“Where I can cry me a river….”

** Editor’s note:  We have rarely re-printed essays of a recent pedigree, but in this case, we found this essay particularly relevant to the theme of this issue.  Originally published in 2008.

 

When I return from a trip and open the door of my fifth-floor apartment and look out the window and  catch a glimpse of  the wooded ridge that Montrealers grandly call Mount Royal,  I first feel a sense of relief, and then an urgent desire to relieve myself, for  my whole being knows  that I am finally and unequivocally  home. For home is, after all, that one place  where you body relaxes and your mind is at rest.  And I certainly feel Canada is my homeland,  except when I ask myself what brought me to this frozen landscape so distant  from my sun-drenched  birthplace, or why my loved ones are so far away or what will happen when my body falters or where will I be when the time comes to end the journey.  At such moments, home feels very far away.

Today I say that Canada is my home forever, but how long does forever last? After all, once upon a time, I felt safe in Mexico City, the city where I was born, the “most transparent region in the world” as Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes once described it, a city with astounding architecture surrounded by snow-capped volcanoes and lit at night by the stars. I used to think it was the most beautiful place on earth and could not imagine not living there. But now when I visit my birthplace, I no longer think of it as home, my homeland, burdened as I am with harrowing tales of political and street violence as well as the assault of millions of bodies hurrying about in millions of hydrocarbon-fuelled cars or riding in crowded smelly subway cars or just trying to cross from one side of the street to the other without getting hit. Besides, my ageing body can no longer take high altitudes without going into overdrive and pollution has clogged up the atmosphere.

At the age of seven I discovered that Mexico wasn’t the centre of the universe when the newly independent government of India invited my father to work there for a couple of years. My Indian father had been exiled from  his own homeland for forty-seven years for having had the temerity of trying to free it from foreign rule. But now  India was free and the family could “return”. So we made the long trip to India until we reached Nagpur, right in the centre of the country.  So Nagpur became my new home. And if home is where the heart is, my heart was certainly very much in this country where life offered very few amenities and very many adventures.  Home for me was the place where I could follow  the bright eyes of a tiger who had come to our fountain to take a drink of water, while we slept outdoors in summer. It was the backyard where I was chased by a black-faced monkey larger than myself when another child hurled a stone at it. It was the lotus pond in Telenkheri garden on whose banks I would lie  trying to break the silvery beads of water that bounced off the lotus pads. It was the jungle where I tried to count the parrots that camouflaged themselves in the green foliage. It was the back steps of the house where I learnt how to spit and shine shoes from  the driver’s son who also taught me Hindi, my third language after Spanish and English. Home was an independent India full of promise and adventure.

But as they say, all good things come to an end and our idyll in Nagpur lapsed with the end of my father’s contract. So we reluctantly returned to Mexico City where our real life awaited us. But Mexico City had changed, or rather, I had. I no longer found it as comforting or as unique as I had once thought it to be. Yes, indeed, it was still beautiful but our life paled in comparison to the excitement that  India had provided.  But India taught me many lessons, and one of them was the importance of learning. So the nine year old who returned to Mexico had stopped being a shy wide-eyed dreamy child to become a self-confident student. School filled the hollow left in my guts when India was yanked away from me. School was a place where I always felt at home.

But as they say again, the only constant is change itself. My  mother, who was born in Brussels and had the courage to marry  a “black” revolutionary thirty years her senior, suddenly realized that her daughters were growing up and they deserved a better future. For her, a better future meant marrying an Indian man, an idea inspired no doubt more by her fierce love for my father than by any maternal logic.  So  my parents sold our cozy little house, and packed up the family library and all of us took a slow boat to India to live there forever. I was fourteen and I suddenly realized  that I no longer wanted to leave Mexico.  I was very confused. So  I cried me a river and the river overflowed into the Caribbean and then the Atlantic through  the Mediterranean  past the Suez Canal across the Arabian Sea all the way to Bombay. As soon as the ship docked, I burst into tears again at the sight of my father who had preceded us one year earlier.  The family was together again.  We had swam against the current, reversing  migration trends, for who would be crazy enough to leave a relatively well-off third world country where we had a roof over our head and my father had a job for a poorer country still suffering from the wounds of partition and facing the challenge  of  looking after its huge idiosyncratic and diverse population.

