When I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as a teenager, there was a phrase on the first page of the book that has stuck in my mind. The protagonist Saleem says that he was “handcuffed to history.”
As I inched past my mid-30s towards middle age, this truth was looming larger. I had gone to the same school from the age of 5 to 17. I had had the same best friend from elementary through high school.
I had lived in the same neighborhood in New Delhi for two decades. I had eaten Indian food almost every day of my life until I was 20. And I had known all my neighbors.
I had also grown up with a plethora of place-based markers with which to measure the passing of childhood and adolescence: Lodhi gardens, Humayun’s tomb, Connaught Place, Bengali Market, Khan Market – these were spaces that I had ownership over.
Of course, it was a joint ownership, shared with my friends and many others I didn’t know, but who were nonetheless part of my tribe. I had a tribe.
For all the choices I had made subsequently, about eating hummus and learning Chinese, there was a core to my identity. It was shaped by the environment in which I had grown up, and had little to do with volition.
My identity was determined by repetitive cultural rituals and parental diktats: years of lighting dias on diwali and singing the national anthem in school assemblies; watching chitrahaar on Wednesday evenings; learning Bharatnatyam, twice a week; eating chicken manchurian as a special treat.
Beneath all my globetrotting, I had a nucleus. And that nucleus anchored my identity.
A profound generational shift
But what about when someone lacked this core? When they were without anchor? When choice became an existential burden too heavy for them to heave around?
In short: What about my children?
By the time my older son Ishaan was 6 years old and Nico all of 4, they had attended three schools — in language environments that ranged from French, to Chinese, to English.
They did not have regular interactions with extended family. They did not know their neighbors. They had not imbibed the scents of cardamom and mustard seeds frying in hot oil from their mother’s cooking: I did not cook. They were wholly undefined by place or nation.
The Chinese-English bilingual kindergarten the kids initially attended in Jakarta celebrated the diversity of its student body annually with a special assembly. All the children were required to wear national outfits and introduce themselves in a “my name is xxx, I am from xxx,” format.
Despite days of coaching by his teacher, Ishaan was resolute in his refusal to say he was “from Spain and India” (my husband’s and my own home countries).
Instead, he insisted on being Chinese. “I was born in China,” he explained. On the day itself, he was browbeaten into mouthing the compromise formulation of “I am Spanish, Indian and Chinese.”
By the time Ishaan was five, he had made his peace with the fact that he was not Chinese, but nonetheless he refused to embrace his maternal or paternal roots.
“You are Indian, mama,” he said. “And Papa is Spanish. Not me. I am nothing.”
Our younger son Nico appeared to be more accepting of his parental heritage. I suspect this was because he was more emotionally manipulative than his brother.
It was my younger son’s style to say things that elicited approval rather than reflected his true feelings on a matter. The fact was that if he ever spotted anything visibly Indian, the national flag, for example, or a woman wearing a saree, he would excitedly point it out to me by saying, “Look, its your Indian things.”
To him, I was Indian, and Nico and Ishaan were their own special category that didn’t have a name. ………..
As our time in Indonesia moved toward its scheduled closing, my geographical angst kicked in anew. Where were we going next, everyone asked us. That query seemed to deserve a reply suggesting an enthusiastic embrace of new pastures and exotic fauna.
But all I wanted was to go home.
What was ‘home’?
What a fraught word that had become. Years earlier, we had bought a house in Brussels. Was that home? My husband Julio was going to apply for a job opening in Delhi, the city where my mother and many friends still lived.
But was that home? We had even discussed a return to Beijing. Could China become home again?
When I was a decade younger and newly peripatetic, I used to jest that the home page of Google was the only “home” I had or needed.
But I had little patience for such a line, clever though it had sounded, now that I had two kids, furniture in storage facilities around the world, my fortieth birthday zooming around, chronic insomnia and ageing parents.
This is what I worried about. Would my children grow up without any sense of real social obligations? Would their colourful global identities be doomed to an adolescent shallowness? Would they lack the emotional depth that more national, place-bound attachments engender?
What I want for my family was an identity rooted in a lack of bigotry. What I also want for us is a commitment to a pluralism of the mind, values that are free of place.
My children will always carry the mongrel within them. I hope that makes them committed to the beauty of the mishmash, the in-between and to be open to many ways of being: black and white and pink (as Ishaan describes his skin colour), Christian and Hindu and atheist, Chinese and Indonesian and Spanish.
Absence of a national identity
The primacy of national identity is missing for my boys. But I remain undecided about how significant this absence is.
Their loyalties and rituals transcend borders, but they are no less powerful for it. They have affection for the peoples of all the countries they have lived in.
My boys know several national anthems – although they are currently most familiar with the Australian and Indonesian ones. They are as used to women in headscarves as they are to ones in mini-skirts.
Their Sunday ritual includes a sushi dinner instead of rajma chawal (kidney bean curry and rice), but is nonetheless part of the repetitive routines of childhood that nurture a sturdy sense of self.
For my kids, countries are merely lines drawn on a map. They are free of the over-heated emotion of patriotism.
I can only try and make them aware of their enormous privilege, so that while they do not become defined by place, they remain earth bound.
And set against my hopes is the fear of their confusion and possible anger at the trade-offs made on their behalf by the choices of their parents.
My fear is that they might turn to rigid certainties – as a rejection of the ceaseless movement of their childhoods. Our family needs to be deep enough to allow their roots to hold firm. It’s a big ask.
Edited excerpts from Babies and Bylines: Parenting on the Move (Harper Collins India) which released on April 28, 2016