Immigrating to America was possibly the greatest life-changing act in my life. It pulled me halfway across the world at the age of 19, from a very sheltered life in a traditional Bengali family to a world that was at once exhilarating and terrifying in its novelty. In America, for the first time, I had to learn to live on my own, work at a minimum wage job while going to college, pay my own bills, experiment with cooking non-Indian food, fend off unwanted male attention, and drive precariously on snow. Immigration made me into an adult, and it made me into a writer.
in India, I had never written anything creative. I’d never thought I had a story to tell.
But in America, I wrote to make sense of the amazing and sometimes confusing milieu in which I found myself. I wrote about women like myself, caught between two worlds and two sets of values, transformed by America even as we were transforming it. I wrote about how we were adapting, wearing winter boots with our saris, making gulabjamun out of Bisquick, and insisting that our husbands take out the trash and share diaper-changing duties.
I wrote also, out of a deep loneliness, about India, a country and a culture that I saw much more clearly now that I was so far away from it. I wrote about the things I missed so much that they were an ache in my heart — the colors and smells, the crowded Kolkata streets, the spicy food, the spectacular monsoons, the extended family who felt entitled to show up without notice and stay as long as they wished at our home. I wrote, too, about the things I had begun to question — the roles of women in traditional families, all the avenues that were closed to us.
My first few years as an immigrant, I fantasized often about returning to India. But when, some years later, it was time for me to make a choice, I stayed on in America. I fell in love and married a man from Chennai, whom I would never have met if we had both continued to live in India. When my children were born, I had a few qualms about bringing them up so far from “home,” but I pushed those away. I felt confident, with a confidence born of inexperience, that I would be able to offer them the best values from my birth culture and my chosen culture. During my years here, I had come to love and appreciate the diversity of America, and I was glad to be able to offer it to my children.
Then came the time when I had to choose whether I would apply for citizenship in this country or not. It was a difficult decision. On one hand, it was the most logical thing to do, and it gave me many practical advantages. Additionally, I wanted to be able to vote in America, to be involved in shaping, even if in the smallest way, the politics of this country. (Now in 2016, this seems more important than ever.) But I felt a real pang as I surrendered my dog-eared Indian passport to the Indian consulate, and I felt a deep (though perhaps illogical) resentment and sorrow that the government of India would not allow me to retain a dual citizenship. After all, didn’t I still have family and friends in India, whom I loved to visit regularly? Didn’t I send money back to India to my mother? Didn’t I support Indian charities? Didn’t I follow Indian news avidly? Didn’t I defend India staunchly any time a discussion regarding Indian politics or customs came up at work or at mixed social gatherings? Didn’t I write about India? Weren’t my books being published and read there? My other friends — from Europe or Canada — had two passports. Why couldn’t I have the same? In this fluid world where people went back and forth so often and so easily, working in more places than one, speaking more than one language, with homes in more countries than one, were the old questions about national allegiance still valid? Why couldn’t I be part of both countries, and loyal to them both, kind of like a woman is loyal to her birth family as well as her husband’s?
But recently, in light of the many terrorist attacks all over the world, I’ve begun to revise my opinion. The nightclub massacre in Orlando was the one that shocked me the most, not only because of the hatred, violence and crazed unconcern for human life that it demonstrated, but because the killer, Omar Mateen, a U.S. citizen born in America, expressed his allegiance to ISIL before going on his rampage. Whether that was his real reason for the killings remains uncertain, but clearly here was an example of a young man with confused dual allegiances that were at odds with each other, with tragic results.
Perhaps, after all, the Indian government is right in its insistence. And the U.S. government isn’t that different, either. Going back and re-reading the oath all new US citizens must take, I notice what we are instructed to say: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”
Perhaps in today’s increasingly unstable fundamentalist environment, it is necessary for us to choose our country — one country — and remain staunchly loyal to it. The utopia that I long for — where we are first and foremost citizens of the world, not limited to a single land or culture — I’m afraid that we are still a long way from it.
Chitra Divakaruni is author of The Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, and most recently Before We Visit the Goddess.