The Enigma of Return:The Quest For Roots In A Rootless World


In 1987, the Nobel Laureate, V S Naipaul wrote a brilliant tome titled, The Enigma of Arrival. In the nature of an autobiographical triptych, Naipaul, the genius, weaves a narrative on life in Wiltshire, which he observes as a “frozen piece of history” — enduringly permanent and monochromatic. As the author’s stay gets prolonged, however, he begins to observe permutations and combinations of change in Wiltshire. This compels Naipaul to reflect and review the nature of perception of surroundings and the extent to which perceptions are affected by pre-conceived notions of a place.

In a different but to some extent related context, Alex Haley wrote a book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976. The main protagonist of the book, Kunta Kinte, is plucked from Africa and sold into slavery in America. Haley, in the book, looks back and reconstructs his roots and ultimately the journey, or even odyssey, leads him to conclude that “assimilation” and “heritage” can co-exist.

An existential despair wracked my being despite my ‘romantic’ yearning for roots while I was in the West.

The delineation of the themes of these two books is not an idle exercise.

It is germane and very relevant to the “interesting times” we live in, defined by a compression of both time and space, where geography while remaining salient has lost some of its constraining features. We inhabit a fluid, porous world, with hyper-mobility of peoples, what has been called deterritorialization, and rather seamless communications(s). The conditions that define this world have an indelible impact on the nature of our selves, community, identity and politics.

This was brought home to me after I returned from the West or after my “Enigma of Return” to invert Naipaul’s phrase. My return, made exigent by exceptional circumstances, was a profoundly disorienting experience: the world that I was familiar with had turned topsy-turvy for me. Or, in other words, my “roots” had been snatched from me by meta-historical forces beyond my control. An existential despair wracked my being despite my ‘romantic’ yearning for roots while I was in the West. This lasted until I made peace with myself and my ‘new’ world at large. This peace was possible due to a synthesis of my ‘old’ and ‘new’ self — the dawning of Alex Haley’s insight that “assimilation” and “heritage” can co-exist. My ‘new’ world also was not the same ‘old’ world that I had left in the beginning of the millennium; it too had changed despite appearing to be unchanging and constant. The problem, as Naipaul posited, lay in perceptions and pre-conceived notions of “place”.

I am sketching out my odyssey because it was revalidated to me after a chance encounter with a friend — a Canadian Kashmiri, deracinated and acculturated in Canada, educated there but defined by some psychological and spiritual “emptiness” in his country of residence and a deep yearning for “roots”.

In this world, clinging to ‘roots’ or embarking on a quest for them is a mug’s game.

I met the young man today at a modish, upmarket coffee shop today. I had seen him as a client for a development organization I used to work for. The man was upbeat then, desirous of changing Kashmir and interested in the “youth politics” of the Valley — both as a “lived reality” and an academic exercise. After a two-year interregnum, the young man had almost morphed into a cynic and claimed he felt depressed in Kashmir. His “romanticism” about “roots” had almost vanished; it had now metamorphosed to a kind of a reconciliation of the “irreconcilables” and a weary resignation to the state of affairs. The man is young and his journey is not over yet but there are lessons to draw from both my and his experiences — the romantic yearning for roots and feeling like a stranger at ‘home’.

My friend’s predicament of ‘rootlessness’ was not over but mine was. Why and how?

The answer lies in the nature of the world we inhabit — a globalised, fluid, porous world — in which change and permanence co-exist — with change more prominent in the mix. In this world, clinging to ‘roots’ or embarking on a quest for them is a mug’s game. The very nature of this world demands a synthesis of roots, rootlessness, the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, to negotiate the very complexity begotten by it. The trick is to negotiate and transition seamlessly between various identities — primary, secondary and tertiary — bequeathed upon most of us by this world. This is an experience, which can initially be traumatic, but ultimately if handled and understood with the right perspective can only be enriching — as discovered by both Naipaul and Haley. What then we need is not to discover or rediscover our ‘roots’ but ourselves — the former a recipe for alienation and despair and the latter a joyous discovery that can help us straddle the world.

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