Border Crossings: Suketu Mehta, Salman Rushdie, and Me

When you move countries, your greatest – sometimes only – asset is your body, which also becomes your greatest vulnerability. Sex becomes currency, to be exchanged for protection from the smugglers, the coyotes, or the police. The arrangement is called cuerpomâtic – after the Central American credit-card processor Credomatic – because it involves using your body, cuerpo, as currency.”

-Suketu Mehta, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto

SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>

Occasionally, one comes across a book that is so personal, it transcends critical form. Such was the case when I began reviewing Indian American journalist and professor, Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. As I made notes, I couldn’t seem to help injecting something of the personal into the mix. And why not? Mehta seamlessly weaves politics and policy with the personal in his new book; it seemed fitting that I do something of the same.

Mehta is not only a Global Calcuttan, Calcutta being his birthplace, but he has also gone through what I call the diaspora-post-diaspora experience: having been brought by his Gujarati immigrant parents to the USA when he was fourteen – and, years later as an adult, returning to Mumbai where he had spent much of his childhood (then called Bombay). His two-and-half year break form America resulted in the acclaimed book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

His recent title, published in India in August, is a searing indictment of not only of Trumpian immigration policy and rhetoric but also of how migrants are treated the world-over.

Establishing a combative tone early on, Mehta recounts an encounter faced by his grandfather in the UK:

One day in the 1980’s, my maternal grandfather was sitting in a park in suburban London. An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here?” the man demanded…
“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather… “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.

And so, the central argument is established: as colonial and neocolonial policies of Western nations have caused capital to be transferred from now ‘have-not’ countries to ‘have’ countries, it follows that the ‘haves’ should either pay the bill that has accrued since days of plunder or accept that people would naturally want to follow the capital –  and let them in.

Indeed, Mehta goes further, positing that such movement ought to be considered as just reparation for empire, which has made a small part of the world rich at the expense of a much larger part of the world where former subjects live in relative scarcity.  Violation of borders, exploitation and decimation of resources, destruction of the countryside, rape, pillage and mass killings, often appended by fomentation of chaos upon departure – all constitute the impactful elements legacy for the places where so many complain about immigrants.

Suketu Mehta and his book, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto Hardcover: 304 pages Publisher: Jonathan Cape (22 August 2019) ( Source: PRH)

Is it any wonder then that with glorious pasts stolen at gunpoint, the the victims should knock on the doors of their erstwhile conquistadors, demanding justice in the form of opportunity – the chance to reap some benefit of what has been built on the backs of their ancestors? Immigration, Mehta argues is the cheapest (in fact most advantageous way) of making some attempt at reparation for the colossal wave of human suffering that imperialism has been responsible for centuries. It’s a prescient notion, and one he hopes will influence policy-makers.

As a British-born immigrant to Canada of Indian origin, who has also worked in the USA, the issue of migration is one that resonates with me. Like Mehta, I know the feeling of perching on the gates of society, either peering either inside or craning to look back, for much of my life.

My family immigrated to Canada in the seventies. Most assumed we’d come from India because of our Indian names and brown skin. But my parents had gone to the UK some five years before I was born. When I was five, we landed in Ottawa from London. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d been born at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and attended English public school, for many, I was a just another Paki. (Actually, I’d started being called ‘Limey’ at school because of my English accent until one of the name-calling kid’s parents had told him that Brits were white, thereafter earning me the moniker that would both belittle and enrage me each time I heard it).

Our first home in Canada was a dingy cockroach-infested townhouse in the West End of Ottawa, where most of our neighbours weren’t that well-to-do. Like Mehta recounts in his book, I also attended a Catholic school (similar to M. Night Shyamalan and others – an entire generation of Indian parents seems to have mistaken North American Catholic schools for Indian convent schools). Just as he did, I faced bullying. At such institutions, not being Catholic (or even Christian) added to our visibility as minorities. We had targets on our back. What would it matter if we were beaten up? We were going to hell, after all, believing in our multi-armed and headed Gods and Goddesses.

Mehta’s bullying was a at the hands of this hulking German American named Tshinckel. Forty years later, Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 resonated with him, for here was another hulking German American bully, ready to push immigrants down the proverbial stairwell; while Mehta’s fall was real, Trump’s metaphorical push is far more damaging.

