Global Indians: Distance and the World

When I was a child in Calcutta in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we didn’t have the internet. When we wanted to see the world, we looked at a big globe which belonged to my brother. We would  twirl it round and round and look at all the countries separated by blue oceans and black lines, coloured in different colours and marked in little letters.

It would give us a thrill to check out countries that we had never discovered before. We looked at the antipodes that were the furthest from where we were and tell each other that it was night there while it was day here. That seemed so strange. Many of my friends’ favourite game was a rapid fire round of naming countries when you had to respond by naming the capital city.

My brother had a pen pal in Turkey. I would look at the strange handwriting and the ruled paper of the letters when they arrived and imagine unknown people sealing the envelope and walking to the post office on strange roads to post it.

No one I knew very closely in my middle-class existence had ever travelled much outside India except perhaps to Nepal or Bangladesh. The world seemed like a vast, unexplored, uncharted space. Mostly a blank in terms of real experience heard from anyone I knew well except for what I read, saw on TV or in the movies. Western Europe and North America featured prominently in them, sometimes  received through special antennae via Bangladesh TV (in the days before cable television).

Going too far was not something that common amongst people I knew. London or New York or Paris were places you went to if you won a Nationwide contest held by, say, a large toothpaste manufacturing corporation (I remember a specific one–Neem Yes or No Kids’ Quiz) or were one of 4 people in a country of 1.2 billion to win a scholarship to a British university.

And then things started changing fast. People started disappearing into the world one by one in the “colony” in Calcutta that we lived in (the Brits are gone but our “colony” still stands). Those who disappeared were all good students, not necessarily as stellar as in previous decades but all had studied to be engineers in their prestigious undergraduate institutions in India before heading out into the world where no one I knew closely had been before.

The world was their oyster and the world seemed exciting. The world was waiting to be explored.

It was supposed to mean something, this exploration, especially as a woman. To be where no woman had gone before, at least on her own,  to be a female Ulysses of sorts compared to the girl Telemachuses of the domestic world at home.

Those young men who left the “colony” never came back. At least not for 2 or 3 years at a time, a period that can seem forever when you are young. To Calcutta, most were lost forever.

And then, as more and more people went out into the world, for Indians of my generation in my station in life, the world suddenly shrunk.

It ceased to be a big deal anymore.

Too many of us scattered in too many countries. Not just those “good in studies” (a term which I later realized is far more commonly used in Indian English than in any other lingo I’m familiar with!). People stepped into the world for a myriad different reasons. The world started getting crowded with all kinds of us.

Instead of riding the tin coloured buses and commuter trains of our city, we started riding airplanes. We started running into each other on foreign city streets, at airports, in tarmacs, at famous landmarks, on tops of mountains, at the popular international beaches and restaurants.

Golden Gate, Great Pyramid, Niagara Falls, Eiffel Tower, Lake District, everywhere.

The world as a space for adventure was gone. It became just another place.

It’s hard to be trapped in a place like frogs in a well (as the Bengali saying goes, taken reductively). Earlier, we were kept from the world by ordeals of visas, our weak currency and lack of exposure and knowledge that’s the legacy a poor country brings with it when its people are seen as immigration threats to richer countries.

But when so many of us moved around, the home and the world changed to make space for us. Or so it seemed.

But then, a new realization dawned. The world is spacious but there’s a way of getting trapped in the world too, to have to float about like ghosts who have lost the sense of distance, of day and night, of consistency of weather, of vegetation, of a local habitation and sometimes even a name (at least the sound of our names as they were familiar to us).

For some, the antipodes have become closer than their next town. Airports have become chutes that take you faster to some of the cities at the other end of the globe than your next town. But to become the person who can travel through those chutes, you’ve had to change a lot.

Many have converted to this ethereal state in entire groups with friends and relatives who are floating around the world all the time. Their immediate environment has moved with them. People, food, family. They have, indeed, made the world their home.

Others, who have had the world thrust on them one way or another continue to dart between antipodes like lonely particles looking for  coherence between different worlds, articulating life experiences only partially by people who matter but inhabit other worlds.

Yet others live half lives. Half in the new world and half in the world that is a kind of memory or an idyllic holiday place,  like a movie always on, through Skype, Facetime, Facebook, video and many other new spaces where you can see and hear family and friends but not touch or be a part of or be immersed in. You become the ghost that occasionally visits trapped in a rectangle on a screen. For them, the world is no longer new but incredibly vast. Almost limitless, but harshly so.

They try to bridge this vastness through description to loved ones very far away, through experience whittled down to its barest minimum into information. And yet, information subtracted from the daily between two worlds turns into a textbook or a dream or a memory or powerful imagination. Ghost-like,  unreal. And yet, these denizens of the world continue to act as mediums between two worlds until this non-world becomes their world.

