You can always leave but never go back
A friend of mine once told me that one can always leave his home town but can seldom go back. There is a lot of truth in this statement and I too fall into this category of Diaspora living abroad for the past 50 years so I feel that the time has come for me to analyze this phenomenon of why most people who leave cannot go back to their place of origin. It is a worldwide phenomenon that should not be misconstrued as a migrant problem. The temporary migrant workers in the Middle East for example number in millions but rarely anyone stays there for good. They all have a temporary permit to work but must leave at the end of their contract.
I am writing about those people like myself who have left their country and settled in another country quite unlike the ones they left behind and literally turned a new page in their life. So this is the story of the Diaspora but here too there are those who forsake their homeland for good and become a citizen of another country and there are those like myself who always remain attached to their home country through a piece of ID card euphemistically called a passport.
My home town was a pleasant, sleepy, placid and a rather unexciting town where the annual exhibition or a circus once in a few years was the high light of the year. I say was because it no longer has the unenviable status of a placid, boring city that it once was but has become rather worse. I grew up there like anyone else, started schooling at the age of five, went to high school and later college, got to know a few neighbourhood kids who were my playmates up to a certain age and had the common aspiration of graduating and finding a good job somewhere, perhaps get married (through arranged marriage) and raise a family just like others.
I saw what the elders were doing going to the market with a basket to buy vegetable and fish everyday or going to the doctor for a bottle of medicine for their sick child or going to pay their bills that showed up like a hated routine. I saw them going through life with a monotony that would drive any ambitious person to distraction and tried to imagine what life would be like for me if I stayed and followed the same routine.
I was the errand boy of the family so I had to shop for all the things they needed every month, pay the bills of electricity and water, fall in line to buy the subsidized food grains from the government approved ration shops, bring the wheat to the mill for grinding to make flour, fall in line at 4 am in the coal yard to buy 20 kgs of coal a week that they allowed and came back home at 2pm without breakfast and lunch, ran errands for everybody else as well because I never could refuse anyone anything. I even had to iron my sister’s saris with a charcoal iron that got very hot and brought her to the train station at 4 am every now and then just because she would not take the bus for some reason.
Still it was my home town where I was born and where I went to school and knew so many people of my own age or older people who always asked me to run errands for them. I knew all the roads and places and knew what could be found where so I was the shopper for all the family needs because they depended on me. There was a wonderful park not too far from our rented house where every day we went to play and made life difficult for the gardeners who liked to protect their flowerbeds and thought we were devils in the guise of angels and they were not very wrong either.
My playmates in our lane were always full of mischief and I was a participant or a leader among them catching nasty hornets and keeping them in match boxes to be traded for marbles or something else. We made our own toys and games and flew our kites from the rooftop. I even brought down many kites using a stone and a line but the kite flyers never could guess who the culprit was. We as children made many mischief that I do not need to elaborate here. It was a normal childhood when we learned to live without fancy toys or pocket money. We never had a birthday celebration because it is not a part of the culture so it did not bother me or anyone I knew.
Thus growing up in a town like ours where nothing spectacular happened except the annual festival of Pooja or Dhakando or some fairs, I was nevertheless fond of my hometown where most people I knew were middle class and few very poor as well. Our monthly show of Laurel Hardy or Charlie Chaplin movies in our school play ground was enough excitement for us kids. We did not have television but had a radio that we listened to mostly for Hindi songs played on a band called radio Ceylon. My father listened to the English news in the morning that a fellow in heavy British accent read but we did not care about what was happening elsewhere and were more interested in our own affairs that included playing marbles or milking the goat of the neighbor on the sly once in a while.
The college days were also routine and I pedaled my beat up bicycle every morning along with a few classmates so this way the years passed swiftly, we graduated and moved on with our respective lives. This was the time after graduation to think about what to do next. Some found jobs easily and moved to other parts of the country while I also found a good job but decided not to take it and started on my M.Sc. program. This was the time when I decided on a drastic new course of my life and accepted an offer to go to Vietnam as a volunteer agronomist. I did not know what would happen after my two years in Vietnam and that was during the war to boot that had some opposition but nothing I could not overcome so I left and never looked back.
I will not narrate here my life story because it appears as a blog as “The story of a lifetime by Anil” in wordpress.com so check it out. I just want to write why I left in the first place and why I could never return home.
