Two worlds and split lives


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Category: Diaspora Date: 21 Aug 97

“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, their smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth that they are despite everything, acts of love.”

- Salmon Rushdie, Midnight’s Children.


All anniversaries have their rituals. And on this anniversary I would like to write a letter to my two Trinidadian children - even though they are too young to understand it now.


August 15, 1997


Dear Children,

Today on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence I woke with a catch in my throat and in a maudlin gesture which will surprise even my parents, wore a Spartan hand-woven kurta pajama (I was so sentimental I remember thinking Gandhi ji will approve of it - it is a hand loom) rummaged for the tape of Ravi Shankar, dipped into passages of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which begins on the dot of 15th August, 1947.


Child’s Memory


I write this letter with much humility because I am no expert on India. I have not studied it and my experience of this vast country is sketchy, 11 years long, a child’s memory. I even doubt the authenticity of my emotion, wondering, like the prodigal child, if I have a right to lay claim to the land I no longer live in, feeling treacherous too, to the country which has been hospitable and to which I am indelibly linked now through you, my West Indian, Trinidadian children. This evening at the Indian High Commission I was delighted at the festive rows of lights, so reminiscent of India at its threshold, surprised at the tear on my cheek during the Indian National Anthem.


Yet I tell myself as I catch a memory here and there and examine it eagerly as a child would a many-dimensional coloured marble, that children see with clarity, that they are devoid of biases which blind us as adults. We, children of the Diaspora, because we have been grafted, have to redefine who we are, quickly polish up the fading past, and apprehend it so that the split in my two worlds, the motherland and the adopted country gradually becomes seamless, and acquires a history of its own.


Straddling not only two worlds but split lives. That’s the legacy of the children of immigrants. The Indian way in your parents’ home, and the Trinidadian, American, British life in “the real world.” The sudden loss which comes from giving birth and realising that your children and grandchildren will not ever be part of the world where you were born is also part of it.


We know that India, being more of a continent in size and diversity, that an Urdu-speaking Muslim and a Tamil-speaking Brahmin would have even less in common than a Nigerian and a Scotsman. Perhaps these differences prompted Salmon Rushdie’s claim in his 50th anniversary piece for the Times to imply that India is just an idea. I disagree. We each have our private idea of India but there is a inexplicable commonality which makes us undeniably Indian.


Some of us toil in the Diaspora, shivering till after midnight in corner shops in London or Manhattan. Others of us are guilty of comparing ourselves with our cousins in India and think how lucky we are, how free, as we walk along Fifth Avenue, or how lovely the tulips are in Holland park, or wonder with a wicked smile “what would they think” as we take a gulp of Carib and cross the Savannah stage in our skimpy Carnival costumes. But an encounter, no matter how casual, with the Gujarati in the corner shop in Southall in London; the Punjabi in the overpriced camera shop in Times Square; the South Indian doctor waiting for a taxi in Maraval, there is not only a start of instant recognition of commonality, relief, even gratitude, a sense of being absolved for leaving.


Better Life


But also complicity - we have escaped being narrow, limited. Our world view has expanded, we are richer with the fullness of living in the larger world. The memories I polished today: foggy Delhi in winter, warm Kashmiri shawls, boiling cardamom spicy tea, slipping on ice in the skating rink in Simla, a simple meal of raagi kei roti and vegetables eaten in a servant girl’s hut in the Himalayas with the view of the snow-capped mountains and wandering sheep, picking mushrooms in Gauhati.


Remember the voice of your mother accusing the milkman of diluting pails of fresh cow’s milk with water, homes where memsahibs command a cool glass of lime juice on silver trays at the tinkle of a bell, courtyards in Delhi, Aligargh, of joint families, crisp cotton saris and freshly washed hair adorned with garlands of jasmines, the sudden sharp memory of watching from a window in the officers’ club a 24-year-old Benazir Bhutto walking with her father in the upper mall in Simla.


