I’ve never really subscribed to the term “patriotism,” but recent events have prompted a more careful consideration of this idea. During the terrorist attacks of the past few years (here in the U.S., across the globe, and in India, the land of my birth) I have felt strangely unmoved by sentiments of nationalism. Not once did I think of those who were killed as “fellow-Americans,” nor did I feel during the Mumbai bombings that my “fellow-Indians” were murdered. I could not profile my Facebook picture in the French flag after the Paris bombings because there were too many other flags crying for inclusion and empathy. That is not to say I didn’t feel some kinship with murdered Indians and Americans, if only because I have spent half my life in each country, but Turks and Bangladeshis also clamored for attention.
Overcome by a terrible sadness at such tragedies as the Boston Marathon bombings (and not just because I’m an admirer of marathoners) or the Norway or Sikh temple shootings or the devastation of Syrians (every time I edit this essay there are several more mass murders added to the list), I studiously avoid TV coverage in the aftermath of each disaster, for media reportage (except for a few important print publications) trivializes these events with shallow analyses repeated ad nauseum and is clueless about the roots of the problem. I do the same when the police kill another black child (or when police officers are shot in mindless retaliation for past and current grievances), which seems to happen with increasing regularity. There’s no real way to avoid knowing about these things, but am I hiding to protect myself? To shield my feelings from the truth? Is it a coward’s way to curl into a cocoon and let the dead lie unacknowledged across my TV screens? Perhaps the least I could do is watch the pictures again and again, judging only the perpetrators and not the messengers (however puerile they might be), laying bare my emotions to be lacerated in bizarre solidarity with the fallen! Why shouldn’t I let my anger froth over when children are dying in front of me?
Is patriotism the price of citizenship, or may one participate in a society without it? Must every contributing citizen harbor feelings of unqualified support for the country in which they live for fear of being scorned by their fellow citizens and banished to the liminal spaces between patriotism and citizenship to perform civic duties timorously without feeling like a full citizen? Where then would they take this inability to love a country the way one is expected to these days? The vitriol heaped on Colin Kaepernick insists we display outpourings of love and gratitude for all the symbols of patriotism, chief among them being an adoration of the military and subservience to the flag. My mother used to quote this verse to me:
“Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who ne’er to himself hath said,
‘This is my own, my native land.’”
The romanticism and beauty of these lines screamed “Traitor” when I began to question the concept of patriotism. Some would suggest a difference between patriotism and nationalism, but I am suspicious of the whole idea, for it invariably transmogrifies into jingoism. Citizenship used to be the price of admission into a society with all the benefits that accrue from living in a place, demanding in return participation in such activities as paying taxes, voting in elections despite one’s disenchantment with the integrity of the process, supporting local businesses, and volunteering one’s time whenever able. Citizenship was a political construct; patriotism a rush of emotions towards a nation and all its symbols. But the line has blurred and I am uneasy when outpourings of nationalistic jive gush from Facebook, blogs, the media, and the internet. Unfortunately, their redefinition along insular parameters has created suspicious and malevolent lenses to view other cultures. In this fractured global landscape supporting one’s country sometimes inexorably leads to rejection of other countries.
I was raised on a diet of European and American literature. My love of theatre began with Shakespeare, Moliere, and Chekhov. In the tradition of English public schools in India I recited English poetry in elocution classes. Throughout my high school years I am ashamed to say I was unfamiliar with the great Indian writers, except for Tagore and a few others. Ashamed, not because as an Indian it should have been the patriotic thing to do, but because I lived in the land of such interesting writers as Mulk Raj Anand, R. K. Narayan, and Anita Desai without reading them in school. I could blame this gap in my education on the English system, whose influences echoed through the subcontinent for several years after Independence. We were indoctrinated by the exigencies of education systems far removed from us, molded by externally mandated curricula, which, in a stroke of supreme irony, assigned to my graduating class, more than two decades after Independence, a novel about British colonialism in the South Pacific (A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble). We arrogantly trumpeted the fact that our high schools were modeled on the English public school system, complete with “houses” (“just like in Harry Potter,” I now tell my students), live-in boarding sections, and final examinations conducted by the University of Cambridge Overseas Council. We were trained to be “brown sahibs!”
Another irony was that my very “English” K-12 school was run by Spanish missionaries who tempered cold English traditions with a sultry European flair—football found equal footing with cricket and field hockey; Anglicanism was replaced by Catholicism, but the curricula remained very British. To be fair, they made an honest effort to change the program of studies to a more Indo-centered version; our later history classes and text-books included some of the first published accounts (for high schools) of the Moghuls and Guptas and Marathas, but full implementation took time and I found myself swept along the last waves of British colonialism. My Catholic family, converted to Rome’s obedience in the Portuguese colony of Goa, migrated to Bombay in search of jobs, speaking English at home and eschewing the Konkani of our ancestors or the “national” language of Hindi or the Marathi of our resident city. We studied these languages in school, but with English the medium of instruction they always seemed like foreign tongues, similar to the French we also learned. Here perhaps are where the seeds of my anti-patriotic sentiments were sowed, for we Catholics alienated ourselves from the larger society of India with our “foreign” language, culture, and religion. English was the linguistic currency of business and politics, the original script of the Indian Constitution. Although we had a working knowledge of Hindi and Marathi, they were not our mother tongues and the cultures of our families were European and American—songs, movies, clothes, and even our food, which was derived from the Portuguese. We participated in such Indian festivals as Diwali and Holi, but Christmas and Easter were our feasts. Our lives contained strands of native influences, but our affiliations lay elsewhere.
