While travel is really what I suppose my life experience has, in essence, been about, homeland has been a kind of constant preoccupation.
My parents are Indian. I was born in Oslo. I later realised that I was conceived in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh. My father was a diplomat and, in theory, we moved every three years, depending on his postings. You never knew where you were going.
For my parents, home was very clearly India. Not just India. As you know, Indians are very regionally oriented. My family is from the southern tip, from Kerala. There’s a very strong sense of cultural identity. So, their sense of home was very strong.
Barely avoiding the war, while they were expecting me they travelled from Phnom Penh to Laos, I believe; and, from there, to Bangkok. From Bangkok to India. From India they came to London. And, from Newcastle, they took a ship to Norway. By the time I came here to study at university, I had lived in seven countries, and only in India for a short while. A person like me doesn’t really have a sense of national identity. I have always found it very curious that people would be willing to kill themselves for their nation. Nationalism seems odd to me. I agree with Benedict Anderson, that it is a constructed idea.
Because I grew up in an embassy I was surrounded by emblems of the nation. The crest of India was everywhere. That ancient, deep-rooted sense of Indianness that all Indians are supposed to feel, always felt false to me. I was never quite sure what was there behind it all. But, then again, the reality of being Indian hit me when I started crossing borders and frontiers after I got my Indian passport.
Strangely enough, though I have been eligible for a U.K. passport since the age of 21 I resisted applying for one. My Indian passport is one part of my Indianness I have wanted to cling to. I only gave it up two years ago, when India acknowledged its huge diasporic population. The government introduced a new system whereby you could be an Overseas Indian Citizen, which I am now.
In addition to my Overseas Indian passport, I brought a map because it was the one thing we always had at home. An essential item to locate where you might be going next. My father also used to own a globe, which sat on his desk. He still has one.
I also brought an orange, partly because the biggest chunk of my life has been spent in the Mediterranean, between Morocco, Tunisia, and Spain. That’s probably the main reason for my being a Hispanist. I have a sense of affinity with the Mediterranean. Interestingly, whenever I’ve been to Greece or Italy I’ve felt out of place. Though there’s a tangible similarity in colours and sense of place, they’re somehow different. I suppose it’s a question of personal identification. This is probably what lead Mark and me to buy a disused olive oil warehouse in a village south of Granada. The association of oranges and with the Mediterranean has been with me since childhood. Just before going to Morocco, we had lived in Poland during the Communist era. The contrast with the jewel-like colours of the South was particularly striking, especially the orange trees. Ever since then, I’ve loved citrus fruits and trees. In Poland, it was cabbage every day and you had to queue for hours to get fruit.
The last thing I brought was a photo frame. I collect photo frames and hoard them until I find the right photo. If I see a frame I like and it’s affordable I put it to use or give it away. I like the idea of the photo frame that’s not been filled yet.
©Parvati Nair, 2008