Saturday, September 20, 2003

on clannishness

So when I landed here in the middle of the desert almost two years ago, and when I was told that the place I was staying was a desert island peopled with um...people from all over the world, I thought, yes! this is is my kind of place. A sort of accidental commune where all pasts are brought to the same level playing field. But that was not to be. There is something in us that craves security and comfort of roots, a desire to swap life experiences when the context is clear and taken for granted. Of course it wasn't possible to find one representative from each country, so there were invariably small groups (say 3-5) of people who hailed from the same regions of the world. When I came here, the caravans (yes we live in caravans, made in the US no less) were dominated by the Nepalis and the Chinese, though there was a sizable contingent of Latin Americans, though the latter doesn't really count, because all are not from the same country though they speak the same language. The person in charge of accommodation has this tendency to put similar people together, so it wasn't surprising that there was a Chinese neighborhood, or an Israeli neighborhood. But this experiment wasn't always successful because the arrival of students was more or less random, and people from widely separated places ended up becoming neighbors. For example, my neighbours are Chinese, Argentinian-Israeli and Nepali. So I can say that the entire caravan community was more or less a nice global mix. But as time went by, I noticed that despite the many advantages of living in such a place, people kept being drawn to others of the same ilk. I assumed it must be the language. You land up in a country where they speak a language so different from everywhere else, and if your English is problematic as well, what else would you do for relaxation but to hang around with those who speak your language and share a certain context. Its obvious that there are many benefits that can be derived from feeling just a little less lost in a strange land. But even giving the benefit of doubt to language, it seems that people do tend to be clannish anyway. I read this artice at the Atlantic Online, where they discuss the melting pot phenomenon of the U.S, and they claim that despite all the efforts of integration of people of various groups and backgrounds, like attracts like- birds of a feather etc.... (see also the thread at MeFi) And that's not just in terms of races and stuff, but things like economic backgrounds , social status etc etc. So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that when put on a small desert community, similar people tend to stick to each other.

I was reminded of all this yesterday while watching a movie called Bend it like Beckam, where an Indian Family in Britain is shown celebrating a marriage at the same time when one of the daughters of the family tries to break free of tradition by playing football. The movie was excellent, but what really struck me was the extent to which the Indian family had retained the traditional structure of life. If it wasn't for the fact that there were scenes shot outdoors, and that the daughters spoke English with a British accent, it could very well have been in India. I think that this also gives some sort of security, some sameness in a crazy world. I, on the other hand, have always felt a drifter, and not so attached to the mother ship except in terms of ideas. I can take comfort in the ideas of home, the music, the books, but not the objects. I think this is particular hard for people to do, but somehow, for me, the sense of home is more abstract. I don't need to speak in Kannada to feel better or more secure, though I won't deny that it is a particularly nice feeling. I realized this only when I went back to India after one and a half years and rediscovered the language. This brings me back to language and sede boqer. Since I'm from the south of India, my grasp of the national language, Hindi, is uncertain at best, and since most of the other Indians here come from the north, they speak Hindi fluently. Another language barrier, even from the same country. But since I'm not looking for the security of sameness, I prefer interacting or hanging out with people of different lands, despite the wide differences in context and despite the difficulty in maintaining a conversation. And this why I feel that clannishness is the biggest problem in understanding our fellow dwellers of the planet.