Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Severed Roots

Increasingly culture shock is what strikes when you go east from west and not the other way around as it used to be. The desi from Bhatinda or Kakinada lands in JFK and feels like they have been hit by a ton of bricks - this is the well-worn culture shock cliche that has been played out in cinema and literature for a long time now. It seems that this dated script needs to be replaced by something more relevant to current reality.

I have been out of India for a bit now and have not had many opportunities to go back and spend quality time there during this period. When I watch a movie like Amra - A 90-minute film by New York-based Mainak Bhaumik about several confused people in pre and extra marital relationships, and read reports on the increasing prevalence and acceptance of pre-marital sex in urban India, I have to admit I am the one that is left behind having lived abroad.

Even after allowing for Bhaumik's expat sensibilities in his choice of theme, the premise has to be somewhat plausible to garner any local participation or audience. He thought the film would appeal to youngsters from the city. But he was surprised to see college-goers from Burdwan University enjoying the film too. He says, “Amra was able to draw huge audiences." Even the most unflattering reviews of the movie in the local press do not question the validity of the subject itself.

I usually pay special attention to the goings on in Kolkata because it is not where the action is in India is these days and as a result slower to catch on to significant urban trends. What is new here is old news elsewhere in the country. To that extent movies like Amra are revealing and instructive to me.

Some retired Bengali empty-nesters I know in the US, have made several abortive attempts to return to Kolkata as they are not able to find the place their nostalgia for India seeks. The urban youth of today do not resemble who they were over forty years ago. The city may be in its death throes and yet a lot about it has changed past recognition. These senior citizen expats gravitate toward gated communities where they can find others like themselves and in doing so they feel trapped in a re-created American experience which is not what they want at all.

The people of their generation (like my parents) who stayed back in India do not understand their expat friends and relatives anymore and neither to do they feel particularly perturbed by the Indian youth culture of today. Having experienced change in a gradual, organic way , there is no great shock value in it for them. They have come to accept it just as they have the call-centers, cyber-cafes and ATM kiosks.

In having kids settled abroad, they are also able to see how life is outside their home and country. As a result, they are better equipped to handle a globalized world than many of their expat peers who for a variety of reasons have largely missed being part of India's growth spurt in the last ten or more years. Even before that, they visited but never fully participated in the Indian experience from the time they emigrated.

The more I see of the rapidly evolving socio-cultural fabric of India, the greater is my need not to get left behind. India would not be much of a "home" for me, if I was not able to fit in there twenty, thirty years out. The chances of it being a viable home for J - something I strongly desire for her to have, are even slimmer.

As first time immigrants we believe (often naively) that we will have a place in two worlds and be able to go back and forth between them effortlessly. We were born and raised in one and took the time and effort to make the other a "home" after a fashion. Neither job was easy.It is almost like we are "owed" these two homes for our many troubles.

A lot of us repatriate money home to help those among our loved ones who did not take the chances we did. Often this money does not come to the expat very easily. The least we expect in return for our "sacrifices" is the comfort of a familiar home where we will feel well-loved and welcome, a homeland that will resemble at least at tangent the image we have etched in memory.

When all of those premises turn out to be false we become one of those expats in their 70s shuttling back and forth between their janmabhoomi (land of birth) and karmabhoomi (literally, the land where you do karma or work) wondering when (if ever) they will be able to rest. The ideal of Vanaprastha remains an elusive dream for them. They are not able to stop working because their life abroad is defined primarily by the work they do there - to not have work is to lose their identity. India remains tantalizingly out of reach - familiar yet strangely alien.

I would love to not become one of these people but it may well be the inevitable fate of those of us who are not able to divide their time and lives in the two worlds and homes they seek to call their own. The fortunate few who are able to achieve this difficult equilibrium, will have their roots span cultures and continents allowing them the luxury of two homes instead of one, the rest of us will have to come to terms with having them severed from one if not both.


Anonymous said...

wonderful post.. you have articulated my dilemma so perfectly... for most of us it remains a vague feeling and a frustration we are not able to pin point the cause of.

revathi said...

Add to this the question whether we are really at "home" in our karma bhoomi and share the anxieties of our fellow karmiks. The answer is often quite complicated.

Anonymous said... have captured it really well...bringing your parents to live with you here is not an option..they will be like a fish out of water...going back is restarting your life figuring out how to reboot your life on evolved hardware

Huzefa Mukadam said...

Super! I actually use the words Janmabhoomi and Karmabhoomi a lot to explain the way I live. The thing you mention about maintaining a difficult equilibrium is increasingly possible if one is aware that Janmabhoomi is equally important. After all, what is it for that we are in a foreign country in the first place? Not forgetting one's roots comes to mind.

And your insight about our identities being defined by our work in the Karmabhoomi is quite well observed too.

Heartcrossings said...

Anon, Hufeza - Thank for stopping by and your comments.

Revathi - We are truly not at home abroad with our fellow karmiks - we play house with all of them pretend this is our recreated home.

Anon - Very nicely said - how to reboot your life on evolved hardware.