When we got to Nagpur, I kept on crying until my tears were drowned by the monsoon and then dried out by the summer drought and them simply forgotten as we settled down to our new life. Life was no longer the exciting affair it had been when my father was a government guest. Unemployment for an elderly patriot, a challenging  life for an outspoken unconventional European woman and the strictures of a patriarchal society for the two young women my sister and I had become were tough, but the support our family got from the community carried us through.  Once again, we were home.  So  I  hit my books again and went about my daily business, turning a deaf ear to what people said about us. What they said was that the girls shouldn’t be running around so freely in their  bicycles, that my mother should keep her opinions to herself, that a girl shouldn’t work in the garden with a hoe and spade like a common worker, that running for office in the student body was just not done,  and so on and so forth. I had finally found a niche in college, but had no idea what the future would bring after graduation.

Then the phone rang. It was my mother who had gone to New Delhi to meet my sister’s future mother-in-law. Pack up and come, she said, there is a job waiting for you in the Venezuelan Embassy. When? I mumbled. Now! Tomorrow, said my mother. So the following day I took a train and reached New Delhi on my twentieth birthday. What does a secretary do, I asked my mother. Well, she said, she uses her head. If your boss has a headache, for example, you get her an aspirin. If you have a headache, you keep quiet and keep on typing. I see, I said. And I did. Three years and three more Latin American embassies later, I was offered a scholarship in Mexico City.

So once again I returned to my homeland at the age of 23. This  time Mexico City did feel like home. The air was beginning to lose its transparency and traffic was clogging formerly quiet streets , but it was certainly home. A Master’s in oriental studies in Mexico seemed to be made to measure for me. But destiny decided otherwise.  I quickly fell in love with an American student, married him, got pregnant, dropped out of school and started my career as a simultaneous interpreter. I even acquired my husband’s Mexican extended family. I had finally arrived.

However, events moved rather fast in the sixties and seventies.  The ’68 movement which first hit the cobblestones of Paris spread like wildfire in the universities of Mexico City and then invaded the streets.  Political violence escalated  culminating in the Tlatelolco massacre in the Plaza of the Three Cultures where we lived. We had to abandon our modest  condo and rent  an apartment near the university campus at the other end of the city. Violence seemed to follow us. More than once I had to run for cover with my two little girls while bullets whizzed past us. Mexico was no longer safe. Mexico stopped being home. So we sold off our belongings and decided to spend my husband’s sabbatical abroad to test the waters.

One day  we drove off  in our Beetle at the crack of dawn. As the sun started to rise, I remember telling my husband that even though we were temporarily without a home and perhaps a job, I felt that our car was our home, because the whole family was together and that was all that mattered.  So we kept heading north until we reached New Haven in Connecticut where my husband planned to sit down and write a book.  The nine months we spent there are a blank in my mind. We had no friends and felt completely isolated.

And then  the phone rang again. It was a job offer for me at a UN agency in Montreal. So we drove to Montreal and I have been here ever since. One day my husband simply decided to leave and I stayed on.  Montreal, I thought, was a good place to raise two girls.

So here I am in Montreal, the city that has provided me with the greatest stability, but my heart is not all in one piece. It is scattered in Mexico, where I have warm memories, in Chicago, where one of my daughters lives, in Wichita, where the other daughter and my granddaughter live, in Delhi, where my sister lives, in Nagpur, where I bid farewell to my father and in about forty-five countries which I have visited and where someone or something has touched me.

