So much happens in the penumbra that the pandemic casts; so much that takes place when our attention has been averted – rulings handed down without our awareness, or at best, in the guise of necessary constraints on civil and other freedoms. Changes in international immigration laws, particularly in the USA, are about to leave lakhs of Indian students and workers stranded, facing deportation or forced into major decisions that may permanently change their trajectories. In the meanwhile, the former colony of Hong Kong has swiftly been politically reabsorbed into a country it does not necessarily want to be a part of any longer. Non-human beings – plants and animals – are losing their habitats to quietly passed decrees. With and without our common knowledge, more like this is happening everywhere.
To return to those people who will now be forced to come “home” – how sure can you be that this is their home?
I have held Indian citizenship my entire life, despite never having lived in this country until I was an adult. I grew up, first, for a few years, in a nation that has yet to reckon with the long shadow of a civil war. And then, for not a few years at all but for almost eighteen of them, in another nation where I was, for all legal purposes, (you guessed it) an “international student”. At the very end of my time there, I was so desperate to stay that I lived on a tourist visa that required me to perform an emotionally and legally precarious border-crossing every month, until I couldn’t. Every year I’ve been here since then has reinforced my sense of unbelonging. My story isn’t unique.
The stories you think you know – about how only the privileged travel or migrate, about the ignorance and entitlement of the diaspora, and pithy condescensions that one can be at home anywhere in the world – aren’t realities as often as assumed. Life’s vicissitudes are personal and vast. No one is only the document they hold, or don’t.
Let’s bring our attention back “home”, then. Trespasses of physical landscapes are but abstractions, and distractions, in relation to what happens within borders to those presumed to not belong there. While the pandemic can make envisioning broader pictures and possible futures hazy, it’s important to remember that only a few months ago, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens were blazing issues. They still are, to those who have been or could be personally affected by any similar legal rulings.
In fact, the pandemic has highlighted just how volatile and arbitrary it truly is to technically be from a place, but have no foothold there, even while within it. The plights of lakhs of “migrant” workers – meaning here only those who’ve moved between states within the same nation – who underwent or undergo special peril during the lockdown should have already taught those of us who haven’t experienced it personally just what a capricious concept belonging is. Some are sheltered within borders, some are held captive, some are exiled beyond them – and most do not know which it is, until the unpartitioned sky feels like it’s falling on their own lives.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 11th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.