“Trump,” writes Mehta, “is typical of the fathers of boys I went to high school with. He grew up in Jamaica Estates then a gated white island in the middle of the most diverse county in the United States. That explains everything about him, his fear and hatred of people different than him.”

Donald Trump’s Xenophobic values come from his father, Fred Christ Trump (Right): intolerance passed down from one generation to another (Source: Google)

I have come to understand what it means to have such parentage. A chemistry lab partner of mine early in my university education (let’s call him Ryan) has such a father. His family hailed from Manotick, a suburb south of Ottawa founded three years before Canada became independent from the British – and this too by an American colonist named Moss Kent Dickinson. The name of the place is derived from Algonquin to mean island. A long Island along the Rideau River, it became a virtual island of whiteness in the hundred and thirty years since its founding when I was paired with Ryan. We’d been linked only because his last name followed mine in alphabetical order on the class list. Otherwise, I doubt if we’d have been drawn to each other, our backgrounds having been so different. Ryan’s father was such an unabashed racist, his words might make President Trump turn a little more orange than he already is (incapable as I imagine the him of blushing). Indeed, Ryan was the first in his family to get a higher education.

After I coached Ryan through a lab for which he was woefully unprepared (ironic because he progressed to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry while I went on to study other subjects), he and I became friends. Through me, he met a lot of people of colour. I helped set him up with his eventual wife, the daughter of a Bangladeshi professor.

On my twenty-first birthday when we were in Ryan’s car, on our way to celebrate, another vehicle flew into his lane from the right, missing us by centimeters. Ryan’s brakes screeched and he veered left to avoid a collision.  Before any of us could react with the requisite sign language for such encounters, out came the word, Nigger, from Ryan’s mouth. The reckless driver who was the object of Ryan’s wrath wasn’t even black. The epithet that had slid from Ryan’s lips left him both embarrassed and confused. “I don’t know why I said that,” he blurted, cringing at what he’d just uttered. Of the two of our friends who were in the back seat, one was another visible minority like me.

I thought about the incident since and developed a theory about it:  Even when someone is surrounded by diversity, the things we hear as ‘normal’ in childhood shape a range of sensory functions from how we interpret the world to the way in which we communicate. Having been exposed to this particular slur shouted by his father repeatedly over the years, the word had burrowed deep in the recesses of Ryan’s mind, and under stress, the unsaid came out. The roots of racism run deep. Ryan was no racist but he had racist roots, and on some level, use of a certain type of language had become autonomous to him, like breathing

So, too are the roots of Trump’s racism. It wasn’t just his upbringing in Jamaica Heights, which Mehta highlights but his father’s anti-black business practices, Trump Sr.’s attendance at a KKK rally – all of these factors helped shape young Donald into the bigoted demagogue he is, now. Trump’s childhood isolation continued into adulthood. He had not the benefit of interaction with different peoples that Ryan had at university – nor did he feel drawn to others different from him. And, where Ryan’s evolution was based on his being openminded, Trump’s views come to us fully formed and immutable.

As has become starkly apparent in the years since 2016 election result, there are myriads of people who mirror Trump’s views across America, ready to don red hats and waive placards to usher in a new age that would make America great (read that to mean white) again. Theirs is a throwback to an America in which to be American meant to be white. And, the descendants of millions of Africans who’d been brought to do the labour – well, they were Negroes. To accomplish this, and more importantly to keep the USA from becoming a majority of minorities – including minority white (predicted based on demographic trends to take place around 2045) Trump’s call to build a wall to keep the ‘other’ out, is one that reverberates with his followers. Never again, if they can help it, will they permit the election of a president with a name like Barak Hussein Obama.

For those who say they support ‘immigration reform,’ this either means closing doors or putting up a filter based on American needs, i.e. a points-based ranking system of applicants. Mehta admits that he would have never been able to immigrate to the USA under a points-based system, for he had been brought over by family. Instead of going into the family diamond business as was expected of him, he writes of finding his sense of self in the community of budding writers who were his classmates at New York University. The impact of the interaction changed the course of his life.

