My essay on rootlessness, global citizenship, and a fluid sense of identity in the Business Standard.
No Place is Home
Some months ago, a long-time family friend sat me down on the lawn in Bangalore Club and told me it was time to find a girl ‘from our community’ and settle down. As he earnestly articulated the benefits of such a match, it struck me, with that mix of sadness for what is lost yet acceptance for what is now true, that my ‘community’ is no longer what he thought it was.
I haven’t lived in Bangalore in over a decade, and the city now is unrecognizable from the place I grew up in – all the new malls and one-ways and ugly apartments, the metro construction on M.G. Road, the increasing road rage and crime. Each time I visit, Bangalore feels less like home.
It doesn’t help that I have always been a minority in India: in language, religion, political currency, and cultural ways of daily being such as (lack of) deference to authority. Growing up in cosmopolitan Bangalore, I was unaware of the extent of my minority hood. But living in Delhi and travelling through nearly every Indian state in the years after college, I was struck again and again by how far out of the mainstream I stood. An outsider in my homeland. So, if I must be a minority, I may as well live where I speak the majority language, am of the dominant religious heritage, enjoy the politics, and feel connected to a globalized sub-culture. Sour grapes, perhaps. But there it is.
The catch, of course, with being a global citizen is that the tangible aspects of that citizenship (i.e., the human connections) are transient. By being from everywhere, you are from nowhere. And when you aren’t tied down by place, you move. And move again. The first casualty becomes the social bonds and customs that weave together the sense of “community” that has characterized and sustained humans throughout history. Your community, in the traditional sense, shifts every few months. This is why many globally-minded people reject global citizenship for the virtues of older, more binding, ties. For us global citizens, however, community is now largely virtual – more time on Facebook than face to face. The laptop and cell phone are the primary communal interfaces, not the living room or the house of worship. This may be sad; it may also be the future.
Some Indians might say I have become ‘Americanized’, but that would be wrong. I am just as foreign in a group of average Americans as average Indians. Global citizens are not migrants. We aren’t journeying to a land of better opportunity. We’re post-migrant, constantly striving not to be defined by the lands of our birth. In fact, “global” is not sufficiently descriptive to capture my tribe; it is too vague, too catch-all. It rests on being the opposite of local and sounds expansive when what we are is a specific niche group, not hard to identify. The best fitting label I’ve seen so far is “sophistonauts”, defined in a New York Times travelogue as “wide-roaming urban nomads…who tend to live outside their countries of citizenship and bounce around a social web connecting them to equally geographically flexible, curious confreres.”
What appeals to me about this definition is the sense of roaming yet sticking together. In that sense, we are just as parochial, just as provincial, as any other tribe. In another sense, writer Anand Giridharadas called us “the placeless”. But “placeless” is definition by negation, defining us by virtue of what we lack, so I like it less. Giridharadas quips that the placeless find it easier to ask friends in five countries for a favor than to ask a neighbor for sugar.
Joseph O’Neill recently said that people who, like me, study or work in five continents before they are thirty, learn to construct their identity as they move through these border crossings. We realize, often disconcertingly, that identity can be fluid.
Outside of my mother, my sister and our house in Bangalore, I have no home anymore. The standard description of home as a place or location obscures the truth that home is in fact about people. Giridharadas observes that often it is only a romantic relationship that allows the placeless to find their home. This helps explain why migrants save up money to bring their families over to them, rather than returning to their birthland. Like them, I am home when I am with my people; it’s just that my people now come from all around the world.
It’s also why, as I quipped to my horrified family friend on the lawn in Bangalore Club, I am more likely to find the woman of my dreams in a refugee camp in Eastern Congo than I am in Bangalore.