Monday, January 23, 2012
It can be a punishment worse than death
The ancient Greeks, who were otherwise sensibly cynical about suffering and pain in love and war, would become insufferably maudlin when it came to the plight of someone forced into exile. To be banished from your land and not be able to live among your people was considered a fate worse than death.
Euripedes crafted his tales around the theme of exile, each utterance of his exiled men and women drafted to tug at the strings of the reader's heart. Death was melancholic; exile was tragic. There must have been something universal about that perception.
For kings and emperors, dictators and tyrants, usurpers and pretenders who followed the demise of ancient Greece are known to have turned a deaf ear to pitiful cries of mercy while punishing those guilty of real and imaginary crimes by sending them into exile. Being fed to the lions, it would seem, was preferable to living in a foreign land among alien people.
But exile wasn't always a punishment that fetched individual sighs of horror. It was also the only option for those persecuted for their faith and belief. The Jews went into exile after the destruction of their Second Temple and till the birth of Israel wandered the world, waiting for the day they could return to Jerusalem and claim it as their own. The Zoroastrians fled Persia and sought shelter in India to keep the fire of their faith burning. In more recent times, the Dalai Lama led his people into exile after China grabbed Tibet through force.
The Parsis, having lost their home and hearth in the land of Zarathustra forever, became an integral part of Indian society. The Tibetans, on the other hand, believe Tibet shall be free once again. They live as exiles in India and around the world in anticipation of the day when they can claim Tibet as their land and drive the Han Chinese out. That may never happen, just as Napolean died dreaming of his country.
It's not that everybody who leaves his or her homeland to set up home somewhere else grieves for that which has been left behind. Southall may remind visitors of Punjab but Punjabis who live there don't see it as a reminder of their past. Those who weep into their whiskey and beer at Glassy Junction are not necessarily haunted by memories. Nor do those who have changed their names to Andy and Wendy after swapping their Indian passports with American citizenship feel either remorse or guilt for disowning their motherland.
Yet there are millions who feel an umbilical attachment to India, though they have never visited the land their forefathers left, or were forced to leave. These are the descendants of east Indians who, having offered to become indentured labourers for a pittance, crossed the kala pani, never to return again. Chutney music will no doubt be sneered at here in India, but for most east Indians in the Caribbean, it keeps them rooted to their culture and identity.
In Mauritius and Trinidad and Tobago, separated by sea and continents, indentured immigrant Indians clung on to ideas of caste and community, notions of kith and kin; if those were eroded with time, they re-invented them, but never abandoned what they thought was, and still think is, unique to their identity in the land of their exile. Like the wandering Jews they wove facts into faith so that new generations would remember and not forget.
Yet, for many exiles forgetting and not remembering makes it easier to cope with the reality. This is especially true for those who can't return home even if they wish to. Bangladeshi poet Daud Haider had to leave his country after being accused of blasphemy in 1974. He sought shelter in Kolkata, a city that adopted him as one of its own. In 1986 he was asked to leave India as his presence was deemed to be detrimental to relations with Bangladesh. Celebrated German writer Gunter Grass brought him to Berlin where he has lived ever since.
Till recently Daud would petition anybody and everybody in Bangladesh to let him visit the land of his birth just once so that he could meet his family, see the house he grew up in, talk to his childhood friends, smell the soil and taste the water that were once so familiar. Promises were made and broken. Hope that once burned bright is now a dying, flickering flame.
It's only when your country disowns you that you realise what exile means. Euripedes was right. Nothing can be more tragic than that. Ask the Kashmiri Pandits, they will tell you what it means to be exiled from the land of your ancestors.
[My weekly column in MidDay published on January 21, 2012.]