Immigrants or refugees who are granted admission to the USA quite naturally desire that their family members follow them. Fearmongers conjure troubling images of migrants brought in under family reunification schemes: lazy non-English speaking relatives living off public assistance.  Mehta cites evidence of the opposite being the norm.  “I am in the United States because of ‘family reunification,’ or what Trump calls ‘chain migration,’ writes Mehta. His maternal uncle arriving first, opened the path for his wife, children, siblings and wife’s relatives. Mehta’s family included. But they never subsisted on social services, preferring as many do to seek help from within the family when economic circumstances drive them to it.

“When you have your extended family around you, you are more likely to prosper,” Mehta points out. “When your son is flunking out of high school, your brother will speak to him, understand him as you cannot, and keep him off the streets. When you need to go to work and can’t afford day care, your mother will look after your child and feed her and tell her stories. When your daughter is looking for a job, your sister will tell her about an opening in the hospital she works in.”

While anti-immigration populists say that immigrants steal American jobs, immigrants are also guilty of spreading falsehoods. America has certain programs like the O Visa, which is given out to people an applicant “who possesses extraordinary ability” in various fields and “has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” So, faced with the antipathy of jingoists, it is convenient for immigrants tout the value they provide to society as their reason for entry. Mehta efficiently dismantles both myths: ““In 2017, two-thirds of the 1.1 million green cards that America gave out went to relatives of U.S. residents,” he writes. “Only 12 percent got them through employment.”

Whatever challenges legal immigrants face, Mehta recounts a much darker side the passage for those who come illegally: women using their bodies as currency for human smugglers, mothers giving their daughters contraceptives for the journey just in case they are raped. 

“When you move countries,” Mehta writes, “your greatest – sometimes only – asset is your body, which also becomes your greatest vulnerability. Sex becomes currency, to be exchanged for protection from the smugglers, the coyotes, or the police. The arrangement is called cuerpomâtic – after the Central American credit-card processor Credomatic – because it involves using your body, cuerpo, as currency.”

Despite the perils, people still come to where opportunities lie. In the case of Central and South America, the United States’ imperial military engagements prevented many countries from developing into safe, stable, and economically viable places in which children can be brought up. So, people headed north. Mehta offers stories of families fleeing violence from organized crime in Honduras where the brutal gang, MS 13, operates as a shadow military state, not only imperiling parents but making life for young boys a matter of joining the gang or being killed.

Many who flee certain death in Central America in particular tend to seek asylum in the United States. The concept is an ancient one, that those under persecution may seek sanctuary under an authority that is sovereign from the power that threatens them, be it another state or the church. Indeed, Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” 

However, it’s not so easy to apply this principle for those seeking refuge in the US. Last year, then US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions issued a ruling that those fleeing gang violence are ineligible to seek Asylum. “Claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-government actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions wrote in a 31-page decision. “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

Mehta lambasts Sessions’ ruling as unjust and even absurd: “So if your government puts a gun to your head because of your political belief, you can apply for asylum; but if a non-state actor like MS-13, the criminal gang that is the de facto government in much of Central America, does the same, you can’t.”

His argument isn’t simply academic: the stories about which he reports on both sides of the border area ironically called Friendship Park (where migrants stopped at the border can barely stick their little through a narrow mesh to touch the same on a loved one – a ‘pinky kiss’) are at times heartbreaking. It’s hard to read them without having some kind of emotional response. That is, unless you’re a border guard: Exhibiting the traits of a Nazi SS officer, we read of Rodney Scott, San Diego Sector Chief of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who believes that keeping families apart over the US-Mexico border is his divine calling.

USA – Mexico Border Fence – barely enough room to stick a finger through the mesh (Source: Youtube)

In a truly frightening monologue that Mehta reproduces, Scott draws on Biblical parable as his inspiration, asserting that God deported Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: “I go back to the original sin, to the Garden of Eden. There were consequences: they got deported out of the Garden of Eden, and God created a border around it.” When Mehta asks how he can reconcile this view with the Bible’s compassionate verses, “Love thy Neighbour as Thyself,” providing hospitality to strangers, etc., Scott shoots back a dark even sadistic response: “If you want to take another biblical story, of the last days on the cross, a sinner was forgiven, but no one took him off the cross. He still had to pay the price for his transgressions … We carry out our job very compassionately every day, but we didn’t create borders. They’ve been around since the beginning of time, we didn’t create the concept of deportation, so I think it was created in Genesis 3:23.” Scott calls God the “Deporter-in-Chief.”  In his mind, Scott is only doing the Almighty’s bidding.

