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On Patriotism

John Mathew

A friend of mine has written to inform me that her return to Boston may be delayed on account of the fact that she has volunteered to assist with civilian relief at an air force base in Jodhpur. Indeed, as I write, the biggest build-up of opposing forces in the wee hours of our fledgling millennium stands moments across and from the possibility of mutual horror. It is inevitable that the rhetoric is rising, from politician to person in the street, invested with hate, smoldering with inherited resentment, ready to spark off the tinderbox that South Asia needs, as never before, so desperately not to be.

  That words in the heavy are portending incalculable misery to an untold myriad that we are unlikely ever to encounter when seated at computer terminals half the world away is something we tend to consider, reasonably enough, only in the abstract. We are called from immediate tasks by the odd insistence of the New York Times on-line, or the BBC, or even one of an eternity of Indian periodicals that now grace the net, and the minutes we give to articles, increasingly strident, find us, in turn, stirring to the quick. The climate is charged, the anger is evident, bus diplomacy did not work, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is not worth the memory at the moment, we have an enemy on our doorstep and we must punish, swiftly, and decisively. Flush with such implacable resolve, we return to our occupations, knowing only that the matter has been settled in our minds in the time it took to absorb an article, and there really is no middle ground any more.

  We might even call it patriotism.

  When I returned to India, for good, so it seemed, in the summer of 1980, I had spent virtually all of my then decade long existence abroad, specifically in several countries of the Near East (I use the term ironically, keeping in mind that the ‘near’ is by expediency expressed relative to a profoundly Occidental perspective). During that time, I had been often the only person of my color in the classroom, leading to the questions and comments that children are wont to make of those that are different - I don't like John, he's black, or, why are you so black, don't you ever bathe? It wasn't the Arab children who were asking the questions, it was British classmates, yes, classmates from that self-same area of the world whose books I was enjoined to devour and make my own. The Arabs were different, some became my friends, others, with the exception of the odd bully, avoided me. In India, I found a different dynamic - an odd misunderstanding of why I could at 10 have no problem sitting next to a girl in class. It seemed as though my absence had ill befitted me for the heterophobia I was expected to enshrine at this moment of my life. This was to be only one of several differences that left me on the outside, an object of oft-times genial, other times hostile, curiosity. At 16, and watching an early episode of ‘The Jewel in the Crown,’ I heard the unfortunate Hari Kumar (played by Art Malik) being referred to as a permanent loose end - too English to be at home in India, and never acceptable in England. The statement immediately struck a very resonant chord. It did not occur to me to seek such validation from other children bred elsewhere that had come ‘home.’ They were few to be found in my school in Coonoor. So I contented myself with spending long hours alone, maintaining stoutly that I had no friends, only acquaintances, and learning as much as I could about a country which, through force of circumstance, I was obliged to call mine.


There is an intangibility about a second coming. I do not refer to the Christly promise of return as found in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, but rather an a la D.H. Lawrence in 'The Snake' - a second comer waiting.  I use the metaphor to speak of those who chance upon an area already inhabited by people that have made it there at some earlier point in time. The outcomes, as history reports, can take various forms. There can be invasions, conquests, decimations of entire cultures, as evidenced in the New World (again, a remarkably European notion). There can, by contrast, be elements of cultures in subjection transported elsewhere, again, in the case of the New World, or subsets of cultures considered unwelcome in their place of origin obliged to set sail and make their home as far away from point A as possible - Australia immediately comes to mind. And then there may be those who arrive with no immediate sense of coercion, who have left home of their own volition to find home elsewhere. There are too many stories of Eastern Europeans who came to the United States in the wake of upheavals in their countries, took root, and made a new home, firmly learning of its present culture and refusing to bring to it any of their own, to the extent that their children were forbidden to learn their native languages. This is also a truism of many East Asian and South East Asian households in America. It is in the first and last named that a sense of patriotism can logically be explained - the first, because it is an embodiment of acquisition as an extension of a culture to which the conquistadors and their descendants were born; the second, because there was the exercise of active choice. As with religion, it is the converts (to use the term loosely) who make the most eloquent and fervent promoters of their new choices, in this case, of domicile. I have hence never understood the United States' firm denial to naturalized citizens the right to hold the highest office in the land. If I may not, as a citizen, have all rights accruing to me as one who was born here, I cannot deem myself fully American. It is cold comfort to me that my child, who is born here, can be - for one, I have no knowledge as to how my child may turn out, despite my best efforts, and second, whether he or she will manifest the same sense of patriotism and commitment I feel in seeking to lead a country to which I have actively chosen to belong, and which, in refusing me that opportunity, renders me immediately of second class value. The issue, of course, is hypothetical - I have no particular desire to throw in my lot with the United States, but we shall return to that at a later point. (I must confess, however, to particular pride in India's acceptance of naturalized citizens in full by affording to them all rights as pertain to those who were citizens at birth, and am dismayed by recent attempts to dishonor this sense of open welcome. The move is unquestionably to prevent Mrs. Sonia Gandhi from attaining to the Prime Minister's chair were the Congress (I) to emerge victorious in the polls ere long - I can think of several good reasons as to why Mrs. Gandhi may not be the best candidate for the job; however, her Italian birth cannot and must not be one - she is now Indian and should be regarded as nothing but such). I did feel, however, like a second comer to India; despite the fact that I held her passport, I knew very little of her customs, and felt a consequent urgency to catch up as best I could. Historical comic strips marketed under the name Amar Chitra Katha were avidly consumed, history itself through textbooks translated into general all-purpose reading, viceroys in Vincent Smith's History of India, through anecdotes and pictures, became well-thumbed friends. India, my country of genesis, was turning out to be, strangely enough, also my country of adoption.

To be continued...

(John Mathew's abiding interests are theater, music, writing (particularly plays), sports, history, the English language, and species/habitat conservation. He is currently working towards his Ph.D. at Harvard University. )

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