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New Australian citizen Chetna Prakash reflects on the many places she has called home and the correlation between citizenship and identity.
Filling out official documents for the last eight years has been a pain for me. Between my country of birth (Zambia), my nationality (Indian) and my country of residence (Australia), something invariably goes awry. Last Thursday, I made my life easier. I bumped off India out of the equation by taking up Australian citizenship.
Do a new passport and voting rights make me more Australian and less Indian? What about Zambia? Where does it fit in into my view of myself?
Zambia is just a distant memory to me. I was born there while my Dad, an Indian doctor specialising in communicable diseases, was on a mosquito-killing jaunt. He would travel deep into the bush and build malaria prevention plans for hyena-eating tribes. Seriously. Somewhere in between, he and my Mum produced me.
I was five when I moved to India. Relief was my chief emotion. Through the last five years, the running joke in my house had been that since I was Zambian, I would have to be left behind when my family moved back to India. I am not exactly sure why they found it funny (early childhood psychology was not their strength). I found it terrifying and it made me hate Zambia, a rain-drenched, leafy country overrun with mosquitoes.
The relief was short lived. I soon discovered Indian toilets, Indian public toilets, diarrhoea, lizards and my terrifying tartar of a grandmother. Homesickness welled inside me the day when walking on one of the distracting, busy streets of India, I stepped in a warm, fresh pile of cow dung. “What kind of country is this?” my 5-year-old self silently screamed in bewilderment. Even in Zambia they didn’t allow cows to roam the streets freely. That night, I threw my first and last “I want to go back home!” tantrum. This is home, my unsentimental mother retorted, as she carefully cleaned the dung off my sandals.
Over time, India truly became home. For even as India confronts you with the “yuck” factor, it seduces you with the warmth, informality, readiness and ease of human interaction. With one billion people living cheek-by-jowl, one can argue we have little choice, but we do. We could choose the “one billion people = one billion problems” logic like China and adopt a severe top-down political and social structure. Instead, Indians choose to live by the “chaos is fun and let’s play with it” dictum. It is seductive and deeply entertaining.
I left India as a 27-year-old convinced that, regardless of whether I returned or not, nothing and nowhere could ever be home to me like India. The mad, magical kaleidoscope of crazy money, spicy samosas, ready smiles, fermenting shit and drying fish that we call Mumbai had infiltrated and colonized my RBCs. How could any other place ever be home?
But after eight itinerant years, I am not so sure. For even 20-30 trillion RBCs eventually die and get replaced. My RBCs have procreated, and so have I. The new cells have inhaled a different air and the smell of drying fish, spicy pao bhaji and Indian politics unsettles them. My two Melbourne-born children speak with an Aussie twang and get allergic reactions to mosquito bites in their grandparents’ airy Mumbai flat. (It’s karmic revenge, I tell my father).
Besides, the India I left has moved on. It isn’t just that the “it” shops and restaurants have changed; the social and cultural norms have shifted, as they do and as they should. People are sharper, edgier, smarter and they fill me with awe and nostalgia. My journeys back home have more the quality of humble rediscoveries as opposed to arrogant stakeholding.
Accepting Australian citizenship marks a decisive break from India for me, as India does not allow dual citizenship. I could say that citizenships are cosmetic and at heart I will always remain Indian, but that would be a lie. For just as my Indianness has sandpapered away, every passing year in Australia has added something else in its place. With every new Australian friend I make, every trip that I take into the bush, every footy match I attend, every Tony Abbott joke I share on social media, every Q&A episode I watch, every tax payment I make, I can feel myself transform into something like an Australian.
There are things I am unlikely to do, except with irony. I am unlikely to ever shout “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi”. I am unlikely to ever watch and discuss “Home and Away”. I am unlikely to ever master the “barbie”. I am unlikely to ever feel at home on a beach. I am unlikely to crave Vegemite. And I am unlikely to ever sing “Advance Australia Fair” in tune (that is, if I ever master the lyrics).
Here is what I have learnt about home, identity and citizenship.
At the age of five, I learnt that home is where your family is. The next thirty years taught me that your identity shifts between your past and present; it moves between time, place and context. Your citizenship is about your future. It gives you a stake in what kind of future you want for your country and, by extension, yourself and the people around you. With two Australian children, this is important to me.
Australia’s future is their future and I’ll work my ass off to make that future bright.