Scott’s fanaticism parallels such groups as Al Qaeda and ISIS whose dehumanizing of others makes a range of injustices against them acceptable – even murder. Americans seem to want to keep such people out. They’re keeping a whole lot of others out by empowering people like Scott, just as fanatical, to patrol the borders.

Sessions asserts that it is the onus of countries like Honduras and Guatemala adequately police the land within their borders and failing to do so doesn’t give cause for any of their citizens to seek asylum elsewhere. Scott’s blaming of the migrants as having done something sometime, probably criminal, that disqualifies them from entering the United States is a popular misconception. Both views ignore the history of intervention in the governance of Central American countries by American neo-colonialist policies, spearheaded by their agency of foreign mischief, the CIA.

Compared to the USA, Canada today, as Mehta points out, is a haven for immigrants. And, having weathered the growing pains (to a degree still weathering them) Canada has become economically stronger as a result. That said, what Mehta misses is the existence of a similar divide North of the 49th parallel between urban and rural that is as significant as that of the USA, and which continues to pit those with a rearview mirror approach to conceptualizing the society against citizens with a more progressive multicultural vision. To a great extent, this “Western alienation” as it has come to be popularly termed, that can be summed up as a cultural divide and reliance on resources such as oil and gas, distancing the rural Western provinces from the largely urban Ontario and Quebec and increasingly cosmopolitan Atlantic provinces, resulted in Prime Minister Trudeau losing his majority in the last Canadian general election. A movement to secede from the rest of Canada in keeping with the present zeitgeist called “Wexit” has gone from a joke to gaining political party status as increasingly Western Canada does not identify with Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

Canada has been multicultural since the late ‘70s but the 1988 Multiculturalism Act and Section 27 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians,” gave multicultural reforms much needed legal heft. As such, Canada is not supposed to really have a mainstream culture as Mehta correctly asserts in his book. (In fact, he takes this vision as reality.) But societal attitudes often trail acts of Parliament: In truth, newer cultures to Canada are still finer threads that knot around the central cord of the mainstream English/French amalgam to be pulled along the dogsled that is the Canadian journey. But those knots are getting thicker and tighter, and we are no longer left behind as society moves forward.

Understandably, Mehta is much better at commenting on ground realities in the United States. The title of the book draws from an American anthem about how different peoples have come together from different places in the United States. In his indignant critique of the politics of fear of espoused by Trumpians who call Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, and similar movmements in other countries, Mehta’s prose it at its zenith. Here his intellectual acumen is at full capacity because of his sheer command of something with which such demagogues are loathe to contend: facts.

Quoting a study in the journal, Criminology, which concluded that for every one percent increase in undocumented immigrants, there were 49 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 people, Mehta takes apart Trumpian logic: “Immigrants are driven by pursuit of education and economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Migration – especially undocumented migration – requires a lot of motivation and planning. Those are characters that aren’t correlated with a high crime-prone disposition.”

That said, Mehta’s ideas about how American society can progress into one in which English need not be the ‘lingua de usa’ of the USA seem not only Utopian but also impractical.

With English having become the language of commerce, globally, despite the increasing value of knowing many languages, not knowing English, with few exceptions, stands as an impediment to economic progress. It also ignores history. As much as one can legitimately call for reparations to be paid for imperialistic looting of colonized peoples, discounting the reality or value of an English-speaking culture can be problematic for different peoples coexisting in an historically English-speaking society. We must, after all, be able to communicate first in order to understand one another. One need only look to India to observe that Indians from various states tend to rely on the former colonizer’s language rather than any indigenous one to communicate, especially when the conversation is between North and South Indian peoples.

Britain in particular has had a reactionary response to the rejection of mainstream culture. Rightly or wrongly, more than in its former colonies, English culture in the UK is the mainstream around which other cultures have secondary status. A feeling of erosion in the English culture with the rise of other cultures, drove many voters to opt for leaving the EU – even when it is clearly not in their economic interests to do so. Mehta has written of the benefits of not having a mainstream culture, which he increasingly observes where he lives in New York. However, in places like the UK, where national identity is more influential than multicultural reality, immigrants often struggle to fit in. Ideas such as women’s rights get in the way of traditionally patriarchal immigrant cultures. In particular, the second generation of Islamic youth (mainly of Pakistani descent) struggling with economic marginalization have turned to radical Islam as a solution to their woes. Not only did such youths go to Pakistan and Afghanistan to support Al Qaeda and the Taliban, post-911 but some have lent their support to ISIS by travelling to Syria and Iraq with the intention of being part of the Islamic State.

