Yesterday I listened to a fascinating interview on Radio 4 with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, where she talks about her life, her book Infidel and why, despite a death threat, she refuses to stop calling for Muslim reform. You can listen to it here. One of the many things she talks about is the responsibility of immigrants to a new country to adapt to the values they find there. While she admits this is extremely difficult, especially if you have the chasm of religion over which to leap, she thinks it is essential to learn to be a citizen of that country, and not to remain forever a guest.
Her words made me look to myself. In March, it will be 13 years since I left my home country. Of course, I regard myself as an expat, not an immigrant, but I could choose to take up German citizenship, and then perhaps I would feel more anchored here. I try to behave like a citizen: I’ve learnt the language, I pay taxes, I send my children to German schools, I bake cheesecake, I recycle. If I were a real German citizen, would I take it a step further and start eating leberwurst? I don’t know. Immigrants, and how much they choose to separate themselves from the cultures in which they arrive, are huge issues for the world today. Of course, there have always been waves of humanity moving around the planet, taking their traditions and their customs with them, but somehow today the issue seems painfully acute.
Having just finished reading the Kiran Desai’s wonderful The Inheritance of Loss, I thought Ali’s comments seemed to speak to some of the themes in that book. One of the main characters is Jemubhai, a retired judge, who as a young student travels from India to Cambridge to study law. On the strength of his admittance alone, being the first boy in the district to go to an English university and assured of a powerful career on his return, he acquires both a large debt from local moneylenders and a 14-year-old bride. His father-in-law arranges for members of a military band to serenade his departure at the Bombay docks. His arrival in England is met with less pomp – he struggles to find a room to let, and when he does find one miles away from the university, his landlady is unwelcoming and insists on calling him “James”.
Jemu spends his entire time at Cambridge locked in his room, studying fourteen hours a day, eating his landlady’s inadequate food and not making any friends. He suffused by loneliness and his difference:
“For entire days nobody spoke to him at all, his throat jammed with words unuttered, his heart and mind turned into blunt aching things, and elderly ladies, even the hapless – blue-haired, spotted, faces like collapsing pumpkins – moved over when he sat next to them in the bus, so he knew that whatever they had, they were secure in their conviction that it wasn’t even remotely as bad as what he had.”
He scrapes through his exams, makes it into the Indian Civil Service, and returns to India to serve his Majesty as a magistrate. Having experienced awful dislocation in England, he now finds he can’t make a place for himself in India – he is too English. He is sent back to India equipped with a snake-bite kit, a twelve-bore shotgun and a tennis racket. Despite a glorious reception, Jemu finds his wife grotesque and his people alien. He rejects her, the baby he just manages to father, his family, their ways and becomes more English than the English – trying (and failing) to hunt animals with his gun, eating toast for breakfast and crumpets for tea, and pouring all his love into his relationship with his dog. He is a tragic and lonely figure.
Jemu’s plight, doomed as he is to be always alien in his own country, is mirrored by that of a modern immigrant – Biju, the son of Jemu’s cook, who is sent to America to find his fortune. Biju arrives on a two-week ticket and stays for years, becoming part of the underclass of illegals in New York who make cheap labour for unscrupulous restauranteurs. He and his fellow kitchen slaves at the Ghandi Cafe sleep wrapped in tablecloths on the cafe floor at night and have to fight rats out of their hair. Biju’s sights are set on the unobtainable golden ticket – the green card – but unless he can overcome his shyness and persuade an American girl to marry him or inveigle his boss to sponsor him, his chances of getting it are zero.
Desai writes movingly of the condition of the modern immigrant: the unbearable working and sleeping conditions, men packed into tiny rooms like rats, the new arrivals coming in their hordes, bearing letters and seeking help from the old hands, everybody seeking, only very few succeeding. One of Biju’s friends, a glamorous African Muslim, Saeed, manages to scrabble to the top of the pile and find a Vermont hippy to marry him. However he is beset by arrivals from Zanzibar, where his mother has given them his address in New York. He calls them “the tribes” and claims they are stalking him.
The Herculean effort of trying to get a green card eventually wears Biju down, the exhaustion of trying and getting nowhere finally sends him home. He finds the process of being always illegal – keeping his money in his shoe, having no access to healthcare, fearing the authorities – is something he cannot sustain. After a final shopping binge (including baseball caps that say “‘NYC’ and ‘Yankees’ and ‘I Like My Beer Cold And My Women Hot'”), he gets on a flight home. However, unlike Jemu, these accoutrements of a culture are lost and stolen en-route and he arrives home dressed in nothing but a woman’s nightie.
How then is being an immigrant the inheritance of loss? You lose family and you lose love. You lose the immediacy of a culture that you understand and that accepts you. You lose physical access to places and to people. And this reduced state is what you pass on to the next generation, but you try to make it up for them by baking cheesecake and having the grandparents come to stay for very long visits. And loving them.
A third character in the book tragically inherits Jemu’s loss – his granddaughter, Sai. She comes to live with him in her teens, after both her parents have died and the convent in which she is being raised cannot afford to keep her. Of course this cold and loveless man, who she describes as “more lizard than human” cannot love her, or provide anything but the most basic nourishment. Somehow Sai has the good sense to be her own citizen, not requiring access to her grandfather’s lonely land, and her ability to make friendships will sustain her and transport her out of his cold country.