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.
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…
Can’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?
Why 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
How can one soul be so many souls?
When you are all soul.
Your broken heart.
You keep loving.
It keeps breaking.
Yet you keep loving.
you are foolhardy,
or a fool,
That one day,
you will love,
and your heart
won’t be broken.
it will be
made whole again.
The first buds come thinking you have little or no work, and so will do theirs for free. You know, for the famed exposure. The moment you talk budget, price-point and advance, they run. Why, they should be called fleelancers.
The next wait and watch, like vultures for the dying beast to become the dead or like long-forgotten relatives for an ageing rich relative to do the same. When you appear to be approaching death-state according to them – when the work seems to be tough coming, like it does at times in the choppy oceans of freelance – they swoop in. They brief you about their project, and then keep rejecting or going quiet over every pricing sheet you present until your quote is as low as that dying beast’s chin. And god forbid if you refuse to lower your budget – they will leave you for the dead. Or worse, get offended.
The final set waits too, but not to give you work. They eagerly wait – and hope and pray? – that you soon, or eventually, have no work and begin ruminating getting back to a job, so that they can come and make a sagely statement like, “Freelancing isn’t for everybody.”
A sub-set of this is the one that keeps thinking that even after three years of working as a freelancer, this is just a temporary gig before you get back to a real job.
Just like these f(r)iends eye the ‘free’ in ‘freelance’, you want to take the ‘lance’ in it and plunge it into them. But for that, you first have to take it out of your back.
Actually, freelance doesn’t kill friendship. It exposes it.
Gender reassignment surgery, or simply, a sex change, seems like an “extreme” step to take in life and an “extreme” change to make to the body. But many trans folk do it. (I write fresh from binge-watching two seasons of Orange Is the New Black, featuring, among other artists, Laverne Cox, who is trans in real life and in the series.) They obviously feel their gender expression isn’t aligned with the body they’ve been given, and thus proceed to “correct” the misalignment. Once you begin thinking about it closely, it gets understandable.
So, is suicide – an even more “extreme” step you take in life and the most “extreme” change you make to your body – “understandable” too, at least in the case of some people? Maybe many suicidees feel they are misfits in this world – maybe they aren’t meant for here – and so take the final step.
With trans folk, you know whether or not they are happy in their new form. With suicidees, you can only hope they are happy in whatever form they are now.
Those who live by the soul
Often have to die because of it.
If you live for the soul,
You’ll never gain from it.
Only your soul will.
Living by the soul.
Someone who lives to fill, and fulfil, the soul.
An old soul.
A gold soul.