Essay: Sophiya Sharmaon migration

The Lore of Departure

She is a curly-haired critter of about eight when the charm of foreign lands seizes her. On a hot afternoon, under a lazy ceiling fan, her father is busy writing a letter. On an old sky-blue letterpad he drafts a request to a stranger. She reads the title in her newly acquired English. ‘To whom it may concern,’ it says. For months incantations of that salutation orbit her mind. She later learns that no one knew at the time who would end up reading it. Her father writes the letter for a neighbour, a woman in her mid-fifties. The woman’s image has long receded, at times toothless and at other times brandishing a full set of glistening teeth, newly fitted for the journey. She learns by absorbing fragments of adult conversation that the letter communicates something close to; ‘I do not speak English, so if you could please assist me throughout this journey, your help would be appreciated.’ The woman is handed the letter and a container for her new teeth, the girl supposes. She flies to Sydney to visit her brother and the girl’s father is thanked profusely for making that journey possible. Years later, the memory of that letter remains electric in her mind. It marks her rite of passage into the adult world of suitcases, addresses, and passports – the stuff of certainty, of fixed destinations. In this world, mobility and prosperity are synonymised. 

The adults describe a world in which Punjabis have left Punjab in all manner of ways. She adds a new genre to her repertoire of myth; the lore that immortalises the departed, those who had boarded ships from the faraway ports of Bombay and never alighted on distant shores. Some fell victim to the excesses of alcohol. Yet others are suspected of having been possessed by Western materialism, and those who ailed in this way simply decided never to return home. The ones who had settled in foreign lands, who sent remittances and led uneventful lives, were summarily forgotten. The terrain is inexhaustible and promises prosperity, security, and an end to the deprivations of rural life. She wonders whether this is the true measure of maturity – to depart in search of a better place. 

A few years later, it is her family’s turn to leave. Amidst uncertainty concerning their date of departure, she drags a bag full of schoolbooks around the house. She vacillates between tears and smiles, relieved to leave behind a whole summer’s worth of holiday homework and saddened by the prospect of parting from her neighbours, most of all her beloved lady with itinerant teeth. In the foreign land, she finds that there is plenty of wealth but none of the kind she’s left behind. Here there is no village and no affectionate army of women. She is told that she is ‘Indian’ and that the unruly hair which made her the object of affection in her neighbourhood must be tamed. Both lessons introduce her to two severe new entities. Racist. Bully. Doubts fester in her mind’s orbit. She soon learns why Punjabis continue to mourn their parting from the homeland. 

She fastens herself to tropes that animate a land left behind. In Bend It Like Beckham (2002), when the young Jess Bhamra, played by Parminder Nagra, dreams of playing club football, her Punjabi parents are stricken by the chasm that separates them from British culture. They are afraid of losing their daughter to this foreign culture with its alien values and rituals. She weeps not for Jess’ triumph against all odds when she is granted permission to chase her dream but when bhangra artist Malkit Singh calls out to Punjabis with the lines; jind māhi je chaleyoñ pardes, kade nā bhulīñ apnā des (If you are departing for foreign lands, my love, don’t ever forget the homeland you are leaving behind). With these words alights the realisation that she carries a collective history which bestows identity. This universal condition is an axiom that Punjabis frequent, which says something like ‘you can take a person out of Punjab, but you cannot take Punjab out of them.’ She discovers and sutures herself to the term Punjabiyat, which describes a trait, a habit of consuming music, literature, and feeling at home in a self that is steeped in meanings and motifs of a Punjabi cultural lifeworld. The sorrow of leaving one’s homeland is embellished in storytelling as the very hallmark of Punjabiyat. It transcends race, religion, even contested borders. The late legendary Pakistani qawwali artist Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose oeuvre is considered essential to a repertoire that makes a claim to espousing Punjabiyat, is proof of this. 

Years later, she is acquainted with another shape of her identity. Encountering the reluctant protagonist of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, Elena Greco, she swiftly stitches into the patchwork of myths that now make up the fabric of her being, an archetype of difference. Elena’s class identity delimits her access to the elite world of academics, writers – the generationally refined. Growing up in a working-class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, she is fated to forever conceal her difference from her peers at the Normale, the prestigious institution where she pursues higher studies. Her difference is fundamental. But it also gives Elena the gift of crossing borders, of smuggling ideas, and assuaging her perpetual sense of inferiority. The neighbourhood, however, courses through Elena’s veins like a deficiency. She feels a primordial affinity with Greco. While her friends gush over Lila, the superior creature whose beauty and intellect usurps Elena’s at every turn, she is forever wed to Elena’s plight. Where she diverges from Elena is in her refusal to accede to omissions about her history. Rurality and mobility are polarities within registers of logic that animate the new worlds of both women. Our protagonist wishes to retain both in the hope of dwelling perpetually in her personal landscape of myths as she journeys through myriad worlds. 

