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