You both may say I romanticise it, that I had a better than middle-class life, that I don’t represent the minions, the beggars of Bombay and the filth in Calcutta, that I have never lived in the slums.

That may be true. But at the risk of sounding nationalistic, let me remind you that India’s middle class is massive, that the divide between the rich and the poor is being broadened by the millions who represent its middle class.


And anyway, the wide vermilion skies hazy with pollution belong to all of us, so do the thronging bazaars with their clutter, sandalwood and marble knickknacks, incense, grains and spices piled up on scales, wrapped in brown paper, the smell of the fish markets, the meat markets, the fresh and rotting vegetables, the blaring Hindi songs, life-size movie posters of voluptuous actresses. The jangle of rows of coloured glass bangles, the fly-ridden sweet stalls, the gol-gappas crisp round shells filled with tamarind water, the carts of jasmine, the shops where rolls after rolls of fabulous vegetable-dyed silk saris are unwound before women shoppers, the chaos of a train station with its cries of “coolie”, the long whistle and the jolt as its enormous wheels are set in motion and we watch the expanse of the Indian dark from the bunks in our small compartments.


All of humanity is here - magnified. India forces you to engage yourself with her. Impossible to be detached. Maybe that’s what India is - a perpetual assault to one’s senses, sometimes luxurious, sometimes nauseating. The history and prejudice, knowledge and myths of the ages congeal somewhere in each of us. The Indian flag, Gandhi, Nehru - our icons - belong to us all - no matter how we dress or where we were educated or which one of the 14 states we come from.


Money Cult


There are national characteristics of elaborate formal manners, a convoluted communicating style heavy with undertones, unwritten codes of modesty between men and women. I am resentful of the Deepak Chopras of this world because they take what’s ingrained in most Indians and make it into a money spinning cult - the vegetarianism, the meditation, detachment, the view of life as a cycle, the doing of one’s duty.  The Tonga wallah who cycles with four people in his cart, the college girl, the boy who shines shoes on the road always knew that.


Unlike my parents I have not had a lifetime in India - there are enormous gaps - amply filled in with Europe, North America and the Caribbean. I have gained far more than I have lost: opportunities, experiences, education, and the discovery that people are not so very different. Our common fund of humanity runs deep. But there will be no loss for you. A visit to India, Africa, Europe will only add to your store. It’s true you may not understand the nuances of my country, you may also have a very low tolerance for its drawbacks and you may be immensely relieved to come home. That is because they are grounded here. This is your home.


And on the eve of the 35th anniversary of independence of your country I want to remind you of another anniversary which began several weeks before India’s independence - that of partition. Your grandfather remembers how a million or more Muslims and Hindus slaughtered one another as the population exchange took place. Pakistan chose to be a Muslim state, and India a secular one. Trains filled with dead Hindus arrived in Punjab, and in retribution, Hindus killed thousands of Muslims. Brothers were separated.


That’s what happens when people become narrow. And I have seen that waste mourned in warm embrace of a Pakistani and Indian outside India where they recognise themselves in one another. Their sense of who you are will not come naturally because it is still being realised. You are living in a new world which has the shadow of three continents over it. It is a lavish legacy. Widen and deepen your ripple.


Hard Task


Out of it you are creating what is uniquely yours. You must take part in building your sapling country. It is a hard task. You don’t have thousands of years etched into your sinew. But it is also tremendously exciting to chart now your history mingled now with Africa, China, Europe, Syria.


You have begun with your sporting icons, your brilliant writers, your national instrument, your exuberant expression of all your cultures. Don’t spoil it by giving your primary allegiance to a country you will never live in, a country which may not even understand you, a country your father’s ancestors left long ago, a country which has shed much blood in the name of religion, caste and territory. Enjoy its feasts and clothes and traditions, remember your history. Your future is indelibly enmeshed with people from two other continents. Your real allegiance has to be to that red, white and black flag as mine still is to the green, orange and white flag even after all this time.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur