The immigrant and a place called home

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on October 11, 2019

Capital pursuit: Siddhartha Chowdhury’s short story Danasur is set among the large community of Biharis-in-Delhi who live in and around Mukherjee Nagar   -  MONICA TIWARI

The word ‘marooned’ is derived from the French word marron, meaning ‘wild’, ‘feral’ or ‘fugitive’. Now’s the time for stories of migration

A graduate student from Assam living in Delhi, B clicks her tongue in disapproval. I’ve just turned down the smoked buff pickle (sourced from back home in Guwahati) she’s offered me. “Have it while we still can,” she says.

Her remark, at best, is half in jest. She is far away from home, where people have, almost overnight, been turned into refugees. She lives in South Delhi, near a neighbourhood housing a significant number of people from Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and the rest of the Northeast. “I feel marooned,” she says.

The metaphor is spot on. The word ‘marooned’ is derived from the French word marron, meaning ‘wild’, ‘feral’ or ‘fugitive’ — it was very much a racialised epithet, originally used in the 17th century to refer to escaped black slaves from the Caribbean (or their descendants).

Erasure of tribal histories, the Hinduisation of key historical figures and trying to force Hindi down everyone’s throats — it’s not difficult to see why B and many others like her are feeling distinctly morose about the future.

Ergo, now’s the time to pick up literature that talks about the struggles of the immigrant — not just the diaspora books, but stories about inter-state migration and economic migration.

Fleshing it out

The pickle reminded me of Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s They Eat Meat!, a short story that was part of his 2017 collection The Adivasi Will Not Dance. The narrative follows Panmuni and Biram Soren, a Santhali couple who move from Bhubaneswar to Vadodara, only to realise that their new home is an oppressively vegetarian place, where meat is difficult to source and nearly impossible to cook at home (without, that is, inviting the ire of the landlord, Mr Rao). Much of the first half of the story is about Panmuni’s efforts to cook and eat eggs and meat on the sly, away from the prying eyes of their landlord. “Vadodara is a strongly Hindu city. People here believe in purity. I am not too sure what this purity is, but all I know is that people here don’t eat non-veg... Nor do they approve of people who eat non-veg... Tribals, even lower-caste Hindus, they are seen as impure,” the landlord says.

Soon, Panmuni-jhi (‘jhi’ is aunt in Santhali) figures out a stop-gap solution for her culinary woes. There are no such food restrictions on the Central Industrial Security Force campus — where her niece, Jhapan, lives with her husband.

“The Sorens were based on a couple I knew who moved to Gujarat,” says Shekhar, who grew up in Bihar and what is now Jharkhand. “As for the CISF angle, you can see this even in the towns we grew up in. Residential colonies set up by a ‘Navratna’, or any other public sector company, would function as de facto ‘secular zones’. People from different parts of the country, whether they were officers, bureaucrats or factory workers would live together, eat together and buy things at the same markets,” he tells BLink.

They Eat Meat! is a story at once universal and thoroughly rooted in a particular time and a place. Among other things, it points out how Vadodara, or any other conservative Indian city for that matter, mostly takes its cues from upper-caste men. Mrs Rao, for example, finds herself begging Panmuni to cook eggs for her on the sly, because it is her husband who has made his peace with jettisoning this part of their lives (“When we decided to settle here — because this place is so neat and tidy — we had to pay a small price,” she says). The two women soon bond over their love for the forbidden food. “That morning, Panmuni-jhi learnt how to make a spicy Andhra egg fry,” the author writes.

The bigotry and prejudice on display in this story — the bias against non-vegetarians, the racialisation of tribals and Muslims and so on — are all a part of the larger vision in vogue now. A mix of economic slowdowns and divisive politics has left several distinct demographics feeling that their very identities are on the line. Hence the bent towards domicile politics. At one point, Shekhar writes, “In Odisha, Panmuni-jhi could be a Santhal, an Odia, a Bengali. In Gujarat, she had to be only a Gujarati.”

‘He just wants to get laid’

What does the immigrant want? “You look at a dark immigrant in that long line at JFK. You look at him and think that he wants your job and not that he just wants to get laid,” Amitava Kumar writes in his 2017 novel The Lovers (released under the name Immigrant, Montana everywhere but India).

In an email interview, Kumar speaks about this passage from the book. “In many cases, immigrants only do jobs that other Americans don’t do, and in other cases, immigrants actually create jobs. So, I was being provocative and asking if there’s something else that the immigrant could be accused of.”

But, he adds, he was also thinking about how Indian writers in the West had represented the immigrant. “They were middle-class nostalgia for the most part. I wanted to give them a slightly different, slightly deviant identity.” The book, Kumar stresses, was a response to the “enclosed, rather domesticated, inward-looking” immigrant novels that he had read over the years.

In praise of naturalised hybrids

A book that effectively describes a very Indian in-betweenness — of an immigrant residing in multiple worlds — is Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York, a collection of essays by Githa Hariharan. In the opening essay, Hariharan talks about how travelling in an Indian train is incomplete without one of your co-passengers asking you about your “native place”.

Bound to be: In a collection of essays, author Githa Hariharan observes how the “native place” dominates discussions among fellow passengers in Indian trains - Ashoke Chakrabarty   -  The Hindu


She writes: “But, as with all hunger for knowledge, as with all thirst for classification, there is an exception — an exception that is not all that exceptional any more. What do you do with a person who can’t decide on her native place? What if she is a natural or naturalised hybrid? A person with too many cities in her life, a person burdened and enriched with too many native places?”

Hariharan also explores the deeply gendered nature of this in-betweenness. Up until she was eight, she was PH Githa at a Tamil-medium school, but in her new English-medium school in Matunga, Mumbai, she was asked to specify her father’s name by “an English-speaking little ogre, the ‘class monitor’ and a boy several times my size”. Young Githa realised things about her past and present names, while the latter spelt out her ‘family name’, the former “mapped me geographically and patrilineally … told the world that I was Perinkolam Hariharan’s Githa”.

Also mapping in-betweenness is Siddhartha Chowdhury’s fiction — Diksha at St Martin’s (2002), Patna Roughcut (2005), Day Scholar (2010) and The Patna Manual of Style (2015). The first three of these books were recently republished by Picador India in an omnibus edition called Ritwik & Hriday, after Ritwik Ray and Hriday Thakur, Chowdhury’s recurring Bihari-Bengali protagonists. During the course of these books, we see Ritwik and Hriday growing up in Kadam Kuan (a Bengali-dominated neighbourhood in Patna), going to Delhi University and eventually becoming Delhi-based writers of middling repute.

Patna Roughcut, a kind of novel-in-stories, features a passage towards the beginning where Ritwik thinks about his love for both Delhi and Patna. “Since Delhi and Patna are twin cities, separated by 500 miles, it was as if I had never left the place. The weather was identical and so were the names of the localities. All those Ganjs, Dariya, Sultan, Andrews and Baker. The only difference being while Patna had Baghs like Kankar and Gardani the big brother had Gardens like Dilshad and Rajouri.”

In the late 90s, when he was around 20, Chowdhury wrote Danasur, one of the short stories from Diksha at St Martin’s. It is set among the large community of Biharis-in-Delhi who live in and around Mukherjee Nagar. Ritwik, who has tried and failed to clear the IAS entrance examination twice, is nervous about his third shot at the test. “Time was running out and he also had no ‘reservation’. In a couple of years he would become, in Delhi University Biharispeak, a ‘danasur’. A dinosaur. He would be extinct. He knew he could not go back home again.”

In the story, Ritwik sits at the beloved neighbourhood eatery — Kaake Da Dhaba — shortly after clearing the IAS entrance exam. ‘Kaake’ is a migrant from Uttar Pradesh who had landed up in Delhi years earlier, an IAS aspirant himself. After failing to make the cut, he now makes his living rustling up “mayavi” (mystical or illusory) omelettes for the mostly Bihari IAS aspirant crowd in Mukherjee Nagar. Kaake asks Ritwik if he has become an IAS officer yet and then proceeds to lecture him about the importance of picking the right eggs, if one wishes to make the perfect omelettes. After a visually challenged student irks Ritwik with the same question (“Are you an IAS officer now?”), he runs away from the dhaba — all the way, if we are to believe the legends of the future, to his father’s doorstep in Patna. He then announces that he is engaged in a top-secret scientific project to find the perfect egg — an obsession that eventually lands him in Ranchi’s asylum for the mentally ill.

Honourable mentions

These are just some of the fascinating cultural scenarios that ‘in-between’ Indian books have tackled in recent times. Thanks to the political realities of the times, there have been many others — such as Lallan, a Bihari boy besotted with a very particular kind of Delhi Cool Girl, in Saskya Jain’s novel Fire Under Ash. Or Sophie Das, who grew up in Shillong and tries to make a life for herself in Bengaluru in Anjum Hasan’s Neti Neti. In Tanuj Solanki’s short story Compassionate Grounds (part of the collection Diwali in Muzaffarnagar), a young woman from Muzaffarnagar steadily adapts to the financial and sexual freedom that Delhi/Gurgaon offers her — only to return to her hometown under tragic circumstances (prompting another mini-cycle of adaptation).

The Sorens, on the other hand, carry on, and end up effectively concealing their tribal identity — “...they went to mandirs, celebrated Hindu festivals, fasted on certain days, lit dhoop-batti in their house — and were accepted”.

Published on October 11, 2019

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