John Steinbeck once wrote: "'I have homes everywhere, many of which I have not seen yet. That is perhaps why I am restless. I haven't seen all my homes."
Never has a statement resonated more deeply with me. I've been a traveller all my adult life, dipping like a swallow into a whole variety of countries, for days, weeks, years at a time, and feeling a sudden sense of belonging in every one of them. It gets easier as the years go on to settle wherever I am, for however long. Whether in Bangladesh, Singapore or New York, I treat the streets as my own, see the echoes and resonances in people's faces, try to perceive the patterns and themes that make up our lives. There, among strangers, I feel welcomed, amongst friends, at home.
I'm fully aware that this ability to put down shallow roots probably owes a great deal to a very firm grounding in Wales, where I spent my entire childhood, and from where so many of my values derive. Even though I visit very rarely now, I am aware of how the country's non-conformism, coupled with the sense of egalitarianism and social justice which are an essential part of its fabric, have penetrated me to the core. Perhaps it's precisely this strong sense of origin which affords me this freedom to roam, this carefree breeziness. It's a fine balance of rootedness and restlessness.
By contrast I am always fascinated by the experience of those who were uprooted from their homelands during their childhood, and transplanted to an alien soil. Those who therefore belong deeply to two cultures. Or perhaps to none. How does this condition, which of course applies to many hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshis the world over, affect the self-view? What are the joys and sorrows of a bicultural life?
They've already been beautifully articulated in the writings of famous exiles such as Rushdie and Naipaul, but where are writers like that when you need them? It's when I interviewed New Yorker Rabab Ahmed, who is spending a few months as a research intern at BRAC in Dhaka, that I had a chance to explore these themes in more detail.
After an early childhood itself divided between Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh (her parents are doctors), Rabab found herself once again uprooted at the age of 12 and whisked off to Long Island. Her parents' motivation seems to have been the time-honoured one of creating better chances for their children, whatever the personal cost to themselves. And so it was that their young daughter ended up with her brother as the only Bangali children in a Catholic School, (public schools were thought, based on media portrayals, to be too dangerous). And for the first seven years of this new existence, a formative period in anyone's life, there was no return to Bangladesh.
Adolescence is difficult enough for teenagers who never leave their home town, but to face all this as an outsider in streetwise New York was certainly a challenge. Rabab felt homesick for Dhaka rather than for Saudi where her initial schooling had taken place, and stored away in her memory a single secret location which became a metaphor for the whole homeland she had lost. Her grandmother's balcony in an old villa in Banani, full of plants, and heady with the scent of gardenia and kamini trees, came to represent a place of refuge to which the mind could escape when in need of solace. To this day the house belongs to the family, and Rabab has spent many precious moments during this lengthy return standing there, reliving, remembering.
Of course for a person whose soul is divided between two vastly different places there are dangers round every corner. The investment of all hope in Bangladesh while working in London, for example, risks meeting with disappointment when you return home only to find yourself an outsider. Likewise, the slow intuition that the USA or the UK is your real spiritual home after all can be undermined, on your return from Bangladesh, by the realisation that here too, you don't quite fit in.
For sure, there are things Rabab has loved rediscovering here. The colours, the fruits, rickshaw rides in the cool of evening, the sense of open doors and genuine welcomes.
She's been pleasantly surprised by the diversity and dynamism of the cultural scene. But, like any outsider, whether foreign or Bengali, she has found her fair share of frustrations. The traffic, the lack of courtesy on the streets, the sense of a city overstretched and straining to accommodate too many people in too small a space.
There are deeper challenges too for a returned exile from a western culture: above all the eternal struggle over the question of who your life belongs to. Basic freedoms for your average New Yorker such as where you go and what you make of yourself, not to mention when and whom you marry, can all be challenged when you are surrounded by a bevy of concerned aunties fussing over when you get home at night, why you're not engaged yet, and you will get hitched with a nice Bangali Muslim rather than one of those foreigners won't you?
Of course you don't even need to return to Dhaka to experience these conflicting pulls. The generation gap, and the conflict between individualism and collectivism, is no less wide when a whole family pitches up on foreign shores. In fact it may even be exacerbated, as the parents cling to a version of their homeland and its values which may long have faded in the homeland itself. There are aspects, for example, of the Bangladeshi community in London which are more conservative than anything Sylhet has to offer. A British Bangladeshi friend of mine who lived here years ago was perfectly prepared to greet me with a loud “mwah” on both cheeks when we met here in Dhaka. When I approached her on Brick Lane, she shrank in horror and pointed to the men in beards and tupis outside the local mosque, saying “God, not here! Please! They all know my family!”
In similar vein Rabab, who like any New Yorker has a group of international best friends (Irish, Korean, Dominican), is bound to experience a certain frustration when frequently pressed by family to find more Bangali and/or Muslim friends. She has plenty, but reserves the right to look elsewhere too, as you might expect in the world's most multicultural city. She claims the Bangladeshi community in New York, as in many other cities, is highly introverted. To socialise with compatriots is a natural urge of course: ask the Irish, the Poles, the Somalis in any world city. As a lifestyle option it's fine, but as an obligation it can get a little onerous.
And having experienced a liberal schooling, she is also likely to feel more keenly the need to make her own choices in life, not necessarily to have to become a doctor like her parents for example. But then the risk of parental disappointment is daunting. It's a lifelong dilemma which must be heartbreaking for parents: you spend the first half of your life making sacrifices to bring your children a good rounded education, and the second half regretting the use they make of it.
Rabab is keen to point out, however, that her strong need for individual freedom in no way entails a denial of what she is and where she has come from. Furthermore she plans when she has kids to teach them Bangla, to instil in them the best of Muslim values, to celebrate Eid and to make sure they never slip their Bengali moorings. They, like her, will be Bangali Americans, not American Bangalis.
But no doubt they too will have to come to terms with this nagging question of where they belong. Maybe it's simply unanswerable, and for millions of people the very idea of pure belonging has had its day in this newly globalised and transient world.
Fortunately, Rabab is also a gifted poet, so let's leave the last words to her, on the question of where it is she feels most at peace. These are the closing lines from one of her poems, entitled “Home”
“The surrounding silence exhales with me
The fragrance of flowers begins to fade
As my soul takes a midnight stroll
Along the shores of Long Island
Beneath the bridges of Manhattan
Within the streets of Dhaka
Up on the roof of Banani
Slowly and uncertainly it comes to rest
Quietly floating somewhere in between”.
(R) thedailystar.net 2007