Two girls, two Cities, two continents, two religions, two conflicts, and even two different points in time
Of all the complex identities that I have adopted over the past few years the strongest and most compelling has always been ‘émigré and sometimes even ‘refugee’.
As an outsider looking in, you wouldn’t have guessed it. I was born in Calcutta in 1992, in the fancy Woodlands nursing home to two young Indian professionals. My mother had trained to be a heart surgeon and my father was an accountant, who in turn both hailed from strong professional backgrounds. I have lived in New York, San Jose, and London. I was educated in private schools throughout, and later at Warwick University and then Imperial College.
And yet there is another side of the story — I was born to a family and to a mother who was grieving. Two years before, my mother and her entire family had lost their home and businesses at the hands of people who had in the months and the years leading up to Jan 1990 been trusted friends and neighbours. They escaped with their lives. Some Kashmiri Pandits were not so lucky.
If my life and my mother’s life has taught me something, it is this: subsequent material success and achievements cannot ever erase the trauma of being dispossessed. It manifests itself in strange ways — in a shopping addiction, after all why save money and build a future when it can all be wiped away in the space of a day? In a desire to constantly be busy, how else is one able to drown the constant grief, anger, and heartbreak?
I grew up with a constant longing for a Srinagar, a home that I had never really known, fear that everything I had and had built could very easily be wiped away and hurt and anger for the suffering that was always just below the surface for my mother, grandfather and aunts, and uncles. I had a very strong sense of victimhood and entitlement to what I believed was righteous justice.
From my history was born an interest in the origins of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. When I was sixteen as a part of a sociology class, I wrote a paper about Palestine and the US and the origins of Al Qaeda — I wrote a political analysis on the oil, geopolitics, and the creation of Israel in ‘an unoccupied’ dessert that threatened the Arab bloc in that area. The paper was nuanced, intelligent, and well researched.
My teacher gave me a ‘D’ — “you’ve missed the point of this entirely. This a sociology paper — I expected you to make some nuanced points about people and society. You need to dig deeper and not just summarise the political narrative of the last 65 years”
Needless to say, she left me fuming. I completely changed the topic of the paper to address the decline of religion and never really thought about Israel and Palestine in any deep or meaningful way. Until now.
I came across a book called ‘Mornings in Jenin’ — a book by an American Palestinian called Susan Abulhawa. The experience of reading this book just broke open my heart. I felt an instant kinship with the heroine and her nostalgia for an Ein Hod, a home that she had never known — of anger that comes from crimes unacknowledged. Of suffering continuously in silence. Of a narrative shaped by others more powerful. Of being ignored. Of being forgotten.
Most frightening of all I also recognized in myself the righteous anger and entitlement of the Jews. The feeling that violence had been legitimized and the feeling also that to survive mercy was a luxury you couldn’t afford. This shocked me.
Two girls, two Cities, two continents, two religions, two conflicts, and even two different points in time, and yet I don’t think anyone before has experienced or been able to articulate the relationships, experience, and inner longings of my heart. Or more lovingly hold a mirror to my darkness and help me realize that Srinagar, Jenin, Pandit, Muslim, Jew, Palestinian. We are all capable of terrible violence but also of great love and great forgiveness. The problem happens when we allow fear to take control and dehumanize the person in front of us. We see ourselves as different. Somehow superior. As having a moral high ground.
The unfortunate truth is that when one person dies it is a tragedy and when a thousand die it becomes a statistic. How do we shake the desensitized masses? How do we help people see behind their pain and histories? Their inherited narratives and points of view?
The only way I think of is by sharing wounds. By sharing stories instead of blame. By opening our hearts up to the possibility that we are not alone in suffering. By putting a name and a face and a story to those numbers that come up in the news.
So, I end my post with a question no matter on which side of the conflict you are — what is your history, what is YOUR story?