Shaky Roots

The other day I overheard a conversation between two men from my countries. (yes, ‘countries’- for whatever my passport says, I am both Indian and American) The American was telling his co-traveler that he would really like to visit Mumbai some day. My upcoming smile froze midway when I heard the Indian respond ‘Oh you will get robbed’. I was too shocked to actually say all the things I wanted to – and I still regret not having said anything.

Mumbai is one of the safer urban cities on the planet. Of course there is crime. It is bound to be in any place where there is a stark difference in the lower and upper income groups. Compared to New York!? Newark scares me even in the day and I still would not tell a potential tourist that it is guaranteed that he will get hurt. Of course, desi uncle was wrong factually too. According to Maps of the World India ranks 10th in worldwide crime compared to the United States’ number one position. There are valid arguments that crime in India is under reported, but my gripe is with the assured ‘you will be robbed’ statement. What was he trying to compare Mumbai/India to – some Utopian paradise?

Even if Mumbai was such a scary place, and even if we give him the benefit of doubt and chalk up his reaction to a very bad experience – why would he put his own country down?

Whatever may have been desi uncle’s reasons, it got me thinking about a disturbing predilection I notice among some immigrant families. There is marked conscious effort to dismiss one’s roots as inconsequential. To them, it is savvy and smart to distance oneself from where one is from. Agreed that a natural dissociation may come after generations of living away from a place or people, but that is a natural progression and it certainly does not warrant demeaning statements. We may think that we are made superior by looking down on our background, but it only shows how low we can stoop to appear ‘better than them’. The sad part is that the ‘them’ in this case are our own people!

I realize migrating to a culture that is very different from the one we inherit lays considerable stress on a person’s bearing. We question the new notions that we accost of course, but we also challenge old assumptions. Our very identity eventually needs to be reworked so that we fit in comfortably not only with the outside, but also within our skins. In no way can that development be aided by holding one’s own countrymen in contempt. To say buying off the thelas on the street is not exactly salubrious to health is one thing, to jest about those who may not afford better, or know better, is another. (Personally, I still maintain nothing can beat the flavour of sugarcane juice or the chaat from street vendors!!) To accept that your child will not converse well in your native language is one thing, to flaunt this lack of understanding as a source of pride is disgusting. Speaking in a non-native language (that too not very well, I may add) is not a badge of honour!

So what is it that makes one person a sensible immigrant and another a joke? I have had the pleasure of knowing many grounded immigrants from all over the world. Irrespective of the part of the world they come from, all successful, happy immigrants – and I mean successful psychologically and emotionally – have one common factor – they respect their home countries for whatever they are. I am not going to say India is the cleanest place in the world, but it surely has one of the most hospitable people. It is easy to see the worst in something, but it is also equally gratifying to appreciate what is commendable. An officer at US immigration was telling us how it is not possible, and certainly not expected, that you disconnect your heritage. A new loyalty does not require repudiation of everything that was before.

We are all citizens of the world, where we get to live is mostly a result of circumstance. So if we get to settle down in a new place, it does not give us the right to trash our birthplace, or that of our parents’. Unfortunately, I also know this version of immigrant – varied versions of our ‘American-Born-Confused-Desis (ABCD). People who laugh at anything that does not fit with the latest western concept of ‘cool’, and eventually land up looking like fools themselves.

Let’s face it. You do not feel better by putting down someone else. Similarly, you cannot make yourself look better by putting down something that forever will be a part of you. Not only is it going to be ineffective, it shows very badly on you yourself. Every place, every community, has both its demerits and its merits. If people who belong to that place cannot acknowledge the good that it bears, it is their loss. Who we are is inextricably linked to where we are from, and if we cannot recognize any substantial good in the place of our origin, we will not find any good no matter where we end up. We are very much like trees: unless the hidden root is firm and functioning, the growth of the rest is in jeopardy.

Sarah Hasan Alam

The author began writing seriously when the Editor of Deccan Chronicle was kind enough to allow her to submit a story for her paper. She freelanced for the paper and wrote across the spectrum – children’s stories, reports, controversial viewpoints. She continued to write when she moved to the US. Her fairy tales were published, and she began her blog. Like most women, she juggles a lot of roles – wife, mother, teacher. But her qua writer is the one she cherishes the most!