A Perpetual Sojourn

Vijay Joshi
30-09-2013

An essay

Mother of Exiles, the statue of Liberty, proclaims "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

Most of the early European exiles arrived in America mostly for a better life. Some were forced to flee for political reasons. Some escaped religious persecution. Historically the meaning and the experience of an exile has changed and continues to  evolve.

All exiles are not made equal. There are multiple flavors of an exile. An immigrant belongs to a class lower than that of an émigré, higher than refuge- less than expatriate. An immigrant is someone who voluntarily leaves his native country to settle permanently in another country.  Émigré is an emigrant, the one forced to leave for political differences. A refugee is a person who has fled from  political persecution or for personal safety . Expatriate is someone who has left native country willingly with conscious effort to resist total inclusion in the new world.

In medieval Europe, exile was considered the worst kind of punishment. Dante when he was banished only about 100 miles from Florence, he treated his exile as social death which was reflected in his later writings in “Inferno”. There was implicit permanent attachment to the birthplace and no prospects of a return to homeland. Today being in exile is not as severe and as permanent anymore. Also social media apps like Skype, Facebook, Tweeter etc. has eased a lot of pain of displacement and has brought memories of old home closer to the new home. 

An immigrant longs for the world left behind in his native land but manages to belong to neither world. When he sees a new place, he sees some connection to the old place, forever searching for his old home in his new home. His loyalty, affection, culture are all a mix bag of old and new and always in a state of limbo. He lives a double life-  he tries, without quite succeeding, to belong to the new world in his life outside his home, while his life inside his new home, he strives to replicate his old home, without much success either.

He is uprooted, upended and tries hard, without quite succeeding completely, to put his roots down again. He tries to connect to the new world while not quite disconnecting from the old world. While striving to be stationary, he is always mobile, drifting while trying to be motionless, in transit while struggling to settle down, never knowing how to blend in, always going somewhere without getting anywhere.  He tries desperately to become a “new self”, without really letting go of “old self”.

He tends to do continuous retrospection, always imagining himself in the old world as preserved and frozen in his memory. He is frozen in time, culture, values of the old world, a world which has since changed and does not exist anymore; it lives only in his memory. He continues to cling to the old world or at least to the idea of the old world.

He tries to belong to two places and fails to belong to either place, trying to preserve traces of old identity, while struggling to acquire a new identity, losing both the identities in the process. He, who has become now a stranger in his own lands, is also a stranger in the new lands. He is a man of many faces while without belonging to any of those faces.

His accent, no matter how impeccably hard he tries to hide it, always betrays him as a person of foreign lands. An accent is a residue of old language which gives him away as someone who is not a native speaker of the language. An accent is the resistance of his subconscious to the new language.

Just because you have become an American citizen does not transform you or make you forget your allegiance to the old country, although your oath might force you or coerce you. Indian American strives to maintain native ethnicity, cultural connection by celebrating and participating in all the festivals, Bollywood movies, ethnic restaurants, cricket, and by keeping religious connections by building various houses of worships, and continues creative pursuits by forming ethnic literary groups, ethnic magazines, ethnic newspapers in the adopted country.

Most of the Indian immigrants of my generation, who emigrated in or around 1970s, did so as qualified professionals who emigrated for a better future for themselves. This was followed by relatives of these early immigrants many of whom in their middle ages came for the betterment of their children’s future and then very recently H1 visa holders who settled here for a temporary stay and ended up as legal immigrants and there is the group of college students many of whom stay on after finishing their studies and become new genre of immigrants. Then there is the group of undocumented illegal aliens who live a marginalized life, although as wretched as their lives might be here, they feel they are better off here than they would otherwise be in native lands.  The attitudes, affinity to India, blending into the American culture are varied; each group has its own set of goals. 

Recently during my last visit  to the town I grew up in India,  I found cyber cafés, McDonalds, fancy boutiques touting Western  fashions, high rise buildings and night clubs, and  very little resemblance to the city tucked away and stuck in my memory. The lines between a native culture and foreign culture had blurred making the two almost indistinguishable. 

I realized then that although my home will always be alive and well preserved and frozen in the depths of my memory, does not exist anymore back in India.

Now I was at ease with myself. I felt at home in my new home in my new adopted country.

Translation in Gujarati at this link : http://opinionmagazine.co.uk/details/603/હૈયાને-વળી--દેશ-શું-અને-પરદેશ-શું-?

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features