In the famous train station episode in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s 2004 film Swades, the NASA project manager Mohan Bhargav played by Shah Rukh Khan drinks unfiltered water, which he has bought from a child vendor for 25 paise, from an earthenware cup. For overseas citizens of India, persons of Indian origin, and non-resident Indians, this is tantamount to messing with the nuclear button or activating anthrax for laughs.
I’m half-joking. Bhargav, who visits India with mineral water bottles at the ready, has successfully orbited out of desh (land and country) years ago: the tactilist gesture at the train station signals an awakening, which will lead to a chastened and permanent homecoming.
This episode has long rankled me, mobilising and exploiting, as it does, a crude binary mapped along the World Trade Organisation’s differentiation of developing and developed nations. Home, or India, is messy yet perfectible, frenetic and chaotic yet vibrant. In this worldview, India warmly embraces its prodigal offspring, jeopardising their physical health while bestowing mental wellbeing on them.
The putative West, on the other hand, is the buttoned-up impersonality of professionalism. The West is meritocracy and its non-identical twin, scarring cultural alienation in a racially diverse but unequal and unjust society. It is late capitalism, all bank balance and spiritual bankruptcy. For the returning expatriate, these two worlds must be hermetically sealed or there is no going back on the return flight. Swapping purified water with foul water leads to hepatitis, not epiphany.
The colonised, Albert Memmi said, bear the “mark of the plural”, doomed to drown in “anonymous collectivity”. A Jewish French-Tunisian anti-imperialist thinker, Memmi understood the clash of imperatives of dual nationality. It would seem that a logic of sovereign subject versus mob/crowd/herd/pestilence prevails when expatriates land at Indian airports, where we once gawped, nose pressed against the greasy glass, at airplanes taking off.
Check out the armour willingly donned even in the pre-Covid-19 era: all-terrain sneakers, mosquito repellents, malaria tablets, hand sanitiser, disinfecting wipes. This might be standard travel kit for most of India’s affluent classes: its 350 million-strong middle class is unlikely to drink water sold for 25 paise at a railway platform. However, Indians settled abroad are made particularly hysterical by the opposing forces of heartsickness for touch and the fear of contagion.
As John Moriarty poignantly stated of Homer’s Odyssey, the Greek word for homecoming – nostos – teems with horrors and wonders alike. “The word nostos and odyssey mean roughly the same thing,” he observed. It is Odysseus’s yearning for Ithaca that animates this most archetypal of European quest narratives and bestows meaning to its perils as well as discoveries.
I have been wrestling with phobias of my own since one of my parents had a fall in late June, suffering severe injuries. I grew up and got my first degree in provincial India. Higher education in the US was hard-won, motivated by a double alienation from metropolitan Indian academia and the august Anglo-American bastions I was preparing to storm. I was immune to the us-and-them ethnography the overseas Indian activates at checkpoints because I was Nemo, an adrift nobody. Over the years, and after a bad case of dengue one summer, I may have become the very objects of my derision.
The Indian everyday feels relentless, the “informal survivalism” (to borrow a term from Mike Davis) of its inhabitants, especially the resource-poor, less like a hard-earned skill and more like luck or chance. During July stays in Kolkata, I long for the dead quiet of my underheated Oxford study.
At first, despite the fog of pain, parent was ever the protective parent, saying there was no question of my rushing to India at this time, given the travel chaos and enhanced fear of infection. I uneasily watched my sisters wear double masks, bundle long hair into tightfitting plastic caps, take showers morning and night as they faced the petri dish that is a heaving Indian hospital in the time of coronavirus. Due to the shortage of nursing staff, one of them volunteered to spend the night in a hospital-room vigil. They did not once complain or ask me, scrutinising their every move and decision, to do some real work instead.
In my conversations with some overseas Indian friends, this arrangement seemed to make sense. You have relatives in India looking after relatives in India – why unnecessarily risk your health? You have a career and (nuclear) family to consider. Oh, the havoc in our professional lives the 14-day quarantine on either side will wreak.
These conversations were happening across the UK and US, where the governments have unconscionably bluffed and blundered: for instance, Professor Neil Ferguson (Imperial College London) claims that the number of coronavirus deaths in Britain would have been halved if the March lockdown had been introduced seven days earlier.
Indian pandemic management, therefore, was a deathworld no worse than some. When, in mid-August, parent suffered another devastating setback, I decided to come to India. It took weeks to sort out documents but there I was in early September, mandatory mask and visor and pairs of disposable gloves added to the crustacean security protocols I had perfected over two decades.
I’m not recommending a reckless touching of germ-laden surfaces as expiation for domicile abroad. I ask, instead, why we in the diaspora inflict on the postcolony the arrested cultural stereotypes ingrained in the language, culture, and politics of colonial powers which remain the unreformed beneficiaries of Empire and chattel slavery.
Does eye contact with the extreme striations and inequalities of Indian society cause an imposter syndrome that is thus disavowed? The fear of zoonotic contagion from country mine (swa-des) could also be displacements of the self-loathing caused by systemic racism, which says the dirty immigrant is parasitic on the healthy body of Europe.
If you can’t beat them at the power differential, create one of your own. At the fortified portals of the Mediterranean or the English Channel are desperate humans asking to be let in, as we once did in a different guise. When British Prime Minister David Cameron called migrants in Calais a “swarm” in 2015, did I not flinch?
Ankhi Mukherjee is a Professor of English and World Literatures and a Tutorial Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Wadham College.
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