Because I was born in London – the son of a newspaper executive from Palakkad who lived there for ten years before returning home to India for good – I am entitled to a British passport. I have never taken one. Instead, as an Indian, I am required to pay visa rates for a printed certificate of my entitlement to the right of abode in the UK, which needs to be renewed every five years at an ever-stiffer fee. At one renewal a British consular officer in New York helpfully reminded me that (at that time) it only cost fifteen pounds for a passport whereas my certificate cost sixty-five pounds. I replied: ‘I’m happy to pay for the privilege of remaining Indian. I may have been born in Britain, but when I look in the mirror, I see an Indian.’
It’s difficult to explain this nativism in one who has spent a lifetime acquiring and embodying a cosmopolitan, even globalist, sensibility, so unfashionable today in a world of growing hyper-nationalism. But from a young age, when some of my classmates at school in Bombay teased me about my foreign birth, I have found myself consciously interrogating myself on the question of who I was.
My father was an idealist of the generation that had won freedom—though, at not-yet-eighteen when Independence came, he had not personally fought for it, he had supported the nationalist movement, and, heeding Mahatma Gandhi’s call, had dropped his caste-derived surname. In 1948 he had gone to London straight from his village, Chittilamchery, in Palakkad, with his elder brother’s sponsorship, in much the same spirit as other Keralites starting out in life might have tried their luck in Bombay or Calcutta. Arriving as a student not yet aged 19, he had soon begun his working life there, representing Indian newspapers that still maintained offices in the old metropolitan capital. That’s why I was born in London.
But, after a happy decade in London, he and my mother chose to return to India, because they believed that was where they belonged. Ironically, as India descended into an increasingly corrupt and poorly functioning state, where highly taxed salaried professionals like himself found it increasingly hard to make ends meet, my father sometimes regretted that decision. But, having come back to India, he imparted to me, his first-born son, a passionate sense of belonging, not just to a physical country called India, but to the idea that it represented in the world.
That idea—of a magnificent experiment in pulling a vast, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic population out of poverty and misery through democracy and pluralism—was one that engaged and captivated me, and which I have, in one way or another, explored in all but one of my twenty-three books, both fiction and non-fiction. I did so even while living abroad and working for the United Nations for twenty-nine years, which further complicated the issue for me. For nearly three decades I was that rare animal, an ‘international civil servant’, meant to serve not my own country’s national interests but the collective interests of humanity; but I had joined an organization where my nationality defined and limited the very prospects of entry, since the recruitment of the central United Nations staff was subject to ‘geographical distribution’, and national quotas determined whether you could be recruited to a vacancy for which you were qualified. (Indeed, it was because Indians were considered ‘over-represented’ in the UN proper that I first joined the UN system in the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an agency or ‘programme’ of the parent body where no nationality quotas applied.)
If this were not contradictory enough, I found myself serving refugees who had fled their own nation-states, negotiating with governments to permit other countries’ nationals entry into their territories, and later, as a peace-keeping official, interceding in wars between and within nations. At UN Headquarters I worked with teams of colleagues whom I knew by their skills, talents, specializations, and peccadilloes, rather than their passports. They were ‘the field guy’, ‘the admin whiz’, ‘the brilliant draftswoman’, ‘the legal eagle’, and so on, never the Brazilian, the Japanese, the German, or the Kenyan—in the service of the blue flag, their nationalities simply did not matter.
When that career ended, after an unsuccessful though close run for the top job of UN Secretary-General, I had the option of staying on abroad, and acquiring permanent residence in one of three possible countries. I did not. I could not. I came home, to plunge myself into the maelstrom of Indian politics, thereby making my own modest contribution to the evolution of that great Indian experiment. Leaving the world of the UN to enter Indian politics, where public figures wore their patriotism on their sleeves, I swapped my UN lapel pin for the Indian tricolour and learned to stop saying ‘we’ when I meant the international community. I was a full-fledged nationalist again.
But what did that mean? Today, as I write these words during the second term of the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, I see much of that noble national experiment gravely threatened by a fundamental challenge to the very essence of Indian nationalism—the ‘idea of India’ that was built up in the course of a seven-decade struggle for independence from Britain, and another seven decades of post-colonial governance that consolidated the nature and character of Independent India.
Modi’s BJP has spent its years in government contesting this remarkable and irreplaceable embodiment of the country’s essence by arguing that there can be an alternative idea of India, promoting an assortment of political, social, and cultural elements that would convert a pluralist, multi-religious democracy into a ‘Hindu rashtra’. They have sought to delegitimize dissent through labelling disagreement with their actions and statements as ‘anti-national’. The frequent use of that term has raised the corollary—if my disagreement is anti-national, what then is truly nationalist?
What is truly nationalist – to spurn allegiance to another country that is available to you in order to throw in your lot with your own nation, or to attack your critics as anti-national because, by religion, language, region or political opinion, they are not “your” kind of nationalist?
It’s a question I have asked myself daily since my return to India. Those who have read me over the years know what my own answer is.