-year-old they were. It had taken us an hour to get here, an hour fighting traffic and other festival revellers. And, that was after a day spent dodging relatives’ demands that I come visit all 50 of their homes in Guwahati even as I explained that the goal of my sudden trip was to spend time with my sick grandmother and show my daughter the beauty of Assamese culture during this colourful month. She has celebrated every year, of course, but always in far-off places as church halls in New Jersey, a friend’s place in Washington, DC and an auditorium in New Delhi.
I thought going home would offer a more authentic experience.
“Where are the dancers?” my daughter asked me.
“Where is the laru-pitha?” my husband chimed in, referring to the sweet foods of Bihu. (When I was a child, my parents and their friends used to buy very all-American doughnut holes and offer them to us as a substitute, unable to find ingredients to make the real thing. Eventually, they learnt to ­improvise.)
“This is not New Jersey or even New Delhi,” I responded. “It’s not like you can get Bihu out of a box.”
But when a group of guys offstage started fighting each other with sticks and the police hauled a bloodied ­teenager away by his collar, I agreed it was time to go. In the versions of Bihu my parents regaled me and my brothers with, there was so such violent reminiscence.
Yet, why would they have tainted their picture?
For the transplant, home becomes but a nostalgic figment of the imagination, a make-believe place where you can pick and choose what to crave, to miss, to remember. It is ideal and utopian, even as the quest to recapture it impossible and dangerous.
Somehow, though, we keep trying.
In the case of the Tibetans, it is an understandable desire, an exile that has been imposed. Earlier this month, Mint reported the story of two Tibetan friends who shared a longing for a homeland, a fervour for the movement but held different passports—one Indian and another a refugee card. Explained one young activist: “If you hold an Indian passport, people think you have lost your nationalism.”
If only India did not kowtow to fears and insecurities of China by keeping the torch—a celebratory, unifying symbol of multiple lands and cultures —in a virtual police state with 20,000 officers and countless blocked roads. What a gesture it would have been if India showed the world it was possible to support both an exiled people and the goals of the Olympics. Indians, after all, have mastered the art of straddling multiple homes and loyalties.
And, if only the Chinese understood that the freedom to go back at anytime, to assert one’s place, is what keeps so many of us away. For, all too often there is no going back.
Strangely, this week’s sudden feeling of not belonging anywhere—a feeling I have fought my whole life, from lonely tables in school canteens to the navigation of office politics—was one of great relief, as though a lifetime riddle had just been solved. Like a lot of Indians from places other than the ones they live and work, I will now never have to respond to that eternal question: Where are you from?
That muggy night, we trudged back and crawled under mosquito nets to go to sleep. The next morning, I sat next to my grandmother, suffering from a broken arm, weak joints and severe dementia, as she asked me when I had arrived and when I would be going back to America. We had been through this exercise every day.
I reminded her I live in New Delhi.
“Still, you’re far away. To me, it’s all the same,” she said. “But I am so glad you came. It really means a lot to me.”
I was shocked. My tough-as-nails grandmother has never been the tender, emoting type—except when angry.
A few minutes later, I tearfully touched her feet and kissed her goodbye, realizing her confusion had left me with a lucid lesson and a pure definition of home—among many.
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