SPEAKING FROM HIS family home in London earlier this month, Sam Miller looked evenly cheerful, but at one point during our Zoom call, his face discernibly lit up. In late March, Miller said, he’d be in Sierra Leone, a country where his much-thumbed passport has never once been stamped. “I’ll be there for a couple of months, and I’m childishly excited.” Miller says he dreams of the days when an employer rings to say, “Would you like to go to such and such a place for a few months?” For the writer and journalist, there’s always some world left to explore and “only one lifetime to do it in.”
In the prologue to his latest book, Migrants: The Story of Us All (Abacus; 440 pages; ₹899), Miller, 61, writes that he has spent more adult years living away than at home. He lived in Delhi with his Indian spouse for over a decade, and his job with the BBC took him places, as did his desire to write. But more than any of that, he stresses, he chose a migrant’s life, because he “wanted to”. For 10 years, “while this project has been in gestation,” he has lived (for at least three months, and sometimes a lot longer) in India, Tanzania, Nigeria, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Indonesia. Miller’s feet are, clearly, always itchy.
“I love the business of being in a new city,” he says. “I love working out how public transport systems work, what I’m going to eat, and where I’m going to shop.” Never blind to his privileges—the perks of his passport, his colour and gender—Miller doesn’t once hope to become a mascot of the peripatetic lifestyle: “It doesn’t work for lots of people—it may not seem interesting; it’s disruptive to life, family life, life with friends. It involves not having permanent jobs.” To be itinerant, Miller is aware, one forsakes security, but being a “migrant worker”, he says, has afforded a rare immersion in foreign lands.
Miller’s thorough understanding of the migrant experience can be ascribed to his familiarity with the suitcase, yes, but the empathy with which he meets migrants and tells their stories seems far more innate. To make Sierra Leone feel like home, the author will, for instance, take with him a coffee pot that always travels in his luggage, and maybe even “a pillow for my neck pains”. But carrying such objects, Miller says, is often common for migrants: “Some people carry keys for houses that no longer exist—ancestral, childhood homes. They want something on their person that will connect them back.”
Given how panoramic Migrants feels at first glance, one doesn’t expect all of Miller’s observations to feel similarly telescopic, but, strangely, the book keeps forcing you to reach for that pencil. Several sentences, and sometimes whole passages, brim with a kind of urgent compassion that needs underlining. Miller’s primary claim—that “migration, forced and unforced and everything in between, is at the heart of the human experience”—squarely challenges our many attachments to the notion of a fixed, permanent home. “People talk about home differently—someone might say, ‘home is where the heart is,’ while for another, ‘home is wherever I lay my hat’. So, the idea of home is mobile in itself. You could say the idea is a migrant,” says Miller. His smile, one feels, betrays some hint of quiet triumph.
WRITING IN THE early 12th century, the theologian Hugh of Saint Victor had said, “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” Miller’s Migrants, it seems, often arrives at this very conclusion. The sheer span of the book is somewhat staggering. Miller starts by taking us back 530 million years, a time when ‘lobsterpedes’, a group of sea creatures, had emerged from the ocean and stepped on land for the first time. This extraordinary feat, writes Miller, was “the lobster equivalent of humans landing on the moon”. By the time Migrants wraps up its sprawl of a narrative, we’re left somewhere in the 1970s, almost wholly convinced by Miller’s central thesis: the history of us human beings is better told through stories of our movement than that of our settlements.
For Miller, sedentarism is a myth, one which can be persuasive, but is, in the end, myopic. “There’s nothing wrong with sedentarism,” says Miller. “If that’s what people want, that’s fine. The problem is when they pretend that we are fundamentally sedentary, that it is normal to be that way. The history of the human race shows directly the opposite.” Sedentarists are not Miller’s target: “I’m attacking an ideology which asserts that sedentarism is normal, and that migration is an anomaly.” In our modern world, it may be ‘normal’ to first think of borders, to need permission when travelling between countries, “but all that is very recent in terms of human history, and we mustn’t forget that”.
