Expats & immigrants

The trouble started when a good friend of mine from my/our schooldays back in Kolkata rang up from America to tell me, among other things, that an expat was not the same thing as an immigrant, at least so far as the US was concerned. And I was reminded all over again of the racial/colonial connotation of these terms which I’ve been using so freely and at times interchangeably on my blog.

The word expatriate comes from the Latin patria for one’s fatherland or native land – ‘native’ again! We Indians see red if we so much as hear the word, after our colonial experience. And it’s not just colonialism but apartheid which is at play (funnily enough, it’s the Germans who say ‘at play’ while the British say ‘at work’) behind that apparently harmless word – expatriate. Expatriate, it seems, is reserved for white men – and women – who have chosen to leave their native country and live somewhere else, even Oxford gives the example of American expatriates in London. Imagine talking of Indian expatriates in Southall or Bangladeshi expatriates on Brick Lane.

What? It’s my fuzzy-oozy thinking again? How true. Then the immigrant is defined as a person who has come to live permanently in a foreign country. It’s the intention behind the whole operation, see. The American expatriates in London fully intend to go back to Chattanooga or Colorado Springs when their business in London is done – whereas the Indians do not go back to Chandigarh and the Bangladeshis do not go back to Chittagong. They have come to London not just to see the Queen but to stay.

That would seem to make us – including someone like me who got stranded in a country somewhere in the middle of continental Europe for the major part of his life – immigrants. But what if I feel like an expat – the way Joyce must have felt in Trieste, Zurich and Paris? Joyce ‘emigrated permanently to continental Europe’, as Wikipedia will tell you. Operative word: permanently. He returned to Ireland twice or thrice more, in 1909 and 1912, after which ‘he never again came closer to Dublin than London’ (Wikipedia again; who needs Richard Ellmann when we have Wiki).

Joyce was 30 years old when he saw Ireland for the last time and he lived to the age of 59. So was he an expat or an immigrant? Let’s have your bet on that but be careful: Joyce called his one & only, albeit unbearably bad play “Exiles”. Albert Camus’ collection of short stories is called L’exil et le royaume or “Exile and the Kingdom”. Exile seems to have been the buzzword in those days.

And then we come to the most devious/insidious differentiation/discrimination of them all: between immigration and emigration; between the immigrant and the (much more rare) emigrant, not to speak of the noble émigré. Imagine an asylum seeker from Asia or Africa telling his hosts in Europe that he is an émigré, and you’ll know what I mean. Or to take another example, Papa Joyce was certainly no émigré because he did not leave Ireland for political reasons. He left his native country for personal and artistic reasons.

Joyce is a perfect example of a backwards oriented writer, that’s someone I define as a person who prefers to sit looking backwards on a moving tram or train. Joyce’s creative life was like the smudged, mirror version of his past, ‘real’ life in Ireland – of the kind you get when you fold a sheet of foolscap paper in two before the ink has dried on the written half. (Can happen with your printer as well, but then it’s like-as-not the roller or the cartridge, which is why we decided not to ‘modernise’ the image).

To put it more simply, Joyce is the kind of expat who drives down memory lane in back gear – though naturally infinitely more clever and a genius and all that. And just as they make fantasy films and video games as ‘real’ as possible these days, you’ll find Joyce writing to an aunt of his (if I remember correctly) asking about the colour of the tram ticket on a certain route in Dublin in or before 1904. Must have needed it for Ulysses, the second unreadablest and unreadest book of them all, after Finnegans Wake – except for Joyce scholars, and I’m just a Joyce admirer, from afar.

All I’m saying is that both Europe and America have a history which is in half a story of exile & immigration, and in half the story of colonialism & expatriates & six feet of earth will always be England for me – which always made me feel like asking, if six feet was all that you needed, why did you have to take the whole ruddy subcontinent and three-quarters of the globe for it? Ah, you were carrying the White Man’s Burden, were you? I know where you unloaded that one!

Joyce was an exile in Italy & Switzerland & France. He was an exile in civilised & sophisticated & liberal Europe from his ‘native land’ which he described in the Portrait as an ‘old sow that eats her farrow’. I don’t think Joyce ever had the intention of returning to Ireland, except in his books, in which he did nothing else. Finally, Nora said napoo to the Irish govt. when they wanted Joyce’s bones back in Dublin. That, if nothing else, makes Joyce an immigrant.

Just as he was an expat because Ireland was all that he ever wrote about, even if he was talking Italian with Nora at home. I talk German with my wife at home and I write about India – in English. I’ve lived in one place dreaming of the other place until both places have exchanged places without my even noticing it, leaving me high and dry in a space-time continuum of my own. And still that does not make me the surrogate subcontinental Joyce of every Indo-Anglian author’s dreams; it just makes Joyce a wee bit more like the rest of us, an expat by intention and an immigrant by compulsion or default, we’ll talk about the artist some other time.