The beginning of the year held special importance for me for two reasons. On the personal front, it marked two decades since I first set foot in London, the city where I ended up spending the longest period of my life. And it was on January 1 that the United Kingdom reverted to being just a medium-sized island.
After 47 years of being part of the European Union, the UK quit the continent’s political embrace and enforced the 2016 Brexit vote. Nearly 35 million people had taken part in that referendum, by far the biggest in Britain’s history. The result had affected us all, irrespective of how we voted. Almost immediately, the pound collapsed, house sales were cancelled, and the Union Jack started to appear in cars and courtyards.
I was faced with a not-unrelated choice: should I, now eligible, take a British passport and, consequently, surrender my Indian citizenship?
“Why would you want to stay in a country that clearly doesn’t want you?” asked a former colleague from India when we met for coffee at Covent Gardens. She had put the question bluntly, but it was nevertheless an issue I had been struggling with. There was no getting away from the fact that, no matter what spin the politicians and BBC put on the referendum, the majority of Britons were saying, leave us be.
But, deep down, did I not already know this? Even before those scholarship applications, the hours of waiting and preparation, the queues outside visa offices, did I not know that the nation-state, at its most atavistic, is an exclusive club? You either belong or you are the outsider. In the US, they have the perfect word for us: aliens.
The question, therefore, was not just personal (Why would I want to become a British citizen?), but universal (Why do people migrate?).
The aspiration underlying every migration is the same: the hope of a better life. Be it a Yemeni refugee, a Harvard aspirant or a wealthy tax dodger, no one leaves or flees home to be worse off.
Which brings us to the next question: why do nation-states accept immigrants?
Mostly because of the economy. Migrant labour has been the primary source of movement since the Industrial Revolution. Rich nations need an easy, pliable workforce, and migrants work hard, expect less and keep prices low.
Another reason why the nation-state allows in aliens – the one that applies to me – is borne out of historical guilt and the neo-colonial project. After World War II, US President Harry Truman’s idea of helping “underdeveloped” nations took root, with rich countries throwing crumbs to give poorer countries a leg-up. The payback was access to the poor nations’ resources and prying open of their economy. Former colonial rulers set up scholarships and grants to bring in erstwhile subjects and educate them. If they stayed, the subjects added to the workforce and, if they returned, they returned loyal. I was a recipient of such largesse and came to the UK on a Commonwealth Scholarship for a year’s Master’s at SOAS in London.
At the time, I was seeking respite from the grind of 24-hour television journalism. I had been a news hack for nearly a decade, but the final two years of audio-visual media had confirmed to me that it was not my world. I needed time to regroup and a one-year degree seemed a luxurious timeout. The Third World does not easily get gap years.
The London I came to was still a part of Europe, albeit uneasily. The UK was never part of the eurozone or the Schengen Area. But the Labour Party was in power, multiculturalism had vociferous champions, and George W Bush had not yet been risen to the world stage. This was as international as the world was going to get.
For the first six months of the degree, I felt life had cheated me. All around me, twenty-somethings were up in arms against capitalism, patriarchy, environmental degradation, Zionism – every cause under the sun – while drinking themselves into oblivion by 8 pm. Whatever time they had left from such pursuits was devoted to guilt-free sex.
I felt the unfairness of it all. I had taken up my first journalistic assignment at the age of 19. Now, approaching my 30s, I attempted to emulate the actions of my peers with unbounded enthusiasm and limited success. I was keen to make up whatever had been denied to me by life and citizenship.
Yet, some qualities of the scholarship student must have managed to seep through. At the end of the year, my supervisors offered me a more serious immersion into academia. My overriding feeling was respite. I felt relief that I could continue living in the UK for a few more years, just as an asylum seeker feels joy at being granted another extension of stay.
Five years later, by the time I could put a Dr in front of my name, the India that I had left behind had dramatically changed. In journalism, this change was most keenly felt. Several dozen news channels (each passing month the numbers seemed to increase) were battling for an ever-shrinking advertising pie. TRPs were steadily becoming the primary definer of news agenda, print reporters found job avenues shrinking, and Facebook promised everyone a digitised, easy revolution.
Time Ticks By
As it happened, SOAS offered me a teaching position. The immigrant, now domesticated, was being invited to join the workforce. When I spoke to my parents, there was no doubt in their minds: I must stay on. Education and degrees had brought me due rewards and the pound was doing well against the rupee. I did not tell them that I missed Classic Mild cigarettes and, late in the night, the sudden desire for sweet, milky tea.
My visa was upgraded from “student” to “economic migrant”. Another respite.
With a steady income, the nation-state allowed me to marry – when we applied for a marriage licence, an easygoing relationship came under the state’s purview. Time ticked by and my father died. Our son was born and, to make sense of my displacement, I started to write my second novel. I chose not to notice, like the frog being slowly boiled in a cauldron, the change in the country’s rhetoric, the rise in the temperature.
I clearly remember the morning the Brexit referendum results were announced. I had gone to sleep early the night before, never doubting the outcome. As the news came in, I sat down on the steps, holding onto the banister. They don’t want me here. I struggled to breathe.
Shortly after, and almost paradoxically, the perennially hostile Home Office informed me that I had paid enough taxes and put in enough years to apply for a passport. I was eligible to live anywhere in the UK permanently, should I choose to.
I would be lying if I do not admit that my first overwhelming emotion was relief. My wife and son are British, and I was grateful that I no longer had to spend thousands of pounds or anxious days on applying for extensions of residency. I was being allowed the luxury of choice. I know when it comes to rich nations, how rare such options are.
As the days passed, I became aware of another emotion: a sudden awareness of the blue, unheralded passport that I had always held as a birthright. I would have to give up my Indian citizenship.
“We have written doctoral theses around it. Nation-states are imagined entities,” my wife reminded me gently. “Besides, we go back all the time.”
Georgie was right on both counts. The home that I have inside my head does not exist in reality. It is, as James Baldwin wrote, “not a place, but an irrevocable condition.” And, true, I was guilty of flying to New Delhi or Kolkata whenever the fancy took me, for a friend’s wedding or someone’s sixtieth. “Within a day, you can be back,” I told myself for the umpteenth time. “It really does not matter.”
But I was wrong. The pandemic took away what I had foolishly taken for granted: unmindful border crossings. Borders, the desperate migrant knows – and I had chosen to ignore – are real. Countries close them at will. And now, with the South African variant of Covid-19 arriving in the UK, my erstwhile nation has barred my entry.
It is temporary; this is an emergency.
I know, I know.
Brexit in the UK, CAA in India. Flags and borders are nationalism’s favourite toys.