I am an Indian writer in English. Yes, that’s a new official category in the world of words. It also gives you an edge if you wish to be published. An added advantage is to be a person of Indian origin living in the Diaspora. However, that’s a category I don’t officially fit into, because I am an Indian living in India. A lot of noise has been made in recent times, especially in literary circles about the experience of the Diaspora, and how the displacement, the clash of cultures seems to produce great depth in art. The person of Indian origin in the US, the UK, and around the world is living the Diaspora, creating and destroying ‘imaginary homelands’ and, occasionally, making art.
But are displacements, and culture clashes, only a result of movements over such large distances? What about people like me? The way I see it, I am a third generation nomad; more than 60 years into my own family’s Diaspora; and there are hundreds of thousands like me in India, and millions around the world. The only difference between them and me, is that a large part of our displacement, at least during my own lifetime, has been voluntary, while most internally displaced people have been “forced” to leave their ‘homes’, usually by civil war.
One of the persistent problems I keep having when I meet people, online as well as offline, is questions like ‘where are you from originally’. In the Indian context at least, most people are almost single mindedly obsessed with roots and origins. And even if issues like caste, surname, and language can be avoided or explained away (for more on this check out Chat Masala 2009 ), hometown, “native”, or ‘bari’ is an obsession. No matter how much you try to explain that you have lived in too many cities to call any one of them ‘home”, it does not compute. You still have pressure to tell people what your gaon is. The concept, of course, is that everyone – but everyone – has a nice little ‘native village’ complete with grandparents, ponds, cows and acres of land.
It is practically impossible for these people to grasp the fact that I don’t have a Native. The only semblance of an ancestral home, native, bhite, bari, had to be abandoned during the madness that was the partition. My barely-forty grandfather and his much younger wife landed up in a small mufassil town in West Bengal with three kids, and barely the clothes they stood in. The story was more or less the same for my other grandparents as well. Thirty something years, and at least six cities later, both passed away, one in Kolkata, one in Tripura.
My parents, having grown up in half a dozen cities, married, and moved to another dozen or so cities in their turn. Bhai and I lived, and loved every minute of, a completely nomadic life. Bengalis though we are we’ve never lived, or been educated in, Bengal and we don’t have a family home there either. In his late middle age, dad did acquire a flat in kolkata, but it’s a kind of way station. Locked up most of the time, it is used as holiday accommodation for my still-firmly-bitten-by-wanderlust parents. Dad has changed four cities in the last two and a half years, if that’s any indication of how mobile they still are.
Having grown up in so many cities, I really don’t feel like I have a hometown, and I definitely don’t feel that I am “from” Bengal. I am proud of my Bengali heritage, sure, but I am much more than that. I have absorbed so many things from practically every corner of the country, growing up as I did, that “who are you” – for me – has become a very large question, demanding much more than the pigeonholing definitions we are accustomed to think in.
Another side effect of having moved so much, and never having lived in “our state”, is that although I speak fluent and idiomatic Bangla, my knowledge of contemporary Bengali popular culture is sporadic at best. After all, all the music, films, books, that I have been exposed to, were things my parents owned. Cool and hip as they are, they are still the previous generation, and themselves removed from the source to boot. Obviously they have gaps too, which have been passed on to me, and become intensified in the transfer, as newer things have been produced in Bengal.
So, essentially, I am twice removed, at least, from my roots. Like all the second or third generation displaced, all I know about the place my family is from, is as a result of stories I have heard first hand from my grandparents, or one step removed, from my parents. That’s textbook ‘imaginary homelands’, because their memories and renditions are also coloured by the passage of time and a sense of loss. This puts me firmly in the Diaspora in certain essential ways. In others though, I am not so displaced after all. Like all results of internal displacements, voluntary or forced, I am surrounded by the familiar. The larger similarities that exist in most Indian states and their cultures camouflage the many differences to a large extent. This also prevents one from feeling as lost, alienated, and confused as first generation immigrants to any land feel, mitigating the sense of loss and the hurt of leaving everything behind to a large extent.
Still, there are growing similarities, and the differences are waning around the world. Racism, for example, which is a fact of life for most immigrants is supposed to be absent in internal displacement scenarios. But is it? Resentment for the ‘other’ who has come in to snatch my jobs, my opportunities, and to claim a share of my resources is ever present, and only natural. You can see it in the still-existing bangal ghoti rift, more than 60 years after partition; it is evident in how the ‘locals’ and the ‘refugees’ still look at each other with suspicion, and talk about each other with derision not just here but all over the world.
With ‘dhartiputra’ movements gathering strength in more and more Indian states, there is an ever strengthening muted murmur of ‘go home go home’ that seems to be ringing in my ears these days. This causes a not inconsiderable problem for the likes of me. What is home? Where is this ‘native place’ that I am supposed to belong to? Where am I supposed to go to when I am kicked out of the places I live in for being something called a Bengali?