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‘Maybe we are all prospective migrants’

But having spent the first five years of my life in Britain navigating visa applications, residence requirements, and citizenship tests, I am only now confronting the reality that many people no longer wish to belong to a club that has accepted me as a member, writes Mohsin Hamid.

india Updated: Aug 07, 2008 20:20 IST

In my second year as the bearer of a British passport, I have come to the perplexing realisation that many of my fellow citizens are departing. Just the other day, a friend of my wife’s announced her impending move to New York. My own inner circle of buddies has been decimated by defections to Dubai. The first friend I made at work when I arrived here back in 2001 now calls Melbourne home.

On a radio programme last year, the host asked me where I lived before coming to London. When I said Manhattan, he seemed shocked. “And you moved here?” was his pitying response. Similarly, during my stints in various British workplaces, I have found myself the recipient of nomadic confessions from even the most outwardly unlikely British colleagues, my own mongrelised status evidently marking me out to them as a trustworthy, or at least sympathetic, confidant. Perhaps I ought not to be so surprised at this. After all, I consider leaving Britain fairly often myself. And the very existence in their current demographic forms of nations such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand should have alerted me to a long-standing British fondness for emigration.

But having spent the first five years of my life in Britain navigating visa applications, residence requirements, and citizenship tests, I am only now confronting the reality that many people no longer wish to belong to a club that has accepted me as a member. My first instinct was to take this personally. But I had to concede that this trend predated my arrival, indeed the arrival of anyone who looked anything like me, and, moreover, that many of my own friends were caught up in it.

At this point another interpretative avenue presented itself. I was reading about British expatriates in India, specifically in Goa, on the BBC website. Apparently these people, who had come in pursuit of the manifest benefits of a sunnier, lower-cost lifestyle and a spicier, more coconut-infused cuisine, were confronting all sorts of problems. Their visas were not being renewed. Their sales and purchases of properties were being interfered with. In short, they were being treated as immigrants are routinely treated all over the world.

And I sympathised with them. Knowing nothing about the politics of the situation or the legitimate concerns of the local population (who undoubtedly have good reasons to want their elected officials to make life difficult for the foreigners settling in their midst), my reaction as a brown-skinned man of South Asian origin was to feel a bond of empathy with these pink-skinned people of North Atlantic origin chasing their dreams of new lives in a place far away.

Maybe we are all prospective migrants. The lines of national borders on maps are artificial constructs, as unnatural to us as they are to birds flying overhead. Our first impulse is to ignore them. If we stay where we are it is not because the instinct for migration is entirely absent from our nature, but because friends, family, home, opportunity — or fear, laws, inertia, laziness — keep us from moving. For me, as an immigrant, recognising that those already resident in the place to which I have immigrated often themselves wish to emigrate suggests a giant circle of human motion and potential motion of which I am a part.

Perhaps, then, the resentment towards recent arrivals felt all over the world is not entirely unrelated to the feelings of a captive songbird for a wandering sparrow who alights on his cage. Of course, this does not rule out the possibility that the songbird is simply thinking, ‘There goes the neighbourhood.’

Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Guardian