My friends have always asked me whether I feel Mexican or Indian or Canadian. I classify that question in the same category of unanswerable questions as the one some silly grownups would ask me as a child: Whom do you love more, your mother or your father?  I also remember the comment made by a fiercely Spanish friend of mine. She once informed me that my problem was that I did not know who I was.  My reply? I did not know I had a problem, I said, and actually your problem is that you are the one who does not know who I am.  It is difficult for me to understand the mentality of people brought up in a jingoistic society. For them, life is either/or, black/white, us/them. For me, identity is a very important part of how we define ourselves,  but at the same time it is also a political and social construct used to manipulate citizens.  Wars would not exist if people didn’t define themselves as “them” and “us”. How can we think of appropriating a piece of land, or destroying buildings or taking human lives if in our minds we did not consider them “the others”, the enemy. And this is a problem which I perceive to be highly  gendered. It is no coincidence that it has been women in Ireland from both sides of the protestant/catholic divide who seriously sought to achieve peace. Their argument was that they did not bear children to convert them into the killers of other women’s children and vice-versa.  Women have also spearheaded peace movements such as the “women in black” group to promote a peaceful solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conundrum. It was women in Plaza de Mayo in Argentina whose relentless efforts brought some answers to the riddle of the disappeared children. What has this got to do with the question of homelands?  The excuse for most wars is to try to save the homeland from some horrible fate and most wars are declared and waged by men.

So returning to the personal, I feel very Mexican when I go back to Mexico and a flood of  childhood memories takes over my brain. But I stop feeling Mexican when I hear the first few words of the national anthem which say: “Mexicanos al grito de guerra….! Mexicans answering the call of war…. Or when my right to call myself Mexican is questioned by passport authorities who inform me that my family name Khankhoje is not Mexican or when I wear Indian clothes and my Mexican friends make a snide comment.   On the other hand, Indians accept me as Indian, even though I was not born in that country,  do not  carry an Indian passport and  do not speak Hindi, the official language,  correctly. This is perhaps due to the fact that the motto of Indian identity is: Unity in  Diversity.  And even though my parents did not give us a religious education,  I strongly identify with the philosophy of several religious traditions that flourished in India. Now, nobody would consider me Belgian at all, because I am sure Belgians see me as “coloured” (although Indians see me as white and Mexicans as just right), but I  certainly feel very  Belgian when I see somebody with my mother’s oddly coloured eyes: green with brick-red specks and feel a deep affinity,  or when I toast to her memory with a stein of beer in one hand and a chocolate in the other. And I realize that I have become Canadian because I enjoy the fact that it is a country where they just  let you be. True, the multicultural mosaic sometimes cracks along its fault lines, but it is still very much multicoloured.

And what about the United States? I must confess that crossing the border into the United States fills me with some trepidation, especially after 9/11. Before that, I had a Mexican passport and they would always give me a bit of trouble, perhaps because having a Muslim sounding name on a Mexican passport was a bit unusual. Now that I have a Canadian passport, I feel a tad safer, but not much more. The press is full of horror stories of how honest citizens have been harassed or worse, for no logical reason at all. I do not agree with the policies of the United States government at present or even historically, but I am very careful not to hold the American people responsible for all of their governments policies. It is a known fact that in most countries of the world, governments do not necessarily speak for the citizens they claim to govern democratically.  And this is a very important point. We tend to think that our homeland is that place were our interests will be protected, but this is not necessarily so. Homelands are an illusory concept because the elites that rule countries seldom take decisions that favour their  weakest citizens.   There is a suprahomeland for the rich and powerful, built on a network of jumbo-jets, world-class hotels, corporate board-rooms and the best playgrounds  that countries have to offer, where all its citizens are given VIP treatment. There is an infrahomeland for  the marginalized, the homeless, the disenfranchised whose shaky foundations are built on the sludge of Brazilian favelas, the landslide-prone mountain sides of Mexico’s vecindarios, the townships of South Africa, the landfills of urban sprawl, the sidewalks of Mumbai. And then there are the autochthonous people, the natives, the aboriginals,  the first nations, the adivasis, call them what you will, but the land they hold under their stewardship is shrinking at an exponential rate.