In the capital of her estrangement

‘I really can’t believe you’re an immigrant,’ her friend admits. ‘You’re more like a well-adjusted expat… I just find that immigrants never assimilate, you know.’ This is something she hears often when she is in Delhi. Another friend of hers, a Punjabi from the capital who knows more about Mexico City and Miami than about the terrain of a Punjabi village, is equally impressed with her deft cosmopolitanism. ‘Darling, you might be from a village, but my gosh you are heavily exposed,’ he tells her on the way to Khan Market. They are headed to lunch. At the restaurant, she observes the diurnal life of the Delhi elite. Long lunches, sartorial excess, the cross-table salutations that announce the exclusivity of privilege in the subcontinent. It’s a small world.

Having for years shunned assimilation and held her rural roots close, now she is congratulated for being an adept. Delhiites cannot distinguish her from young Indian professionals who move abroad for work, leisure, and to ‘experience life’. There are differences, though. Her friends in Delhi draw on a vocabulary they have been born into. Hers is cultivated – a careful bricolage of expressions from books and conversations. Fated forever to doubt her lexical precision, she constantly googles words she knows the meanings of and wonders whether it is her own voice that animates her prose. Punjabi remains her linguistic home. But she indulges her friends, almost enjoying the adulation. Like Greco, she moves with incredible ease in this world, but is not of it. The chasm of class, of a rural-urban divide is terminal. 

The realisation dawns on a late-night Uber ride. The driver is extremely polite. Overcompensating, she thinks to herself, for the dodgy Maruti in which he shows up.  A tin can of a vehicle. They course past the well-kempt lawns of the diplomatic enclave where she has just had dinner. He makes small talk but is calculated in his responses when she takes the initiative to ask questions. He is an internal migrant from the state of Bihar and has moved to Delhi for work. She converses with him through the rear-view mirror, exchanging nods, and alerting him when traffic lights change. He sends monthly remittances home, accommodates recently arrived relatives, and is bringing up his own children. All of this depends upon his single income. She tells him in reply the story of her father. He is not very different from you, she explains. He does the same work as you, has opened up his home to many new arrivals in Sydney, and has raised three children. The driver looks at her for a long time in the rear view, searching perhaps for some external sign that may prove their affinity, a common rurality with its identical vicissitudes. She keeps having the same conversation with drivers across the city, mapping their shared rural cartographies. What she searches for is hard to retrieve. To be recognised as an interlocutor on these commutes, she resurrects stories and cultural knowledge that might once more bring her into the fold of the working-class history to which she belongs. What the drivers see instead is a common ground long lost.

She now belongs in the localities from which the poor have been extruded. Her daily commutes map a city of elites, of wide-eyed intellectuals eager to learn about a sleepy hinterland idyll and its more problematic cultural topography. They relish her intimacy with rural life. A hesitant becoming, a sense of belonging germinates. In full recognition of her history, she is initiated into this world as a bemusing creature, a cultured exception to the norm which bemoans the very existence of the rural Punjabi; a loud, crass, caricatured country bumpkin. A character entirely bereft of refinement. 

In foreign lands, there is no high and low

Or so they believed. An acuity trained by her early socialisation into a milieu stratified by caste and her recent experiences in the capital city make her acutely aware of the surreptitious machinations of caste in the land of promise. Under a thin veneer of ‘equal opportunity,’ class discrimination thrives. Benjamin Clark incisivelydissects the local literature on class, stating bluntly that ‘Australia’s discussion of class is overreliant on dated signifiers of “snob” and “bogan” culture, like accents, education and “taste,” as opposed to persistent, deepening inequalities of income and wealth.’ How she moves around Sydney is a measure of the breadth of a growing disparity. The city feels impossibly large. It is probably because the north-western sprawl where she lives has been subsumed into the ever-expanding limits of what is described as Greater Sydney. At the mercy of long commutes and a terrain utterly circumscribed by hierarchies of class, she is bewildered by the audacity with which her Australian friends question her about the caste system of her native land. 

This once-upon-a-time haven for immigrants and working classes is the new stomping ground of white-collar professionals. The corporate middle, lawyers, and techies now live side by side with taxi drivers and shift workers. These are less the nascent stages of a metamorphosis into some egalitarian utopia and more the augury of an impending crisis. Real estate sign boards in the north-west are plastered with pictures of the children of immigrants, the newest faces of price-gouging in one of the most expensive cities in the world. They boast about record prices for a little slice of this far-flung suburbia. In recent years, there has been an exodus of working-class Punjabis from Sydney. While some have moved interstate in search of cheaper housing, others venture further and further afield to the fringes where this so-called Greater Sydney straddles the rural hinterland. Even here a million dollars will buy you a backyard the size of an aircraft lavatory. Clark is right to be concerned about our obsession with the more superficial markers of difference. With the only options for affordable housing now on the periphery of the city, those who do the bulk of our ‘essential work’ commute multiple hours every day. Their risk of becoming isolated from community networks and support systems has never been higher. Taxi, bus, and train drivers – those who move the city – are banished to its far reaches and an ironic unfolding takes place. Those who make the daily commute possible face longer and more arduous journeys themselves.  

