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Cultural homelessness sets us up for journeys into the unknown

Cultural homelessness does impoverish us in some ways, but it also sets us up to make deep journeys into the many unknowns

columns Updated: Sep 09, 2015 12:16 IST

This is how a three-year-old naps sometimes — on the belly, face down. He then has to be gently turned. But, as we know, Alyan Kurdi had to be carried away by a uniformed man as he lay this way on a beach because he was dead. He had drowned along with his five-year-old brother and mother when his family, fleeing Syria, tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece in a rubber raft.

The photograph of the boy, who was in a red shirt and blue shorts, has disturbed most of the world. Even though its power would diminish in the coming days, the image would influence the response of the European Union to the waves of refugees fleeing Syria, bypassing the West Asian Islamic brotherhood, and thronging Europe.

It is inevitable that thousands of refugees will be absorbed by the richest nations of the European Union even as a few mentally imbalanced citizens of those nations travel in the other direction, to the Islamic State to become terrorists or to breed.

And, it is inevitable that the refugees who entered Europe would become immigrants. There would be humiliation and abuse, but they would learn to live in the new places. They might even, one day, fight to retain their religious ways; they might march in protest against cartoons of the Prophet.

All this has happened before. History also suggests that it is inevitable that they would very soon pine for home. There would be stirring melancholy poetry, displacement novels and other forms of art about the longing for Syria, for the wounded home.

Across the world, the first generation of refugees ruminate over their departures and what they have left behind — Sri Lankan Tamils lament their failed terrorist movement, which they call by other names and once funded from a safe distance; Kashmiri Pandits lament their eviction from places that the Muslims have occupied; some Kashmiri Muslims pine for absolute freedom.

Other kinds of immigrants, too, like Non-Resident Indians, who were not evicted but had displaced themselves for better lives, have powerful notions of the splendour of home. There is a type of nationalism that is possibly only outside the nation: when the elite of a land becomes a cultural underclass in an affluent foreign land, the nostalgia for the hierarchy that once gifted them their self worth searches for a humanitarian masquerade, which intense patriotism readily provides.

What does this say about the rest of us who are in reality migrants, who had fled home because home was hopeless, who have lived for long far away from the places of our birth, but do not pine for home? Is it just that we have not been denied our home, we can go there anytime, so we do not have exalted notions of home? But, in the first place, do we need a homeland?

Rejection of god is the lowest form of atheism. The highest form has to be the disengagement from not merely magic, but all beliefs, which includes the thought experiments of other men, often known as ideologies, and culture, and the idea of home.

It is not easy. Home exerts its pull from great distances. In matters concerning a neurotic love for our own, we are all Bengalis. It is just that it is less evident in some of us.

Home entraps us through narrow useful alliances, and the comfort of language and food. On the issue of food though, when we examine it carefully, it is always about refined carb and sugar. No culture in the world pines for boiled vegetables. So the power of home cuisine has to be viewed with a degree of suspicion.

Even with such notions, I must admit, about eight years ago when I had to spend three months in England I reached a point where I was willing to crawl on my fours if I must to find a restaurant that served rice and sambar on a plantain leaf. (I was raised in what was then called Madras.) I was disappointed with myself for being such a cultural slave, but the fact is no force could keep me away from my drugs.

The French told me though that if anyone spends three months in England he would go in search of something that is not called English food.
So what if home exerts a force, what is so wrong about home?

Home is a binding, which alone assures it is something limiting. Home is also a fellowship, a village of the mind, it deepens prejudices and enforces a form of cultural loyalty that thwarts intellectual infidelity. We need to sleep with the dominant ideas of our times and that requires an estrangement from home.

It is true though that the displacement of the modern urban Indian has destroyed his mastery of the languages that he once knew because many of us today speak English most of the time. We believe we are multilingual, but the fact is we now speak several languages poorly.

I realised the fact a few years ago when I had to use somewhat formal Tamil to address a classroom in Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu. I knew what I had to say but the words would not come out of my mouth. The neurons did not fire. I had somehow become inarticulate in a language I was once most fluent in.

Cultural homelessness does impoverish us in some ways, but it also sets us up to make deep journeys into the many unknowns. How can we be free when we still belong?

(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. Twitter: @manujosephsan. The views expressed are personal)

First Published: Sep 06, 2015 22:34 IST