Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Question of Return

This is the eternal question in an immigrant's life. In fact, in all lives, perhaps, because living is always about moving forward, and being alive is about feeling attached. In fact, this is the unending see-saw, call it dialectics if you are intellectually inclined, which passes off as life. But while return is metaphorical in some contexts, for an immigrant, it is omnipresent, an issue which returns every weekend, every festival, with every bits of good and bad news from home. Return is what one waits for, or, one lives in denial of. So, either, it is 'I wish I could' or 'I must, one day', that sum up the immigrant experience.

That way, we all return. Some make the journey, but most bring home broken bits of their homeland. Just as our adult lives are about playing out the questions and emotions that we learnt in childhood, the return of the latter kind is about stocking up India, Pakistan, Africa or Poland, or whichever land one has come from, and carving out a little space and a little time for the homeland. It is the same two minutes of Bengali talk that I shall do with Dr. I, a colleague from Commilla who speaks the same language as I, and the weekend that I shall spend in South London 'Puja' - that's my way of return. Everyone has their own, indeed.

Couple of years ago, I excitedly wrote about reverse migration, after reading a Businessweek story how intelligent and enterprising Indians and the Chinese are heading home in the wake of the recession. Immediately afterwards, I was awakened by the angry discussion on forums about how the returnees are stealing 'Indian Jobs': The strain was recognizable, we just heard then British Prime Minister talk about 'British Jobs for British Workers'. Economics and Nationalism were in conflict, as ever.

That brought up an interesting point - the love of one's country. Admittedly, the return of the migrants were all about economics. There was no love of land there, or, there should not be, as angry commentators in India were proclaiming. The view at this end were as confused as ever. 'I love the money, and as long as it is in India, I love India', an investment banker told me. It seems though, either way, it did not matter. One stays because one has to, and one goes back because it is better there. Nationalism is dated, and is fading away: indeed. But, it goes even a step further, whether identities matter any more.

The immigrant feeling is that they do. It is not a matter of wanting: It is something that gets thrust on you. I recall one staff meeting when a Senior Manager of the company I worked for then refused to sit next to me. I was offended and brought it to the notice of the owners; they tried to explain it away saying that he was angry because I make more money than him, but my business unit did not make profits. Two identities were thrust on me at the same time - of what my skin colour is and the fact I was expected to be stupid, at least act stupid. This, of course, happens every day - explicitly or implicitly - in an immigrant life. However much you want to believe in the post-modern conception of identity that you make it up as you go along, but certain things invariably sticks.

It sure should not, in theory. Not just because of globalization, which certainly seems like made up. But because money is everything and as long as one can follow the money, no identity troubles should arise. In the wonderfully reductive way of money, we can measure skills, loyalty, work, achievement, being and nothingness: In that alternate world of money, identities are surely transitory and return is meaningless. This is why those proposing the question of return look like a sissy, and for those on the other end, those who never left, the proposition is surreal.

But, in the grubby world of immigrant life, in the eternal cycle of births and deaths, CONTEXT refuses to die a quiet death. Information does not seem to want to be free, identities are no more transitory than it ever was, and for all the talk, my skin colour and my memories refuse to leave me. Not even when I am not wanted back. Not even it makes no difference to anyone. The question of return is about remaining myself.

Once I get that, I get this whole promise-of-return thing. Sometimes, generations live with the promise. On the hope of return, some day. Even in today's world of bits, the roots only grow in the soil; the rest are all vacuous, which does not take hold. I, therefore, endure the ridicule but keep the question of return alive; in a world of wastelands, that is my only link to sanity.

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