The world of the globe indeed shrunk in the last decade or two but shrunk only on its own terms, contracting and stretching only in places it wanted to. And in this twilight zone of experience have sprung these vampire-like tortured creatures living between past memory and present reality occupying the dark side of the globe also calling themselves global citizens.

©bottledworder, 2013.
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18 thoughts on “Global Indians: Distance and the World”

  1. You have really thrown light to an area that lurked at certain corner of my mind though I’ve not seen more than a few Metros of India. But as I’ve heard incidents of uprooted citizens migrating to different parts of the globe due to socio-political reasons, principally the displaced people after the various partitions that our part of the world has seen.Today we literally live in a Global Village where with means and connections no distance is distant enough yet the people who are not ready to adjust with the pace of such a overwhelming culture and ethnicity surfing finds them to be the affluent paupers I suppose from my little migrated self-experience. You’ve touched the pulse of an acute crisis in the face of a changing definition of citizenship.Kudos…:)


  2. I remember when my father went for an official trip to England in the mid 90s,how amazed I with so many friends and relatives studying/working abroad,it does not elicit the same response.

    Really well written!


  3. a globe. do people still have globes anymore? there is something so beautiful about a globe that a map in a book, on a gps or big screen cannot even compare to. i look at the globe and see a huge planet – a great big place in an even bigger place – the universe. yes, I am being very sentimental. i grew up with globes in every class room and i had one as a kid. a very good friend of mine had one. it sat on a stand next to his favorite spot in the house where he would always sit. i asked him once – why? he said that he loved staring at it,spinning it and imagining all of the places in the world he wanted to visit.

    lovely piece – i enjoyed reading it and thanks for re-storing a few beautiful memories.


  4. Very thought provoking. It’s true, we’ve expanded our reach, our travel, our personal experience of the world at large and yet, we’ve also lost a certain touch of intimacy. Substituting Facebook or Skype or some other computer program in the hopes of hanging on but still loosing that first name basis with our neighbors and the warmth of a hug from family…there’s a disconnect.

    Great job at describing the nostalgia.


  5. I enjoyed the nostalgia of your childhood – very similar to mine, when Daddy’s “high-tech” am/fm radio which had a knob and 5-foot antenna which could channel what sounded like other alien universes (only at night), along with other time zones. Very exotic and exciting. Then came the time when an Indian who was “good in studies” came to live with us while he went to college nearby. Broadening, but not until I went to climb mountains overseas for myself. Only then could I appreciate his endeavors and my humble place in the world. Excellent ponderings – thank you!


  6. Lovely piece. Makes me think of Ila in Amitav Ghosh’s _The Shadow Lines)_, and her jet-setting intimacy, not with places, but with airport transit lounges. Sad. . .
    I’d like to think that it need not be as you describe, or that one need not always look at it this way, with world-traveling Indians denizens of the world whose only home is the non-world (paraphrasing you–you put it better).


  7. as someone from India i totally relate to this post..i still find myself amazed with the fact that there a whole new world to be discovered…
    with few friends living abroad, things have changed..talking to them through facebook skype or Whatsapp makes me almost feel like a part of countries i havent been to…


  8. Yes – growing up people who had been to the UK and US were looked on as someone would gaze upon a famous explorer. Feelings of awe, wonder, envy and curiosity were, I suppose, was what we felt.
    Visa and financial issues stymied many a hopeful from a masters degree from a university “abroad”. I was one of them, though in my case, a poor academic record in university probably did not help!
    And trying to explain to older people who have never left the country and have little understanding of the culture here, what it feels like is hard to do. I see my wife trying and giving up in her weekly calls home to her parents – trying to explain that dinner is completed by 7:30pm, that we make a 160km round trip just to have dinner at my cousin’s, that we drove to Bethel, NY for 2 nights, then to Washington DC for 2 nights and then to New Haven for 2 nights and back to the Toronto suburbs and we called that a holiday, that we go to work with 6 inches of snow on the ground.


  9. I marvel at your writing. As an American, I never thought this way. We’ve always been a country where people came to, not fled from. I have great admiration for the brave souls who leave their homes from around the world and come here. We are a much richer country because we are made up of people from all countries who bring their rich cultures with them. I’m glad you’re a global citizen. I wish I was too.


    1. Not sure that a lot of people actually “fled” India. The pursuit of education was ingrained in that generation and the US offered it in spades. And would Silicon Valley have been as successful without the IIT engineers? We can argue it for ever…..
      But your point is valid – being a “global citizen” does offer a unique perspective and sense of balance, a different way of responding to situations.
      And the Slo-Man, who lives in Canada now, but hails from Delhi, Ahmedabad and Calcutta in India and has worked in India, Nepal, USA and Canada is happy to have had the experiences. He wishes he could add Europe and Australia to that list as well.


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