A lot has been said about globalization, both good and bad. Actually what is bad about the globalizing trends of today is that corporations have become powers unto themselves over and above national laws meant to protect their citizens. And even if there are international laws that are supposed to protect all citizens of the world, including those who hold no citizenship papers,  their enforcement is a tricky question.  But globalization of people is a good thing. It is a fallacy to believe that this is the first time in human history that there have been mass migrations. People crossed the frozen bridge of the Bering  Strait on foot  just as they walked on red-hot sand to somehow cross the  Red Sea, they drifted from the Pacific to South America on a raft (or was it the other way around?), they sailed from China to Mexico and around the Cape of Good Hope and they will keep doing so, because this vast planet of ours is their and our homeland. Today things haven’t changed that much. The locus of what we call  homeland has been extended, that is all. Double and multiple nationalities are quite common. Hyphenated citizenship is a fact of life. And oftentimes, homeland is a concept which is not geographical at all, but simply a very fluid concept.  This is especially  true for transhumant communities. In a sense, even though people who live outside the countries in which they were born are still a minority, the trend is rapidly growing.

Which brings me back to  the original subject of this essay: the word homeland. I have come to abhor that word because it has been hijacked by  politicians to manipulate people, just as the Swastika, a symbol of wholeness in the Hindu tradition  was hijacked to instil terror in the hearts of people.  Homeland Security are two words which inspire dread in many citizens, both inside and outside the United States. It is almost as bad a word as Vaterland. The world homeland was used in many African colonies to reduce the habitat of the original inhabitants so that the colonizers could appropriate the lion’s share of the land. The word homeland is often synonymous with reservation, where the natives are hemmed in just as animals that were born free have been penned in  towards a slow extinction. The notion of a homeland for a specific religious or linguistic  group has caused untold suffering in many parts of the  world by excluding one group at the expense of another one. Current newspapers are full of examples.

I clearly remember a doll I had as a little girl. When  I had accidentally decapitated it, I discovered that  a tiny  Mexican flag  had been used to hold some of the doll’s innards together. The idea that a flag should be used in such a disrespectful  manner shocked me, because at school I had been indoctrinated to believe that nothing was more sacred than a national flag. I no longer feel that way. Symbols should never replace the sentiments they are supposed to foster. Nationalism was certainly a very useful unifying factor in the anticolonial struggles that followed World War II. It was also an  improvement over the old feudal notions of the ruling class that considered the  peasants living on “their” land  as their personal chattel and cannon fodder. Nationalism is a good thing when it includes, it is a very bad thing when it excludes.  Today, more than ever, we have to realize that the only homeland we have, in a strict territorial sense, is the planet Earth. We all have a legitimate right to live off the land and a  concomitant  duty to  protect it.

The “commons” is a  lovely English word. The land that belongs to the collectivity is our true homeland for all of us to share.  Passports,  identity cards,  green cards, laissez-passers and soon electronic chips  are simply documents  invented by people to keep track of their affairs, nothing more and nothing less. They do not legitimize or invalidate the human being who is at the centre of it all. Moreover, our true ancestral homeland is most probably Africa, because it is there that palaeontologists found Lucy’s bones, perhaps the  oldest remains in the world.  Lucy is the foremother of all of us, as proven by DNA and mitochondrial studies.  I love that notion, because I’m sure it makes white supremacists lose a lot of sleep.

Perhaps the best sense of homeland, our homeland, is that space which we have pledged to cherish and protect, where our kith and kin and friends  live, that is our kindred humanity, including the animals and plants with whom we share space. Our homeland is a social and natural contract in which all the parties are committed to working for each other in the interests of the commonwealth.

I therefore agree with  Virginia Woolf  who said:  “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the world”. But Virginia also talked about the importance of having a room of one’s own. So for me, home is not only where the heart is, but it is also that room, both physical and metaphorical,  where we can truly be ourselves. It is that space where our voice is heard and our aspirations heeded. It is where we feel a sense of communion and community. It is that space where we can engage in joint endeavours  and share both the good and the bad. It is that corner where we can break bread together at the end of our toils and raise a glass of wine in celebration.

My homeland is where I can relieve myself at will or cry me a river without fear of drowning or having the Homeland Security chaps knocking on the door telling me to shut up.