People leave for many reasons. Some leave because they find a good job somewhere far from their town. Others leave for higher studies in other places and get a job later on near their place of study. Still others like me leave because they cannot imagine a humdrum life like others and take their chances to see what happens if they go to other countries and see what opportunities come their way for a better life. No doubt it was a risky proposition to go to a country like Vietnam where there was a fierce war going on but I persevered to finally convince the authorities to give me a passport that took many agonizing months and many more months to get a visa so finally a day came when I said goodbye to my home town and my country not at all knowing at that time if I will ever return. In fact no one knew.
That was some 50 years ago. My life took a turn that no one had foreseen including myself but I will not get into that as it appears in a story I mentioned earlier. I never forgot the link to my hometown where I spent my first 22 years of life, where my siblings and my mother lived, where I knew many people who I grew up with and shared many joyful moments, where I knew all the roads, places of interest and shops, where I enjoyed the seasons and the joys of summer with mangoes, water melons and ice creams so I made an effort to visit my home town whenever I could. Believe it or not, I visited at least 18 times in 50 years and kept in touch when not visiting. Each visit brought me closer to the realization that I had grown so apart from them that nothing could bridge that gap in spite of lavish gifts I brought for them. I brought cameras and other things for those who had asked me and those who didn’t. I donated money for the celebration of Pooja, paid for holidays to the mountains for my sister and to Agra for my mother but it failed to bring me closer to them.
There were great changes that took place in my absence that were negative in nature. The first was their perception that I was very rich and could afford to travel to so many countries by plane, visit India so many times, spend so freely for others and build the second floor of the house my father had built, renovate the ground floor extensively with flush toilet etc. This perception became the wall that I could not break down but more importantly it was my marriage to a lovely woman from a foreign country that rattled them the most so it all went downhill from there. Now the boys I knew in my childhood had no time for me and disappeared after saying a brief hello.
When I went to see one of them, he at first could not recognize me but soon came around and started a litany of his personal struggles never once asking anything about me and my children or what I did and where in the world I lived. It was so depressing to hear from him how bad the town has become full of horrendous traffic, how polluted the air is, how everything is adulterated and how the corruption is everywhere. Even the pooja which is the annual celebration for the Bengalis had become so commercialized and lack luster that I became very nostalgic about the good old days when it used to be fun.
We used to visit each other and go for walks or play guitar and sing but those days are gone. Now they look at me as someone who is rich and successful so they feel they have nothing in common with me anymore. A game of carom board or Ludo or monopoly was the way to spend the time together but not anymore. One chap whom I had not seen for many years passed by our front gate saying “see you later” but did not stop and never did come back. Another fellow who was my playmate when we were kids would not give me the time of the day and walked on by never looking back. So I realized that people had changed and I was wrong to believe that I would find them same as before.
My siblings criticized my faded denim and said that I was no longer a part of their society because I had gotten foreign education and foreign wife and our children were not given proper names. They said that I had given up all traditions although could not elaborate exactly what I had given up and what new tradition I had adopted abroad.
It is true that visiting my old college was useless because my professors had retired or died so no one knew me. My classmates had scattered all over the country and some went abroad never to meet again. The alumni association is very weak so I did not bother to ask them about others because all they wanted was my contribution to the association that does not mean anything to me. I met only one class mate but he was now a professor and did not have any time to spare for me. Another fellow I met on the road asked me abruptly if I knew French and said I should translate something for him and kept on walking never stopping to ask me if I had a family of my own and where I lived. I guess it did not matter to him other than the translation he was after. I also noticed that no one gave me his address, phone number or e mail address or asked for mine to keep in touch.
I found that almost everyone was struggling with their day to day affairs and this constant struggle was wearing them down. Some are sick and others are past redemption. They never asked me about the countries where I had worked, where I live now and what my children are doing or if I have kids. They were not interested. They were not interested in other countries or world affairs because they said that it did not concern them. So gradually I became cognizant of the fact that I was never going to mean anything to them because they had written me off including my siblings.
The sense of alienation for me was complete when my mother’s house was sold and my brother moved away to Delhi. My ma had died and so did 2 of my elder sisters. Some one told me that the house where we spent so many years together joyfully is now locked up , dark and the garden is full of weeds. No one knows what the new owner will do so the last link was cut. When I tried to rent a bicycle from a neighborhood shop, the woman said she did not know me and could not trust me. When I said that I live in the house across the street, she said she knows someone there meaning my brother but had never seen me so she could not let me rent the bike. That is when it hit me that one can always leave but never go back. I know now that I can’t.