Like all Homo sapiens who migrated around the world, I am split in between the desire of reliving the memory back home and moving on to create new ones in new territories
“When are you returning back?”This question, framed differently based on who is asking, has been hurled towards those who have crossed a border—of a district, state, country, continent, you pick it. It has been asked to many of us by many of those who are convinced that the territory that they are occupying is the “back”. I have been asked this question by dozens of people. Most recently, a very close friend sent links to three published write-ups, on returning or not returning to Nepal, basically asking my take on the issue. The exchange, or rather prodding, totally chained me and escorted me down the memory lane that I have travelled so many times but have been adamantly lazy documenting. In my thoughts, I dashed into Asia, Nepal, Dhankuta, closing right into my village, like that moving shot from the outer space, zooming rapidly into the core of the earth.
Uprooting the wild grass encroaching on his narrow terraces till the Sun was high and intolerable was favorite pastime of my grandfather. The battle between sharp bladed grass and him played out pretty frequently. Or that’s how I remember him. Other times, he would instruct me to write Nepali alphabets on a fine red mud spread on a wooden slate. I was so lost switching between “Ka” looped from the top (old Sanskrit version) for my grandfather, and “Ka” looped from the base that I had no clue what the deal with my grandpa was. In a month or so, the wild grass would be back again with similar arrogance exhibited by my grandpa and we would see him standing on the same fields, again. This constant battle between my grandfather and the wild grass was barely understood by anyone.
Even my grandma wanted him to refrain from uprooting wild grass. Serving meal with perfect organic tomato chutney made out of cherry tomatoes, from the vines hanging down a thatched roof of a stable that she picked the very same morning, she would complain: “Why do you have to do that?” All you would hear in response was the continuous silence, punctuated by the slurps of her grand kids enjoying the meal. And there, in those slurps, was the hidden answer: Kaila baje—a pundit who interpreted Sanskrit verses for a living—understood that his growing family, with a dozen plus grand kids, needed more land to survive. He was convinced that fields, the means to production, were the center of power. Protecting the food resource for his offspring was the fight response exhibited by my grandpa. He probably wanted us to have a decent living at our birthplace.
New power centers
Time has changed. The terraces, I heard, have turned into a jungle. Today, even the kitchen garden, where the cherry tomatoes once hung like tiny colorful light bulbs dangling over the lush green field, is barren. It produces nothing, except the wild grass. He does not know that the wild grass now has won the real war and taken everything back. Fields in the high mountains have lost the luster. He passed away before he had to see all this.
Fields were the center of the power then, now it has moved to Big Data. Corporations that control Big Data are getting more and more powerful. Rapidly new centers like Silicon Valley are being created—away from the old centers built during industrialized revolution like Detroit—the automobile city. Detroit has already lost half of its population and is undergoing the same fate as my grandfather’s fields. Unlike the industrial revolution, now, the power is in the hands of those who crunch data the fastest. Dataism is the new magnate, the new religion. Whoever controls most of the data in the world has the most power. Had he seen all that coming, he probably would not have spent all his life, creating such a vast estate that his grandkids abandoned.
The road not taken
I probably had an option—going back to my grandfather’s fields and till the land. I could also have stayed in Kathmandu doing what I did—working as a journalist, with an everyday hustle and bustle to break the news or could have chosen a lesser hectic lifestyle of a lecturer, at one of the colleges in the capital—like most of my friends do. I could have, but I did not.
Every morning, when I take a train to work, sometimes reading a book, other times pretending so no one would upend my thought process, I have wondered about the choices I did not make, the roads I did not take. “I looked down as far as I could, and took the other road, just as fair...” wrote Robert Frost in 1916. I was the one who made that decision.
No one quite would have objected if I had taken the road to irrigating the barren fields with my dripping sweat, like my grandfather did, with the hope that the monsoon would arrive in time to save the crops. All his grandsons, including me, could have continued uprooting the wild grass. But the pull of the new power centers, “the greener pastures,” was so strong that we could not resist.
Migration is no new trend. My great great great grandfather migrated from western Nepal to Dhankuta seeking greener pastures, when his generation was traveling as far as Burma in search of better life. Most of my grandfather’s siblings moved to the plains despite the fear of Malaria. The trend continued and my parents moved further—to Kathmandu—crossing several rivers again seeking better opportunities. I migrated across the Atlantic.
People started migrating far and wide as the world turned into a global village. The advent of new technology has spread people far and wide but it is not against the trend. This is what Homo sapiens have done for thousands of years or more. They have always moved—from the African Savanna to the prosperous lands of Arabian Peninsula, from the tropical woods of Asia to the iced tundra of Europe and North America.
“When are you returning back?” could have originated all the way from the African Savanah with the exodus of the very first Homo sapiens at least 50,000 years ago. If the Genome Project had asked this question to all those DNAs that have been proven to be originated from Africa, we might have gotten the answer.
Probably my great great great grandfather was asked this question too. After-all, he crossed several state lines when he left western Nepal to resettle in Dhankuta. So when my friends and relatives ask me the same question that Homo sapiens have been struggling to answer for at least 50,000 years, I get confused too. Are they asking me to return to Kathmandu or Dhankuta. If I returned to Kathmandu, will those relatives in Dhankuta, who are convinced that they are at the center of our origin, accept that I am back fully? In other words, where is the ultimate “back?”
Like all Homo sapiens who migrated around the world, I am split in between the desire of reliving the memory and moving on to create new ones in new territories. And the memories that I am creating, working for the cause that I have come to believe in, in a new country, are equally rewarding. I don’t know if I can entirely abandon the memories that I have created in this new land. I think the battle between moving forward with your children and returning to your old folks is a real one. The choice of migrating is probably made not by our consciousness but by the need, or the genetic makeup that Homo sapiens share.
If all humans had stayed “back” in Africa, I don’t know how civilizations would emerge. If everyone who entered America had returned “back”, there wouldn’t be the United States of America— a country which was founded by immigrants.
Riding the wave of technological innovations, backed by artificial intelligence, Homo sapiens are planning to head to Mars. It’s possible that humanity will make that interplanetary migration within a decade—Mars One looks like the closest viable project. If that happens, Mars could be the new power center for the earthlings. It seems “When are you returning back?” will remain as relevant question as it is now even after the interplanetary migration.
The author is cofounder at Advocacy for Refugee and Immigrant Services for Empowerment (ARISE), a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts