Parallel Lives Pt1


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Category: Diaspora Date: 31 May 04


With a population of 20 million worldwide swirling around this globe through various circumstances the Indian Diaspora as varied, as complex and ultimately, as puzzling as India herself.


The East Indian Diaspora is ever mutating, and re-inventing itself even as it absorbs from, reflects and transforms the continents it inhabits.


In the award-winning Indo-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry's short story titled "Lend me your light" a young Parsee boy, returning to his dull wintry flat in Toronto, where he has recently settled from a trip home to Bombay, finds that his journey, instead of clearing up the confusion of moving to a new country, leaves him even more befuddled than before.


"I mused, throbbing between two lives, humbled by the ambiguities and dichotomies confronting me I'd brought back with me my entire burden of riddles and puzzles, unsolved. The whole sorry package was there, not lightened at all."


Each of us has our peculiar Diaspora experience, a Diaspora story and for every one of us, for the twenty million or so living outside India today, they will be slightly different. They tell of our bewilderment, our astonishment, our perpetual swinging between cultures and languages, between gain and loss, between shame and pride. Sometimes, while enjoying the material benefits of the West for which we have travelled far, taken many risks, we feel incredibly lucky compared to our Indian counterparts. We are nostalgic, but we don't want to go back because that would smack too much of defeat.


Besides, we've more than paid our dues as inhabitants of new lands - learned new languages, adapted to new dress codes, different values. We've survived alienation, prejudice, balanced it with assimilation. We no longer stick out like sore thumbs in our too bright saris. We have carved ourselves our private spaces where we pray in our mosques and temples, hold our prayers and celebrations. We have mastered the art of living parallel lives-our private Indian lives and our public work lives. In some areas we've changed beyond recognition, and in others, we've lived in time capsules, so time has stood still. You could say we are the original innovators of globalisation.


Mine is one perspective in millions. In it you will find echoes of others. But one thing I will say-every East Indian immigrant who in some way identifies himself as part of the Diaspora invariably develops a mild form of schizophrenia as he navigates between wildly separate worlds -the abandoned mother country and the world he chooses to inhabit.


Being a relatively new immigrant, arriving here in my teens, a child of urban, post-colonial middle class India, the daughter of an Indian army officer, I became aware of this constant see-saw between loss and benefit when my family settled here.


At first, it was all gain. When you're young and cradled within a secure family, without any responsibilities to anyone, your mind acts like a sponge, eagerly absorbing all experience. In a remote Caribbean island so far removed from the country of your birth, discovery and change is interesting, exciting.


When we first arrived on these breezy shores to the tiny island of Tobago in this new world, I was barely a teenager. I spent a long time gaping, at the fishermen bringing in their haul in Charlotteville, at a plum stew being stirred, at the blue devils with their forks during Jouvert, at the ocean where waves crashed non-stop, at the head gear on the women in the villages.


When you're young, too, everything new is better than the old. You're desperate to belong, to fit in. You feel slightly ashamed of your Indian accent and try to make it sound like the others. You wish your mother wasn't the only woman in the whole island to flutter up a hill in a sari and with an umbrella. You want bread, not aloo parathas for lunch. You quickly develop two personalities and live a layered life. You speak and act as a West Indian in a class where you are definitely the minority, and at home and around your parents you live as they always have, in little India.


At home your parents speak a mixture of Hindi and English and misunderstand if you try out your newly learned slang, taking them for insults.


The house is warm, with smells of frying onions and haldi even at breakfast time. You change into your Salvaar Khameez for meditation and Gita readings.


You respectfully address your parents' friends as uncle and auntie and serve them eats and soft drinks.


You are always modestly dressed, no shorts allowed. You are rude at great risk to yourself. You know the rules-study hard, be obedient. The unwritten code drummed into many Diaspora children is you take the education of the West and keep the culture of the East.


Naturally you fail. At home you sulk defiantly when you are forbidden to go out and in school you have to find a cool way of declining a beach lime without revealing that your parents disapprove of you hanging out with boys.


According to the Gita these are your years of study.


The parallel lives spill untidily into one another. It's schizophrenic. But it's like riding a bicycle. You get adept at adapting and after a while you don't notice that you are one way sometimes, another way at others, it's Basic Survival Skills 101.


What we didn't see at the time is that our parents, by taking a huge risk in search of a better or different life abroad for themselves and their children, also panic. They are terrified that they have traded the material benefit for the cultural, spiritual and social values that define them.


They are scared that the values they disapprove of in the West will permeate their household, so they create a little India at home. That's why we found as children when we returned to India for visits that our parents were stricter than their brothers and sisters, that our cousins had freedoms that we couldn't dream of.


More than anyone, immigrant children have the most insightful perspective into the Diaspora and, unwittingly, into human nature. While adults of different cultures struggle at times to find commonalities, to overcome language, cultural, social barriers, children see another child who wants to play. A kid in a Salvaar and long oily plaits eyeballs another curly haired lass in shorts. 

In seconds they are absorbed in a game of catch, cooperating, competing, communicating. All barriers cut like a hot knife through butter. They don't see colour, accent or texture of hair. Call it simple but I'd say it's an essential universal lesson.


(Continued next week)

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur