Most immigrants, during the evening years of their adventurous scaling of new heights of wealth, reach a troubling plateau. Peter Principle postulates that people tend to be promoted to their “level of incompetence.” Amongst most migrants an analogous phenomenon occurs; like at the cusp of a high tide, an eastward tug sets in. And one persisting question keeps reverberating at family discussions or desi parties, especially among those past the so-called half-way milestone—50. Where to retire?
At board meetings of large corporations, a proposal to put up a $10 million hi-tech unit is discussed and decided in a jiffy, but the deliberation over whether to build a bicycle stand takes forever. In a similar vein, everyone has a vehement opinion about the where-to-settle question. A common tendency is to follow the geese: winters in our original habitats someplace in the Asian tropics and the remaining habitable months back in the West. This comes with variations: the popular ones limit the flight plan to the Americas, or Europe. Guatemala and Belize have gorgeous beaches, affordable too, one muses dreamily. Valencia, or Murcia, in South Spain, is spectacular; Beckham has a villa there. Expensive too, comes the quick veto from a cautious quarter.
Then comes the paralysis of analysis, sparking off stereotypical fears. But Dad, imagine those quacks back home grabbing your goolies instead of the kidney. Can’t even sue them. No wonder in Third-World countries envious engineers whine: we are doomed to erect our mistakes, but the filthy rich doctors quietly bury theirs.
My colleague from Thailand announced last week that he is returning home—to the northern landlocked part. Couldn’t afford the shoreline; hordes of horny Europeans descending in waves have sent the seaside property prices cresting. My cousin has already moved to a farm in Bangalore. Even the Yanks love it there, he insists. But I am sure that after a few monsoons, like Reese Witherspoon, these expatriates, belonging to some multinational geek squad, will soon be back in Sweet Home Alabama.
Then there are the half-boiled eggs—partly crossed-over chaps—moderately smitten by the eastward-ho bug. These limbo dwellers tend to rationalize: you know, some place modest yet clean, like Kuala Lumpur; or maybe New Zealand, should be cool with all that Lord of the Rings picturesque backdrop, eh?
Eastern roots keep pulling on our varicose-veined feet while the Western conveniences we have got addicted to battle for status quo. The primordial forces—the yin and the yang—never seem to perish. Instead, they merely change form like the cosmic samba of Nataraja, the tireless solo artist. When the torment gets unbearable, some succumb to the wild poet’s advice, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” who else but Oscar Wilde? They take a three-week vacation and sail off with the whole jingbang—spouse and grumbling kids—into a locale the teenage kids would later describe as kinda interesting, could spend one week max. Being children of the soil, the passionate parents disregard the flies and feces and indulge in the nostalgia trip, their frame of reference stuck somewhere in the past when Dylan sang “The times are a changin’.”
That reminds me of a poignant scene in the British film, East is East. Watching an old Hindi movie with his white wife and kids, Om Puri starts singing in unison with the hero. Then he warmly turns to his children, still humming, trying to share the romantic joy of his distant youth. The kids smile back blandly, thinking, “Poor Dad.”
Trying to deconstruct and arrive at the nucleus of this return-of-the-native syndrome, I came across examples that were recent, and ancient. My boyhood idol, the swashbuckling Imran Khan, dumps an heiress to return to Karachi. Howzaat? Joseph, the dreamer dude in the Old Testament, makes it big in faraway Egypt amidst the snooty Pharaohs, but the poor sod finds true happiness only when his brothers join him later in life. Livingston, whose heart was poetically buried in Rhodesia, was carried 1,500 miles in the bark of a tree to be carted to London by sea and buried in Westminster Abbey. Dead or alive, when it comes to the finish line, people do weird things.
Last week, during my regular train commute to work I had this enlightening flashback, like in the movies. It sure helped to shed light on what the old Indophile, Rudyard Kipling, meant by “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”
As always, the train was spitting clean, and so were my fellow passengers, who were all immersed in newspapers, magazines, or other forms of pulp.
As we sped through a tunnel, like emerging from a wormhole, I was transported into a coal engine locomotive, chugging along a narrow gage track back in my hometown in Kerala. The bogey was crowded and dirty. We were all marinating in our own sweat, as the fans didn’t work. Soon, a crippled beggar appeared. He sang from an old popular play, cleaned the floor with a dirty towel, and collected alms—small change. His black countenance lit with a grateful smile as I, on a sudden whim, handed a large currency note. By the time we reached the next station, the old bloke wedged next to me enquired where I was from. The youngster opposite us joined in sharing our vital statistics, starting a chain reaction. One of the regular commuters pulled out a much-played deck of cards and we started playing rummy on my briefcase, gingerly balanced on several knees. The camaraderie was flowing freely by the time the chai vendor reached our compartment with his steel tumblers.
The ticket collector’s voice brought me out of my reverie. I was back in the sanitized world of courteous smiles; have-a-good-days; strangers opening doors and groaning about the gray weather. Suddenly, I felt alone in the crowd. Walking out of the deserted train station, I began wondering whether I had really arrived anywhere, or was still enroute to somewhere. And an old question kept knocking on my door with a disturbing urgency: Qvo vadis?
Jayant Kamicheril was born in East Africa and grew up in Kerala. For 15 years he constructed petrochemical factories in India and now markets spices for a Danish food company out of Milwaukee.