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Same Difference

An Indian of American origin wages several battles to acquire his cherished citizenship

Same Difference
Narendra Bisht
Same Difference

A passport is just a piece of paper, isn’t it? Nations are modern constructs, aren’t they? So what if I’m an American who’s taken Indian citizenship, right? Indians all over the planet possess passports of varying hues, don’t they? Same difference.

So much for rationale. The emotional being I am tells me otherwise. The day I became an Indian citizen was a moving one. Why? Simply because from the moment I landed here way back in 1979, I have never wanted to leave.

Flashback: Grew up in whiter-than-white Midwestern America. Largish family approximating the American dream, somewhat tainted by a streak of Irish melancholy. Played piano, always. Confused youth. Ran away to California. Saw Bharatanatyam in Golden Gate Park. Flipped. Left for India, to general dismay.

Landed: Vague, notionless. Fell ill umpteen times. (Hadn’t bothered with vaccines or US embassy travel pamphlets!). Learned Bharatanatyam. Encountered Tamil, started studying. Heard Carnatic music, started singing. Discovered Sanskrit, started reading.

After several years of student bliss, began teaching piano, assistant teaching dance, teaching dance, performing dance, choreographing and, phoenix rising, recommenced piano recitals after long hiatus.

There are simple pleasures. Lungis. Hot rice with ghee and namak. Gulab jamuns. Bare feet. Street dogs.

Update: No thoughts on returning to motherland. Terrified of capricious visa officers at Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office. Decide to go for it. First attempt: wrong office. Given yellowed forms demanding list of properties left behind in Pakistan! Correct office found. Several years of surprisingly pleasant, albeit laborious, visits to countless offices. Loads of forms, verifications, counter-verifications, registrations and character certificates. First scare. Applicant must relinquish original nationality before government of India makes final decision. Terror-stricken. Rendered stateless. Second scare. Required to publish announcement of intent in two newspapers, inviting those with objections to write immediately (and confidentially) to the concerned government office. Paranoia!

All hurdles eventually crossed. Day of reckoning. Wretched peon at Tis Hazari wants bribe before taking file up to magistrate’s office for swearing-in ceremony. I march straight to aforementioned officer. Complain. Peon hauled up, file brought, oath administered and I emerge in the late morning sun a citizen of India. To this day, still face bewildered, incredulous, wry, bemused, aghast looks at immigration points both local and foreign. Once had Richard Gere queuing behind me at Delhi airport, an official with him imperiously shouting, “VIP! VIP!” Officer attending me looks up, “Hmmph! Vee I P, Shee I P! Chhodo, yaar. Inko dekho!”

Macroview: Often comfort myself with the following. America and India. Two huge, functioning, relatively free societies. Both with dynastic propensities, what with names like Kennedy, Nehru, Bush, Scindia, Clinton, Karunanidhi.... Both with inspiring moments in the struggle for equality as well as appalling lapses in the area of human rights. Do feel it an honour to participate in voting process of world’s largest democracy. Hear those at the poll booths whispering, “Yahan ke to lagte nahin. Kashmiri ya Afghani honge kya?”

Microview: This could place me in the fuzzily romantic, exotic, white mughal, orientalist category but, listed much like a celebrity ‘Likes and Don’t Likes’ column on the backpage of a Sunday insert, here are many of the real reasons I live in India, an India that many will argue has largely disappeared, especially from urbanscapes. An ancient civilisation with a vertical timeline stretching back thousands of years, intersected by a horizontal array of diverse peoples all directly related at some point to that timeline. Variety of customs! Array of foods! Spectrum of skin colours, facial features! Stunning multiplicity of art forms!

Then there are the simpler pleasures. Lungis. Dhotis. Saris. Hot rice with ghee and namak. Washing clothes squatting on the floor. Mugga baths. Gulab jamuns (hot and spherical preferred to cold and oblong). Bare feet. Street dogs. Chai stalls. Small shops bursting with goods. Footpath vendors. Malis. Mochis. Dhobis. Chaprasis. Chowkidars. Sweepers. People everywhere. Rich, poor, educated, local, Dravid, Aryan, Mongol—all piled one on top of the other. News in Sanskrit twice a day. D.K. Pattammal. Hospitality. Atithi Devo Bhava—what a concept! Finally, friends. Friends I grew up with during my second adolescence, as it were. Friends who knew everything about America, had made models of igloos as kids, when I didn’t even know English was spoken in India! Friends who understand multilingual texts, cross-cultural references; can combine veg and non-veg, religious and non-religious, conservative and forward thinking.

Postscript: Love my family dearly (more so, after living here), but, after telling my brother about a recent sojourn to Shringeri in Karnataka to choreograph a scene from a courtly play as part of a workshop on traditional Sanskrit drama, the reaction was, “Sounds great. Honey, what’s the baseball score?”

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