It’s unfair to blame my high school education for being too foreign, for the central purpose of education is to inspire a spirit of inquiry and intellectual curiosity, which it did in spades. What may have saved me was that, despite it being a Catholic school, the majority of students were non-Catholic. India is constitutionally a secular state and the equation of Hinduism with Indian-ness was for many years largely a factor of population, with almost 80 percent of Indians being Hindu. (Recently, however, there has been a surge in Hindu fundamentalism, a movement echoed throughout the world as religious extremism is on the rise everywhere). Many of Bombay’s important high schools were run by European Christian (Protestant and Catholic) missionaries, but their students reflected the larger population of the city—Hindus, Muslims, Parsees, Jains, Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, as religiously cosmopolitan a group of students as you are likely to find anywhere. We were all Indian (even the Anglo-Indians who had not yet made their way to Britain) in some general sense and fluent in English, but always negotiating our way across the boundaries of religion and mother tongue—Parsees spoke Gujarati (from the Northwestern state where they had originally landed to avoid persecution in Iran); Muslims spoke Hindi or Urdu, Christians spoke English (or Marathi, if they were originally from Bombay or Konkani from Goa); South Indians spoke Malayalam, Tamil, Kanada, or Telegu, depending on their state of origin, which often determined the mother tongue of migrant families from other parts of India; the rest spoke Hindi. This was when the nation, despite its nationalistic passion after Independence, was still groping for its identity amid the detritus of colonialism.
Perhaps this tug between cultures and identities contributed to my lack of patriotism. Was I a Goan (without Konkani) or a Bombayite (without Marathi)? How closely is language woven into one’s cultural identity? I wasn’t British just because I spoke English, and if that seems risible I knew people who insisted they were, despite having no British pedigree; their only claim being that they were born when India was a British colony and that they had a linguistic lineage to England! I wasn’t a Maharashtrian although born and raised in that State (it was a term reserved for native Hindus). A Catholic? An Indian? Each of these exerted a strong pull on me at a time when India was timorously perched between China and Pakistan, the USA and the USSR, all vying for a nation nascent in political history but rich in culture and natural resources and teeming with an expanding workforce. Confounding this further were the provincial divisions—people were identified also by their ancestral State. I was a Goan (despite living in Bombay, even though Goa wasn’t a State at the time, merely a Union territory) surrounded by Bengalis, Gujaratis, Keralites, Punjabis, Assamese, and so on. For some of us born after Independence, being “Indian” seemed a somewhat remote identity without much passion until the war with China, the preference of the USA for Pakistan, and the subsequent Indian treaties with the USSR. And therein lies the rub: patriotism tends to raise its head in times of strife; the longer a country finds itself in a state of war the more it closes ranks and whips itself into a nationalistic fervor.
My travels abroad inevitably find me chatting with locals in pubs and bars. I like visiting diners and dives in rural America for the same reason. They remind me that geopolitical divides are often barriers to kinship, forcing separations among the people of the world. Not that traveling is filled only with wonderful experiences—I can be exasperated by much, often wishing for more efficiency as I meander through cities and bazaars, staring quizzically at touts who attempt to con me or at shopkeepers who would overcharge me, reminding myself that there’s no such thing as civic perfection—we’re all engaged in minor and grand experiments; touts and shopkeepers want just a few cents from me, whereas corporate and government marauders rob me daily. Besides, those are often the most memorable moments. One can stand on the curb, waiting for the incessant flow of traffic to dwindle, or one can dodge all manner of vehicles and jump over and through potholes to enquire why there’s a crowd of animated people on the other side. Once we leap over our real and imagined borders we may find similarities rather than misgivings, and differences worthy of celebrations.
Patriotism often leads to international conflict. Or is it the other way around? I remember two poems from my youth. Rupert Brooke’s naïve, saccharine sentiments about war, “When I am dead think only this of me/That there’s some corner of some foreign field that is forever England.” His belief that it was sweet and proper to die for one’s country betrays a mawkish obliviousness to the grime and horror of war. For that we have to turn to Wilfred Owen, who knew firsthand what it meant to cower in trenches and trudge through fields of devastated humanity:
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.” (Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country)
Few pluralistic nations are defined by the character of any particular culture; in fact, the vibrancy of a country exists in its intercultural exchanges, however tiny—the more open those interactions, the less imposing the artificial boundaries that contain them. In the America of today, almost everyone comes from somewhere else—in that platitude lies a kernel of progress. We’ve been acculturated to believe in a melting pot society where unique cultures are boiled away to create a hodgepodge of something new—an American-ness. A paradox! But the new equation encourages a rejection of “the other” (which may include what originally defined us or similar cultures) in favor of what is “ours,” this new culture.
I know what being an American is not. It isn’t beating my chest to proclaim this the greatest country in the world: even a cursory examination would eviscerate that claim. It isn’t the flag, the idolatry of which has deflected attention and care away from the ideas and turmoil of the people it was designed to represent. It isn’t military or economic control of the world, for that illusion breeds discontent at home and resentment abroad. It isn’t even freedom, which in so many ways is a questionable concept because there are always groups of people who surrender their freedom or have it forcibly purloined to serve the needs of others! It may be only one thing, and I’m still not sure of this. Being an American means looking around and celebrating the fact that there’s a Filipino in the room, and a Mongolian, and someone from Congo, Botswana, Cameroon, and Rwanda (they’re all here, you know); a Spaniard, an Italian, and a German…Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian and Pakistani…Palestinian and Israeli…English and Irish, etc. I suppose being an American means in some way rejecting the term American and celebrating the world, for the rest of the world is present here more than in any other country. Yet we invent so many ways to reject it!