To claim that only immigrants and recent arrivals bear the brunt of late-stage capitalism would be reductive. The university has long been an active site for the reproduction of class, privilege, and access. This may be true for those who alight swiftly in tenured positions poised on the wings of academic families. But people like her who have no such history, comprise the working class underbelly that holds up the entire edifice of higher education as the workforce becomes increasingly casualised. What does the neoliberal era portend for those of us who are not overpaid under the aegis of infinite profit like our corporate counterparts? As cities become increasingly segregated by divisions of class, this exodus is shaping a spatial geography of uneven access to infrastructure, social networks, and education.

At work, she listens as a colleague recounts the story of a wealthy old woman in a nursing home. The predominantly immigrant and working-class women that comprise the workforce in these facilities jet in from the edges of the city. The wealthy woman bears the brunt of high turnover, of her inability to form relationships with her overworked carers, the ‘heroes’ once lauded with perfunctory applause during COVID lockdowns. The rich are not hermetically sealed off from the rest of us. 

A homeland splinters

The girl finds herself back in Punjab, treading a rural terrain she must learn to navigate on her own. She pursues her doctoral research in her hometown, wants to remain steeped in the Punjabiyat that is her only home in the world. She takes refuge in taxis and private cars when visiting fieldwork sites and attending the public performances of the transgender dancers she writes about. She becomes acutely aware of her misplaced body, the many ways in which she transgresses local rules of comportment. She holds fast to the illusion of an unshakable Punjabiyat, while her own people recognise in her a foreignness – the short hair and her feminine body poised awkwardly in male-dominated spaces. An upper caste woman who accesses mobility and its subsequent privileges in an oppressed caste milieu faces a justified and palpable rejection. 

Her trans friends intuit her lack of erudition and teach her all the tactics of alternative comportment. As rural dancers, they are at the mercy of a sparsely populated geography and of moral codes dictated by the patriarchy. Hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity reign here. Trans and feminine identities are regularly punished for their alterity by means of violence. Trans women resort to commuting in groups, they share taxis, even trips to public toilets are executed safely in pairs. They teach her that commutes do not end at the doors, and routinely escort her from the car to the safety of the backstage where they get dressed for shows. She loses her romanticised notion of Punjabiyat. In schemas of upper caste privilege Punjabiyat fosters connoisseurship while her dancer friends teach her what is more important. Punjabiyat cannot be relegated to the realm of discourse, it must be lived, embodied, often in a male-dominated, impenetrable landscape. 

Taking cues from the dancers, she starts paying attention to the many ways in which public spaces are segregated. The only women who are visible on roadsides and on public transport are either working class or trans. Out of the compulsion to earn a livelihood they climb onto overcrowded buses and take to the hostile terrain on foot. The middle-class women of her family, on the other hand, enjoy the comfort of private vehicles. She is reminded of anthropologist Hanna Papanek’s eloquent commentary about the burqa; how it makes mobile the privacy and security of the domestic space for Pakistani women. Constantly aware of the male gaze that stalks her in public spaces, she too seeks such a comfort.  

So she regularly escapes the villages to which she claims to belong, seeking reprieve in Chandigarh, the capital city of Punjab and exclusive enclave of the wealthy. She feels safe amongst a landscape of orderliness – the manicured gardens and guarded bungalows. On her evening walks, she encounters vegetable vendors pushing wooden carts, anomalous against this backdrop of wealth, and the occasional domestic worker travelling home on a bicycle. The working class crop up like emblems of another reality, tending to gardens, cleaning, and cooking. They bleed into the city from its disorderly peripheries, the very source of the order which seeks to exclude them. She faces her own hypocrisy, her inability to see as separate entities her rurality and caste identity. While one unites her with a culture she holds dear, the other is a gateway to a world beyond her first one. 

Migration and its quotidian other, the daily commute, reveal through movement the complex political economies of class and privilege. Within registers of progress in the subcontinent, the modern subject is urban. All the while such neat categories are problematised by the rural peasantry that keeps the urban machine turning. In many ways, the polarisation that has been seen to irreversible completion in South Asia by the twin system of caste and class is in its rapidly evolving infancy in cities like Sydney. Even for the immigrant communities who must exercise terminal amnesia towards the colonial past to consider the West egalitarian in some measure, the mysterious charm of vilāyat (foreign lands) is evanescing. This diffuse and sometimes meandering account of movement is an extended commentary on discovering hybrid selves and life amidst these proliferating vexations. 

Back in her village, the lady of the enchanting teeth has passed away. Her beloved neighbours are gone too. As more and more of them left, emptying entire neighbourhoods, their homes became refuges for internal migrants from other, poorer parts of India. Those who return lament the demotions in status and identity crises that migration ferments. The creature of the errant hair continues to expand her definition of Punjabiyat, hoping that in a world that promises no stability it can remain her only enduring home.