A native place

Between Gandhi’s self-sufficient, harmonious idyll and Ambedkar’s den or ignorance and narrow-mindedness lies the village of reality.

Somewhere between Gandhi's self-sufficient, harmonious idyll and Ambedkar's den or ignorance and narrow-mindedness lies the village of reality.

I remember a story a young woman from Kenya told me two decades ago in New York. I can no longer recall her name but, like me, she was a Jat Sikh (or, rather, jutt, as the word is said in Punjab). Her grandfather had migrated from Punjab in the early part of the 20th century. She had never been to India, nor had her father, but she laughingly told me of the map her father carried in his head of the village her grandfather had left behind. From her grandfather's tales her father had recreated the geography of the lanes and the name of every household in the village. For him, she said, his native place existed vividly in his imagination, as real as any place on earth.

A native place, even one such as this that dwells only in the imagination, contrasts dramatically with the lack of rootedness, through migration or alienation, that has been the central theme of much of 20th-century writing in the West. From Albert Camus to Pico Iyer, whether we are talking of a man who is at home nowhere, or a woman who is equally at home everywhere (perhaps this is largely the same thing), we have come to understand this as the very definition of the modern condition.

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Himal Southasian