This phenomenon is not addressed in detail in Mehta’s book because of its America-focus. It’s a complex issue because on the one hand, impediments to multiculturalism and conflicting definitions about what it is to be British tend to alienate such youth; on the other, these youngsters are also taught by their elders that their adopted home is immoral and, therefore, separate from their religious or cultural identity.

In this, the homeland from whence these immigrants have come is idealized as argued in the book, Imaginary Homelands in which author, Salman Rushdie takes a critical look at the nostalgia with which Indian ex-pats look back at his, Mehta’s, and my heritage land. For those of us who gaze east as we may be bound to do, “our physical alienation from India,” writes Rushdie, “almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”

It is perilous sometimes to write about a place that we knew at a point in time. When writing Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s solution to an inevitably faulty recollection of Bombay was to make his narrator, Saleem, suspect.

“I was constantly plagued by this problem,” writes Rushdie, “until I felt obliged to face it in the text, to make clear that (in spite of my original and I suppose somewhat Proustian ambition to unlock the gates of lost time so that the past reappeared as it actually had been, unaffected by the distortions of memory) what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that: ‘my’ India, a version and no more than one version of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions. I tried to make it as imaginatively true as I could, but imaginative truth is simultaneously honourable and suspect, and I knew that my India may only have been one to which I (who am no longer what I was, and who by quitting Bombay never became what perhaps I was meant to be) was, let us say, willing to admit I belonged.”

My father’s sense of belonging to India resulted in his refusal to take Canadian Citizenship until 13 years after immigrating (nearly 25 years since leaving India), the notion of ‘return’ perennially looming on the horizon. He had even been offered an associate professorship at the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, during the formative years of the institution. I recall the day he returned from Bangalore from an exploratory trip to our ratty townhome in Ottawa, whereupon instead of handing me some kind of gift from his trip, he proudly slid across our dinner table, a brochure of the new school I was to attend there: Bishop Cotton Boys school.

With flashbacks of filth, beggars, and gigantic cockroaches on previous trips to India etched into my memory, waves of anxiety began to ripple through me as my parents discussed how Bangalore was THE place to establish a life in India. My mother had mentioned how she could get back into academia, herself, noting that her fellow Ph.D. contemporaries circa the period prior to her departure for the UK, had garnered ‘big posts’ at universities in West Bengal. Still, we had many things her ‘big posted’ friends didn’t: a car, a fridge, telephones, two TVs, access to a swimming pool and tennis courts – and, more importantly, a good amount of savings that had been put aside to make a down payment on a house.  We would have been moving to pre-liberalization India in which Soviet-style socialist restrictions on consumer goods existed, and only one type of automobile was available (The Ambassador, which looked like it belonged to the bygone era of the ‘50s).

Despite protestations from my father that she’d have a battalion of servants (including a North Indian cook) to do all the housework, my mother needed to more give up her Western comforts – and this came in the demand for full tenured professorship for my father. That it became such a sticking point for her indicates to me that probably, on some level, she didn’t want to move back. After all, returning was my father’s dream more than anyone else’s. Ultimately, this new demand of IIM’s eminent founder and director, Dr. N.S. Iyer Ramaswamy who tried in earnest to convince my father that advancement would surely come in due course, became a deal-breaker – and we ended up staying put much to my delight!

In Mehta’s case, he writes that he and his community whose origins are Gujarati, even those who’ve grown up in Africa or the UK and never been to the state, contain the soil within them, whether it is in use of language, choice of food or celebration of culture. As such, they feel no need to make the ‘return.’ As much as possible, they create a sense of ‘Gujarati-ness’ (if it is permissible to bandy about such a term) around them wherever they go.

