February 24, 2020
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Rooting For Home

In humans, as in plants, roots grow deeper if left to grow in one place, untransplanted

Rooting For Home
Narendra Bisht
Rooting For Home
Thomas Hardy, who wrote some of the best known English novels, one of which was called The Return of the Native, said, "I am convinced that it is better for a writer to know a little bit of the world remarkably well than to know a great part of the world remarkably little." The bit of the world Hardy knew remarkably well was his native place, the county of Dorset in the west of England. It was a very small bit of the world, and a remote rural bit at that, which did not keep up with the fast-moving times of the last quarter of the 19th century. Hardy’s novels reveal the profound influence of his native place but he was not a country bumpkin. One biographer of Hardy has said, "The two contrasting modes of feeling—for his native soil and for his cultural mecca (London)—entwine, sometimes fusing, sometimes pulling asunder, always with varying degrees of emphasis, and never finally resolved."

Jawaharal Nehru was torn between his native place and the culture he absorbed from Britain. In the postscript to his autobiography, he said, "I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. I am a stranger and alien in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also sometimes I have an exile’s feeling." However, it’s always seemed to me that in the end India, the native place, won in the struggle for Nehru’s heart. The evidence is that moving tribute he paid to the Ganga in his will. Asking for a handful of his ashes to be sprinkled on her waters, he said, "The Ganga, specially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilisation, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."

Although I am in no way comparable in achievement, or importance, to Nehru or Hardy, I also have felt a tension between what I would call two native places, India, the place of my birth, and England, where I was educated. My father was born in the west of England, not far from Hardy country. He was the first member of his family to come to India. My mother was born in the then East Bengal, and her family had links with India going back three generations. But from my earliest childhood, although I was living in Calcutta, I was left under no illusions about where I ought to locate my native place. I was consistently reminded by my European nanny that I was a little English boy. She had been employed to ensure I didn’t come under the influence of "the servants". So I didn’t have Kipling’s advantage of being taught to speak Hindustani by an ayah.

Homing in: Sadhu, gulls, water, air... for a split second, they all put down roots

Back in England, the lingering Victorian imperial influence on the boarding schools where I was educated did not leave any room for doubt about where my native place was located, and India faded out of my consciousness. But when I returned to India at the age of 30, more by chance than by intention, I soon discovered that my native place was in doubt. India came back from my subconscious with a bang. The very first day I returned, after being away for 20 of the most influential years of my life, I had a startling experience. When I smelt the smoke from malis cooking their lunch in the garden of my Delhi hotel, the whole of my childhood charged through my mind like a train rushing through a station at full speed. From that day I felt, like Hardy and Nehru, that my native place, the place I was born, was at least as important as any place I might have lived thereafter.

Looking back on my career in the BBC, I sometimes think I took my belief that I was back where I belonged too far. We journalists are often characterised as knowing an awful little about an awful lot, just as Hardy criticised those writers "who know a great part of the world remarkably little". There are journalists who like to move from big story to big story wherever they occur in the world. They cannot know a great deal about every place they report from. I went too far the other way, boasting rather foolishly that I had never been east of Bangladesh or west of Ireland’s Atlantic coast. I have now ventured further afield and realise the limitations of being too firmly anchored in one place. Hardy recognised that novelists, no matter how firmly their writing may be anchored in their native places, do need to have horizons that stretch beyond them, and that is why he used to stay in London for the season lasting three months every year. He prided himself on being as much at ease in London as in Dorchester, the capital of his native place Dorset.

The past lurks: What would you foreground about the Esplanade in Calcutta?

Even if it is accepted that writers who are firmly rooted in one place are more profound than those who travel widely, and journalists who stay put report more deeply and more accurately, does that mean they have to stay in their native places? Well, first of all, there are many who would challenge the basic argument that staying at home inspires more creativity than travelling. Kipling was a great traveller but the jury is out in his case. He was clearly deeply influenced by India, his native place, but only chose to stay here for seven years of his adult life. His greatest work, Kim, was written after he left India. So was The Jungle Book. But his most recent biographer, Charles Allen, does say that after the writing India inspired, Kipling’s extraordinary powers of imagination started to wane. So maybe if Kipling had returned to his native place those powers would have revived. The case of the journalist Alistair Cook does show quite clearly that it is possible to establish a new native place. He was a native of Britain but made America his home and was such a successful journalist that his ‘Letter from America’ programme on BBC World service and Radio 4 became the world’s longest-running radio programme.

Karmabhoomi: Tully in Gujarat during the filming of a BBC documentary in 1982

Perhaps the lives and work of Alistair Cook and others like the American Henry James, who wrote so perceptively about Britain, suggest that your native place is where you feel at home, not necessarily where you were born, where you spent your childhood, or where your parents came from. But I still like to think there is something particularly important about where you were born, and spent the early years of your childhood. That may be because of my own experience, but I believe it’s also to do with roots. We humans need roots if we are to live stable lives and, just like plants, roots grow deeper if they are not transplanted.

But there are those today who suggest that we should be prepared to pull up our roots. The modern ability to travel has enabled large numbers of people to settle far from their native places, so societies that once had just one culture have had to recognise that they must be multi-faith and multi-ethnic. That sounds highly commendable, but societies all too often take those words to mean that people who are living in their native places and newcomers should be prepared to pool their faiths and ethnic identities, producing a mishmash, a colourless and tasteless soup. The countervailing argument is that multi- religious and multi-ethnic countries should encourage a salad culture in which people nurture their roots, are proud of their native places and live harmoniously without interfering in each other’s affairs, so that society is multi-flavoured. Because I value roots, I quite prefer the salad argument, which is the Indian tradition.

Hardy and Nehru’s lives show the value of nurturing our roots. They suggest there can be a creative tension in life between the pull of a native place, where roots grew, and the urge to discover new places. In both their cases the stay-at-home appears to have won. But it didn’t; there was no outright victory. Nehru did return to his native place in that heart-felt tribute to the Ganga, and Hardy’s novels never leave the Dorset where he was born. But in Hardy’s case, as his biographer said, the tension was never resolved, and I doubt very much whether, even after all his long years as prime minister, Nehru ever felt totally free from the feeling that he was an exile in India. Tension is an essential part of a creative life, and perhaps one clue to Nehru’s and Hardy’s creativity is that, while they did not always reside in their native places, when they went away they remembered there is no place like home.

(Sir Mark Tully has made India his home, after covering South Asia for the BBC for 30 years)

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