On any day if you happen to pass by the Chennai US Consulate road, you will see a human centipede whole made of file clutching expectant human parts. Choose a cool day lest you fry in this endeavor to appreciate the travails faced by Indians to visit the holy land of the USA.
This is the start of a process that when over will teach lessons in humility, identity crisis, the art of waiting and if you are the chosen one, even Zen.
As you stand in line replaying how you want to reshape your past (Sir, I have climbed the equivalent of Mt Everest, just like the previous 1000 applicants, could I please get on board the Visa ship?), you are seized by a multitude of feelings. Foremost among them will of course be hope and anxiety. A sense of betrayal sneaks in too. Why beg and grovel to enter a club closed to many other fellow countrymen? Why even deign to put yourself through the wringing indignity of having to queue like cattle, answer imperious questions of foreigners who decide from behind prison like bars your destiny, destination and dignity.
Then you have to adjust for the abuse and exploitation of everything in India. Of course, nothing is our fault. Everything can be traced to abuse of everything worth abusing by the invaders. If not the recent Europeans, then by earlier hordes of Mughals, Persians and if all else fails by Aryans. But then what can the poor do to right this heavy steep incline of injustice which cannot be scaled without either digging the foundations and crashing the whole white dome of society, or without trampling on the heads of the crowded multitudes at the bottom staring up in hope and despair?
Kiran Desai’s books are all about these questions. Not answers. And these are Himalayan questions. Kanchenjungan to be precise.
The Indian American – American Indian – Chameleon Me
Migration always makes you question your identity. What place do you owe your allegiance to when your hometown is attacked by your other hometown, both smug in their own undiluted identities? In times of distress who do you give succor to? What identity will you choose to wear when hunted? In time of unrest what customs and practices and reasons do separatist groups cite when ripping apart your lives with petty impunity?
And finally comes the question of nationhood. An idea of an India that is not fully shared by whoever is/ feels disadvantaged. Ghurkas , Sikhs, Bodos, Tamils, Nepalese, Bhutanese, Tibetans etc etc. Why not? If we can redraw the boundaries we can fight amongst ourselves for entirely new reasons. Befriend, beguile and betray police, goondas, friends and family with no discernible tell tale signs of color language and customs. Ah how much more nuanced.
I still straddle many useless and unconvincing identities. I parade them all in turn all the while trying to dissect what is presented to me under different environments. In the US corporate environment I draw on neo mannerisms of economics, protocol and a calculated mix of prudent “drive and entrepreneurship”. With some friends it is a concoction of overlapping interests, familiar landmarks and wishful lifestyles. With family, unchanged values, some good and some bad, playing the same role of son, brother, cousin, nephew, uncle knowing full well I am allowed/willing to change only as much as each of us is capable of accepting the change. In familiarity lies our relationship. In change lies fear. A fear of irrelevance. Irrelevance that brings about unknown fears of solitary old age, abandoned invalids, monologues in empty houses and other scary imaginations of a fertile mind.
It also did not help that I read all this when I traveled from New York to Chennai, stood in line in front of the US consulate, pondering on why I persisted on renewing my legal status to work in a foreign country, far away from home and family, always with a finite brutal end point in sight thereby erasing any complacence of identity and professional permanence. A temporary status with an expiration date. To then be Renewed? Replaced? Reneged?
40 minutes of standing in that queue teaches one more about oneself than any amount of folded hands and bowed heads and half closed eyes and murmured Slokams.
Luscious Kanchenjunga Darjeeling Kalimpong offered free with these questions.
What more does one need?