“We’ll watch our Bollywood movies, and eat our dal-bhaat, and, at least initially, marry mostly among ourselves,” Mehta writes. While this may suggest an insular nature, he qualifies the statement in the next clause, writing: “but we will speak English, run for Parliament, operate pharmacies, write books” The statement, however significant, belies his delinking of knowledge of English to meshing into the society of one’s adopted English-speaking land in the very same chapter. “Why should new Americans have to speak English immediately?” he asks. “In many cities like Nueva York or Los Ángeles, you can work, date, eat, take public transit, and attend civic functions speaking only Spanish, Bengali, or Fujianese.”

During most of my life in the West, having been brought up according to norms, values and culture observed by Bengali Indians, I have for long felt a sense of being out of place. And, it’s not only among whites. The feeling persists among Indian immigrants whose experiences of India are different than my family’s.

Living in India, as I am today, my sense of place often still comes down to a struggle to balance on a razor’s edge, feeling a pronounced sense of foreignness (as I probably should) although many aspects of life are very familiar. I suspect that it’s not all to do with my birth and rearing in the West. My idea of India or at least Calcutta (now Kolkata) no longer exists.

The aspects of Indian culture and Calcuttan sensibility, to which I clung as I felt excluded in the West are now eroded pillars in the crumbling edifice inhabited by my ethnicity. Cultures are always in motion, and the city of my parents and my childhood memories on visits, has been fundamentally altered by various factors: liberalization; the influence of Bollywood; exposure to the other cultures via television and the internet; and rising wages.

Indeed, though my experiences were vastly different from his, I can relate to many of the undercurrents running through the biography of Edward Said, appropriately called Out of Place.  From the outset Said writes that his story is “a record of an essentially lost or forgotten world.” While the city that was Calcutta has not been politically invalidated like Said’s Palestine, it’s successor, Kolkata is but an impersonation.

To be sure, I would have found it extremely difficult to live in the Calcutta of my childhood – a deprived metropolis plagued by planned power cuts, lack of consumer goods, and scarcity of reliable sources of potable water. Today, I can buy smoked salmon and organic Kale at the supermarket and sleep at night with my air conditioner humming, confident that it will continue to work all night. But culturally, that Calcutta into which my parents became adults, which was a center like no other is but a shadow.

A dream carried on a tune, expressed in the language of poets, you could find intellectuals flourishing in the most unlikely of places: For this was a place in which, famously, when French director Louis Malle came to film his documentary, Calcutta, and had to contend with a police constable who was dispatched to stop the filming due to Malle’s oversight in obtaining proper permission, the auteur was delighted to find that the smiling cop welcomed him to the city and knew even the most esoteric aspects of his work. Something similar could scarcely happen, today.

I am far from the only person to note the impact of cultural change. Rushdie explores the mutability of culture in his recently published novel, Quichotte. Three of the main characters, Indian immigrants, find more comfort in their adopted lands than the place into which their birthplace has evolved. The India of their memories, however, is written with no small measure of nostalgia. While each face the racism of Trumpians in the USA or Brexiters in the UK, the idea of returning to a comparatively wealthier but increasingly intolerant India is a non-starter. Over a quarter century after Imaginary Homelands was published, it leads to an examination of the question of where is home? In searching, we might end up looking to the stars – or inward into an existence of fantasy. Rushdie never quite answers this.

Rushdie reads from Quichotte – over a quarter decade since Imaginary Homelands, the novel leaves open the question of where we should look to find a home.

Mehta, however, finds his answer in a very real version of America – one which lives up to its potential as a nation of immigrants. In conveying this, he tells the story of his brother-in-law, Jay. Despite being born in India and practicing a different religion than those of Bible Belt North Carolina, where he runs for state senate, he goes on to defeat a well-entrenched son of the soil to become the first Indian American elected to that chamber.

“They didn’t care about Jay’s race; they didn’t care that he would become the first Indian American state senator in North Carolina history. They just liked what he had to say,” writes Mehta. This might have been an all-too simplistic analysis of Jay’s success – but in the context of the book, it works.

Recalling the victory celebration in which a rainbow of souls come together, Mehta finally stakes his claim: “This land is mine,” he writes emphatically. By the final page, the author’s vigorous symphony of facts and voices at once denouncing and lauding aspects of the United States, ends a on a firmly struck note of optimism – a sound that may well be strong enough to pierce the cacophony America’s talking heads.

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