A huge tree trunk with exposed roots spreading out

Roots Are Us – Or Are They?

Where do you belong?

Where’s your home town?

What’s your native place?

Ask anyone any version of these questions, and they’ll respond in a heartbeat – showing you its precise location on Google Maps, and including for good measure the closest village, town or city; the exact distance from any of those; and transportation modes, frequencies and times, and alternatives to all of those.

Graphic of a young man with a confused speech bubble above him

Ask me this, and in the past, I’ve been stumped. I was born in one city, spent my childhood in another, came to adulthood and have lived the longest in a third, and spent a few years in yet another, with three of these being in different corners of the country and the fourth right in the centre. The concept of a home town or native place doesn’t work for someone like me. So, my response has been an all-purpose “I am a global citizen.”

While that may come across as progressive or evasive, depending on your school of thought, that may actually be not too far from the truth, or genealogy. My mom has told me the ancestors on her mom’s side came from the Middle East. On inspecting my family and immediate relatives’ physiognomies, I also get a bit of West Asia. Getting more contemporary, in a cultural profiling assessment for a US-based assignment a few years ago, I resulted more as Yankee than desi. And at a bank in one of the cities where I’ve lived, seeing my athleisure wear (when athleisure wasn’t even a term), the manager asked me engagingly, “Are you an NRI?”

However, on hearing the ‘I’m an international citizen’ bit, folk smile indulgently, but remain insistent, “No, really, where are you from?”

So, I’ve started taking the safer route, and have gone with my birthplace. That satisfies people, also because it’s on the passport. That works in the case of my family too. When probed, my parents have shared that their parents, on both sides, were born in cities different from the ones in which my parents were born. So, for convenience, my parents (and brother) too have gone with their respective places of birth. Which means… three of the four of us cite different ‘home towns’.

As cultural definitions go, though, this native place thingamajig has to be on your father’s side, and his father’s, and his father’s father’s, right up to Adam’s time. So, here too, the ladies get a raw deal. Oh, wait, there’s “mother” tongue. Which muddies things up a bit. Or perhaps not. Dad has the home but mom the voice? How (stereo)typical.

Coming back, though, the version of the belonging question that has had me the most tangled is: Where are your roots?

I mean, I get it. ‘Roots’ is meant to stand in for the terrestrial locus that is home. Roots give you support, keep you grounded. There’s also a sense of nostalgia the word evokes, like a sepia-tinted photo, a memory of a simpler time.

But, I also don’t get it. Roots might keep you down-to-earth, but they also keep you fixed – to a place, to a perception, to a philosophy. They are also below the surface, cueing a deep, dank place where the light doesn’t reach. And to get even more matter-of-fact, they are the recipients of much organic waste. Suddenly, ‘roots’ doesn’t convey so warm and comforting a place anymore; and if this is what is meant to give you identity, who would wish to identify with this?

To continue dissecting the metaphor, if using a tree analogy, why only roots? For instance, why…

An illustration of the Tree of LifeCan’t I have shoots, thus moving up, seeking the light, sky and all things higher?

Can’t I be a mighty trunk, sturdy and solid, providing support to the resting and respite for the passerby?

Can’t I be a tender leaf, offering a speck of greenery in a rapidly greying world?

Can’t I be a flower, spreading good cheer with both my appearance and my fragrance?

Can’t I be a fruit, providing sustenance to herbivores and “healthivores”?

Can’t I be a branch, bearing all of the previous three, and offering shelter to itinerant birds and housing for the nesting ones?

In fact, why can’t I eschew the plant analogy altogether, and be one of those birds? Free to rest and roost anywhere, unmindful of borders, and thus, bringing things back to that ‘global citizen’ response.

And even staying within the realm of roots, why should I be only underground roots?

A quote post, around not being fixed like a treeWhy can’t I be the aerial roots of a banyan tree, above the ground and a bit away from the parent tree, eventually becoming my own tree (technically, a trunk) yet remaining a part of the original?