I’m attacking an ideology which asserts that sedentarism is normal, and that migration is an anomaly,” says Sam Miller, author
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As Miller rewrites our history, he forces us to look for moments when need and curiosity forces either one person, or oftentimes a group of people, to brave the uncertainties of travel and move. The Bible, can be read as a “migration handbook”, and we can think of Moses as a “serial migrant”: “Being an outsider is central to Moses’ identity, and he proudly declared himself to be a migrant, a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land.” Alexander the Great becomes “an interesting early example of someone who doesn’t quite belong to anywhere,” while Miller sees Christopher Columbus as a “nautical nomad”.
Between each of Migrants’ macro chapters, Miller inserts an intermission, which serves to make personal and intimate the otherwise expansive deductions of his book. In one such intermission, he tries to find out if he carries in his DNA the “curiosity gene”, while in another he meditates on his discomfort with the term “expat”. This format, one that he had also deployed in his first book, Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2010), gives Miller’s writing “an energy” he is looking for, but he also hopes that the use of different voices will give his readers respite, a break from the repetitious and staccato telling of many history books. What he doesn’t want is one to turn the page and say, “No, not another event!”
MILLER HAS, until now, lived in India for two long stretches, once from 1990-1993, and then from 2002 to 2014. It was during his second stint that he took to walking Delhi’s streets. He wanted to fall in love with a city he had not much liked the first time. On one such stroll, he chanced upon a community of Bangladeshi migrants, living on the banks of a sewer. He remembers them being “very matter of fact” but, also, “welcoming”. Miller says, “They would talk about the problems of getting electricity, how they’d steal electricity by hanging bits of wire. They were also scared of talking about certain things, like where they actually came from. When they would say they were from West Bengal, they would always smile, because they knew they did not come from there. It felt like a code of sorts.”
The first words of Migrants, Miller writes in his afterword, were prompted by the visible plight of Bangladeshi migrants he had met in Delhi. “One of the things that I feel very strongly about is the failure in the modern world to imagine the lives of people who are very different from you,” he says. Visiting the Bangladeshi settlement gave him an insight into how others lived. “That’s what sparked it off, I think. I wasn’t a journalist, only looking for a story. I was wandering, making a human connection.”
Miller’s story of writing Migrants is one of stops and starts. In 2017, he was living in Kabul for a few months. “Because there was a fear of kidnapping of Europeans at that time, I didn’t get to go out, and walking the streets is what I really love doing. It all made me feel like I was in a very grand prison.” Miller, always empathetic, is quick to compare his own predicament to that of the Afghans around him: “Here I was, surrounded by people, colleagues who I really liked, who would talk about migration a lot. And because they were Afghans, because they were labelled as being migrants that no one wanted, they couldn’t get in anywhere.” Seeing the migration debate in the West turn “unbearably nasty”, he lost heart and gave up writing: “I’d feel very gloomy, and so I fast turned to bad poetry instead.”
One of the things that I feel very strongly about is the failure in the modern world to imagine the lives of people who are very different from you, says Sam Miller
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It was never the encyclopaedic scope of Migrants that made the book difficult to write for Miller— “There’s a dogged way in which one can go through the history, and I love that.” The problem, instead, “was that migration is a subject in which it is very hard to find common ground, particularly when you bring it up to the present.” In Britain, for instance, Migrants can be found in the ‘New Arrivals’ section of bookstores at a time when the country’s Conservative government is putting all its might behind the Illegal Migration Bill. If passed, the new legislation will allow British authorities to detain those arriving on its shores for 28 days and then deport them to a ‘safe’ Rwanda or their home country.
For Miller, the passing of a law is not a managing of migration: “Passing laws, do not, on the whole, deliver change, unless they are reflected in the realities of the situation.” Miller believes that even if a new law is successful in stopping a particular kind of migration—the arrival of small boats— “people will find other means to come in—on lorries, with fake papers, or across the Irish border.” He adds, “If an island like this one cannot manage migration, what hope is there for nations with big land borders?”
Reading Migrants, one is struck by how our curiosity and need for adventure makes explorers of us all, but when looking at frequent, somewhat apocalyptic stories of climate change, it soon becomes clear that migration and our response to it will shape our future realities. “What we are faced with now is a migration crisis, but it’s nothing like what we’re going to be facing in a few years. We need to ready the world for that in a way that doesn’t tear us apart as a species.” One way for us to do this, feels Miller, is to restore agency to the heart of the migration story: “We must stop presenting refugees as people who are only desperate. There is an agency in what they are doing. Give them that respect.”