Migration: the Feat of the Rootless

Alaka Holla, English 27, Brown University, Autumn 1997

This year, 1997, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and Pakistani independence. That is, fifty years ago, the British officially left India; fifty years ago, Pakistan came into existence. As befits the fiftieth anniversary of anything, "commemoration" seems to be the catch word of the day. In fact, it has become rampant, ubiquitous, almost inescapable. Countless magazines have featured essays contemplating (sometimes rather tritely, I must say) the legacy of colonialism, the (dis)advantages of independence, and the imminent prospects of an increasingly strong South Asia. Indian literature, the postcolonial variety of course, has become quite popular. The New Yorker even devoted an entire issue to it. Numerous authors of South Asian origin ("South Asian" being an all-encompassing, politically correct word used to describe the people of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and the Maldives) -- from the recent Booker Prize-winner, Arundati Roy, to the political analyst, Shashi Tharoor - have gained worldwide attention. Therefore, considering the circumstances, I do not find my newfangled interest in postcolonial literature that surprising.

The traditional themes of postcolonial literature, however, are not responsible for my fascination with Salman Rushdie's Shame and Sara Suleri's Meatless Days. Imperialism's demise, dwindling hegemonies, and indigenous culture revivals do not dominate the realities created by Rushdie and Suleri. Rather, it is the theme of displacement, "that sense of exclusion, of being, in the midst of objects, out of things," (Shame 29) which permeates these novels. Inextricably linked with migration, displacement precludes a permanent, tangible history. Recursive by nature, it fosters an unremitting sense of otherness. Perhaps its relevance in my own life draws me to postcolonial literature. Although I have never directly felt the effects of colonialism, like Rushdie, Suleri, and the characters in their books, I too sometimes suffer from the dizziness of displacement.

Migration, the act of moving from one place to another, instigates displacement, for it involves more than just the abandonment of physical land. A migrant must relinquish his past and dismantle his notion of history in order to face what he encounters in the present, namely the "brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging." (Shame 60) This, however, proves to be rather difficult, for how can anyone simply forget history and disregard memory? How can anyone ignore the pain that ensues after his roots have been severed, roots that had once firmly wedded him to familiar ground? Furthermore, how does it feel to be rootless?

Displacement, unfortunately, rarely has a definitive terminus, for it seems to perpetuate itself. The displaced often suffer from an almost-pathological wanderlust. Successive migrations prevent the formation of tenacious roots and disregard the laws of gravity. Continually roaming and shifting, migrants simply float, incapable of being attached to something so palpable as land. This freedom, however, becomes a burden, almost like Kundera's "unbearable lightness of being." The displaced yearn for placement, a self-defeating cause, which now "strain[s] and heave[s] against [their] now obsolete need for steady location." (Meatless Days 79)

My interest in migration and displacement stems from selfish motives. Feeling rather displaced myself, I seek company in my confusion. (People say that misery likes company. Well, confusion does too.) Rushdie and Suleri have rendered my angst-ridden, ongoing identity- crisis into words. It is not the tangling of roots, the clash of cultures, that disturbs me. One of those sentimental, Asian-American coming-of-age novels, in which the protagonist benefits from the best parts of each culture, could solve that problem easily. I am not feeling torn between my two worlds, but rather excluded by both.

With a name mispronounced by Americans and Indians alike, I began my life cursed, fated to lack identity. My parents, Indian immigrants not yet assimilated, created a home similar to Omar Khayyam Shakil's Nishapur in that it differed from my outside world. At home, the sounds of Kannada caressed my ears and basmati rice nourished my growing body. At day care, daily doses of English and macaroni and cheese shaped my existence. At such a young age, unaware of such a thing called heritage, I did not have to choose between cultures, feeling comfortable being both Indian and American.

Grade school had its ups and downs. Spotlighted as the token Indian girl whenever a social studies class was studying world cultures, I grew accustomed to my otherness, to my Indianness, just as if it were some sort of disability that has to be accepted. For some reason, at that time, I truly believed that my schoolmates and I differed only in skin color. What a little coconut I must have been (coconut, meaning "brown on the outside, white on the inside")!

It was not until age fifteen that the question of my cultural identity started to weigh upon me. During a trip to India, I started to notice the vast gulf of difference that lies between me and my Indian counterparts. I felt so American in a world in which everyone looked like me, a fact that was morbidly amusing because I had felt so Indian in the United States. Perhaps this was the genesis of my displacement, still inchoate, yet promising to mature rapidly. Rushdie's laws of anti-gravity took their effect. Rootless and unattached to land, I began to float and fly.

Of course, most of this flying occurred in airplanes. Like Suleri's friend Mustakor, I became a pathological wanderer, looking everywhere for a potential place to live. At first, I would tell people, "I'm going to live in London when I grow up." London eventually became Paris, Brussels, Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Salzburg, Rome, Florence, Prague, and Singapore. America and India were not even considered options. Somehow, I found lands that were more foreign more welcoming. After extensive traveling, I realized how unfulfilling, how lonely, how exhausting is the life of the nomad, yet even today, I find it difficult to imagine myself settled.

In time, I immersed myself in India and all things Indian in the same desperate way that Suleri's sister Ifat threw herself at Pakistan. Thinking it would somehow transform me into an Indian woman, I pierced my nose. Not wanting to sully my body, I gave up Western luxuries, seeking the simple, ascetic life of the East. Thinking of the future, I envisioned an Indian husband. (Unfortunately, teen-age girls waste their time thinking about these sorts of things.) Countless books filled me in on Indian history and politics. Greater fluency in Kannada allowed me to speak like an Indian. For a while, I tricked myself into thinking that there were actual roots, Indian roots, growing beneath my feet.

Only quite recently have I discovered the tenuous nature of these roots, these false projections of authenticity. Now that I am in college, that politically correct, commodity called "culture" commands me to advertise my ethnicity, to share my heritage with the rest of the world. Displacement, however, prevents me from doing so. How can I act as an ambassador for a culture from which I am so far removed? To what extent do the "displaced" have the right to comment on the still "placed"?

Such a question is also pertinent to the study of postcolonial literature, for most postcolonial writers have succumbed to the fate of the expatriate. Residing in the United States, both Rushdie and Suleri have removed themselves from their native lands and have embraced the ways of the West. Unfailingly, however, both cannot ignore the East in their writings. Critical and scrutinizing, they seek to explain the failings of Pakistan and to justify their inability to live there. This becomes problematic, for a reader might not derive an accurate impression of the depicted society. If the author criticizes postcolonial social and political structures using Western standards, the reader will inevitably do the same, pitying the so-called repressed people and failing to comprehend the inherent worth of a particular tradition.

If anything good can arise from displacement, it should be objectivity. Floating above worlds, the displaced can see all, both the vices and virtues of the places which they look upon. Whether Rushdie and Suleri have yielded to gravity and have sprouted new roots remains to be answered. Speaking for the displaced, the still rootless and unattached, I think it would be a shame if they have.

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