Why can’t I be the exposed roots of a mangrove, delighting in all the elements – sun, sky, air, water, earth – instead of just one or two?

Or best still, why can’t I be the adventitious roots of a money plant, cut at the stem, taken away from its parent, put in a new location, and gradually prospering in this new home too?

But this discourse perhaps is too much for even the most woke millennial. The cynics pause and then sneer, “Bah, you are rootless!” I prefer the term “unrooted”. But by then, their ears are well into the ground. People’s desires to put you in a box are apparently too… deep-rooted.

So, again, I find myself turning to my parents. When I have pushed my dad about his ancestry (because that’s what the traditionalists want, don’t they), after initially obliging me, he has finally dismissed me with, “You know, I was – and still am – busy earning a living. Who had / has the time to think about all this??” Guess that is a response as rooted in truth as any.

I wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. Here’s the edited version on their site: This piece on thREAD

Guru Dutt as Vijay toward the end of Pyaasa

Fellowship of the Soul

Love for all things Cal and Bengal.

Love for animals.

Rooted in the middle class.

Deep-rooted.

Introverted.

Complex.

Artistic.

Humanistic.

Holding honesty in great regard.

Not holding money in much.

Creative soul.

Creative soul with an unending thirst for perfection.

And because of all the above, an anguished creative soul.

A feeling of being ahead of one’s time.

Experiences of constantly being misunderstood.

Impassioned personal life.

Imperfect love life.

A yearning to get away from it all.

A wish to give it up all.

Is it any wonder that I feel a fellowship of the soul with… Guru Dutt?

Guru Dutt with a monkey atop his shoulderI have been on a deep discovery of Guru Dutt, both his movies and himself, for some months now. (That’s how I’ve picked up many of the above details.) And find somewhere that we are / were similar souls. From more visible aspects (like our great fondness for Calcutta and Bengal because we spent our early years there) to less tangible ones like humanism. This is the best explanation I have been able to offer to what has drawn me to GD (apart from his movies, of course). And no, this is obviously not meant to put me on the same creative plane as GD. I don’t think I could achieve in several lifetimes what GD achieved in one, that too, a relatively short one. With that feeling of fellowship though, I would have loved to see / meet GD just once in my lifetime. But that, alas, won’t happen in this lifetime either. Until then, there are his movies – filled with his beliefs, ideals, values… and soul.

 

A woman's hands clutching tight a giant heart shape

The Heartbreak of the Matter

When you fall in love, who puts that love in there? You? The person you love? Or some force from above? Or, all three? Maybe that’s why, more often than not, your heart breaks. Because love might be in your heart. But loving is not in your hands.

A conceptual image of a couple in small and silhouette sitting within the frame of a plant in the shape of a heart

Greater than Great

If you are lucky, you have experienced love (love, not a crush) once in your life. If really lucky, you’ve perhaps experienced it twice or even thrice. For that, perhaps you need to have lived longer. But if you are really, really lucky – no, fortunate – you’ve experienced great love. All its tumult, all its turmoil, all its tension, all its torture, all its terror, in short, all its tsunamis. And it is a tsunami, or multiple. It gets into you, seizes you, holds you captive, fills your being. And in the process, brings out a tsunami of tears too. For you typically don’t get your great love. That’s why it’s called great: it’s something beyond your bearing. (And also other people’s understanding.) Still, you are better for it. Although you were worse for it when you were in it.

But can there be something greater than great love? Is that possible? Is even just that thought possible? As I said, perhaps it is. If you are the deeply romantic sort – and the highly lucky sort. As it is greater than great love, it also happens in a realm that’s beyond yours: the spiritual, the metaphysical, the sufi sort, and although I don’t believe in religion and just a bit in god, perhaps the divine sort. The closest I can think of is the kind that Meera felt for her lord. But given that both those are pretty much myths, this kind of love is perhaps of mythical proportions too. Because it’s about how a great life should be led, how great a life it could be, how great you could become (for yourself) in this greater-than-great love…

So, what do you call this love that is greater than great love? What else but… great life? And that can only be explained by experiencing it.