I’VE SPENT THE entirety of this millennium in geographic flux. Over a 23-year period I’ve lived in nine cities, in eight countries, on three continents. This year is a watershed of sorts. It marks the point at which I’ve spent more years living outside of India than in it.
Given my peripatetic proclivities, I’ve had only a few anchors: a gold filigree brooch that belonged to my grandmother, my email address (Hotmail loyalist here) and my Indian passport.
My relationship with said passport is akin to a love marriage, based on an impractical affection. It’s about romantic notions rather than bald facts. It pays no heed to the tortured realities of visa applications and routine humiliations at the hand of immigration officials in a bad mood. It erects barriers—both corporeal and metaphorical—between me, and my husband and children, who are all Spanish citizens.
I recently made a trip to India after a two-year-long, Covid-necessitated, gap. My home city of Delhi wasn’t greatly altered. The air smelled like smoke and the traffic was as horn-heavy as ever.
The cars did look more expensive. And the prices at restaurants made eating out in Madrid, where I currently live, feel like a bargain. The public spaces were dirtier. The private spaces more affluent.
But the greatest difference that I noticed since my last visit was in the centrality that my passport seemed to have acquired in conversations with friends. Was I still Indian, I was asked incessantly. When I answered in the affirmative, the universal response was, “Don’t be stupid.”
These friends tended to divide into two groups, both of which had long been staunchly stay-in-India-ists, if for very different reasons.
In Group One were the über wealthy. These belonged to industrialist families who lived in vast, inherited properties. For them abroad was desirable as a place for shopping and holidays, but India was where life was to be lived, attended to by a full battalion of domestic serfs. Abroad was where people had to cook their own dinners. Abroad they were anonymous. If they proclaimed, “Don’t you know who I am?” The answer would be: “No.” Abroad might find them queuing for things.
In Group Two were the service-oriented nationalists. Not the Muslim-baiting trolls that pass for patriots today, but the type that grew up committed to their remarkable country for its syncretism and tolerance of difference. Their hearts beat to the moral leadership of Gandhi, the intellectual complexity of Tagore, the clear-eyed polemic of Ambedkar.
They saw themselves as the workforce that would build the nation that India could be. Abroad for them was a cushy life, enviable in terms of quality of air and safety of person, but moving there was to turn one’s back on the obligations that came with being born an Indian; as an inheritor of the legacy of the freedom fighters who had forged the tapestry of modern India out of fractured plurality.
The members of Group Two enjoyed privilege as well. They could choose to stay in India because they were equipped by caste and education to make a go of it. To shut out clamorous Bharat at the end of a long day with air conditioning and a glass of wine, even if it was only Sula.
They were not potential economic migrants, but potential expats. If they moved abroad, it wouldn’t be as corner-store owners or taxi drivers, but as tenured professors at prestigious universities, or as co-founders of beanbag-strewn startups.
My family had belonged to the latter grouping, which explains why I was so enamoured of my passport, despite it being amongst the least coveted in the world. (An Indian passport ranked a lowly 82 on the Henley Passport Index’s 2021 report, tied with São Tomé and Principe.)
Growing up, I used to get teary when I read my history textbooks despite their purple prose. The image of women, Hindus and Muslims, coming out onto the streets and donating their ornaments to the nationalist cause had me reaching for tissues no matter how many times I encountered it.
I spent my school-going years at Nizamuddin, a South Delhi colony, with the ghosts of Khans and Sufis whispering in my ears as I read novels under the eaves of the untended alcoves of the great tombs of Humayun and Rahim Khan-i-Khanan.
This attachment I have for that rectangular navy-blue booklet may be an unrequited passion. I love India, but I’m not sure it loves me back. So, is a divorce imminent? Not for me. I still believe in love marriages
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As an adult I wrote a whole book (Punjabi Parmesan: Dispatches from a Europe in Crisis) arguing that the European Union should look to India as a model to follow given how it was a political project that had rejected the homogenising tyranny of the ‘nation state’ — and instead chosen to celebrate difference and aggregation.
Imagine then my sadness when on this trip to India almost everyone I spoke to was busy making exit plans of some variety. Group One was packing off children to school in the UK or making investments in countries like Portugal and Canada where they could in essence buy a passport.
“I realised during Delta,” said one friend. “No matter how much money you have, you’re &*# in this country.” She urged me to stop being “silly” and apply for a Spanish passport forthwith.
Group Two was frightened by the increasingly authoritarian political climate and felt alienated from mainstream discourse. “There’s no place left for us here,” a university friend said. “We’re heading towards becoming a Hindu Pakistan.”
The saddest of all was my chat with Sadia, my primary school bestie who ran a catering business. “People spread rumours that I am selling beef, just to ruin my business,” she said. Her face was bleached of emotion as she recounted the onslaught of prejudice she ran up against day after day. Maids left her employment because their other memsahibs would not countenance their working for a Muslim. People wouldn’t rent her a home. She’d quit the school WhatsApp group, heartbroken at the casual vitriol spewed against Muslims daily.
“I don’t have any friends anymore,” she said. “All I want is for my children to be able to leave. How can this be their home?”
I’m now back in Spain. The lawyer who helped me get a residence permit has just emailed to check if I’ve changed my mind regarding applying for citizenship. “You should start the procedure,” she urges. “What do you have to lose?”
And for the first time there is something that stops me from dismissing the argument outright. It’s not the immigration lines, nor the impracticability. It’s because of a niggling feeling that this attachment I have for that rectangular navy-blue booklet may be an unrequited passion.
I love India, but I’m not sure it loves me back.
Every time I post anything other than lavish praise about it on social media—about air pollution in Delhi, for example—or even about Bangladesh’s improved sanitation relative to its richer neighbour, I get trolled. The import of the vitriol is always, “Shut up and get lost.”
So, is a divorce imminent? Not for me. I still believe in love marriages. As far as I’m concerned, it’s for in sickness and in health till death do us part. I plan on neither shutting up nor getting lost. My passport is worth fighting for, even if my passport may not reciprocate the sentiment.
An award-winning foreign correspondent, Pallavi Aiyar has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She currently lives in Madrid where she’s learning to dance flamenco in the pauses between photographing storks perched on church steeples