“You Have Given Me a Country,” by Neela Vaswani
Frankly, I was looking for a book able to convince Robin Hemley, my mentor, that my idea to convey history into my NF novel was an asset. To say the truth, Robin didn’t object (we didn’t discuss about this matter so far), and certainly he didn’t know anything about this kind of trouble. But I was afraid because in the last chapters of my book I felt the impelling necessity to better anchor my story, to give it a superior cultural-historical thickness. So there are several passages about Sardinian history that I thought could add value to the novel. At the same time, I understand they are somehow out of the stream of the main account. This was my problem. Since for me mentorship means also a continuous, imaginary discussion with my mentor about each phrase, each paragraph of my writing, I had to find strong arguments for my cause, good references, yes, a good book for example.
That was the antecedent. Later, the book I’m writing about grabbed me (as usually happens when I’m reading a good book), and the importance of my initial goal faded. I think that you have to listen to the book, offering your best white page of attention. No prejudices, no ideologies, no pre-established thesis. Well, I think that “You Have Given Me a Country” speaks to readers who were born in another place. So, it is a book that hit my sensibility, letting me thoughtful about life. There is history, of course, also violent, cruel, but the right key to the reading is identity, extraneousness, and distance.
Despite the initial declaration “What follows is real, and imagined”, the book is closely about the story of the interracial family of the author, and about a daughter (she) who lives two different cultures and worlds (her mother is American, Irish-Catholic, and her father is Sindhi, from the old British India province), and grows facing the consequential problems. The beauty of this book is not the easy accent on racial topics but the hard research of an existential place, a ‘country of the soul’. Moreover, everything is written with exquisite sensibility – that one I envy to women.
So this is a book that speaks not only to interracial sons or to spirits interested in interracial matters, but also to everyone who understands problems of identity, of ‘broken, torn culture’. Situations in which the main sentiment is to be far away from himself, from a right place. Of course, everyone has his own problems. So the greatness of an author is to play a universal music that a broad category of people can appreciate, finding in it reasons to think, or to be comforted or lit.
How don’t you fall in love, immediately, with a book that starts with this phrase: “This place; that place. You have to stand someplace. I pledge allegiance to the in-between”? So I ran to the last page of the volume, to the short biography of Neela Vaswani, to her photo, and I saw a volitive face that denies the promise of allegiance to the in-between as a passive acceptance (I understood so, I was wrong). No, she found a way, for sure, an own way to stay in-between, and the book became soon interesting for me.
After two pages: “At Dum Dum Airport, Calcutta, just arrived. I feel the grief of leaving. Everything is a temporary reunion. It will be painful to leave my family in India, as it was painful to leave my grandfather and America. No matter where I am. I will think of lives being lived across the world. India, America. This place, that place. You have to stand someplace. My lips harden to beak; my fingers melt to the softness of feathers. I look down at the world: a soft blur. Always in-between. And, in-between, home.”
She is speaking about me, I thought, about my life, my splendid family split in distant pieces set in Sardinia, in Milan, in Manchester, in Singapore and in Hong Kong, as a painful curse. Because when we suffer for nostalgia, we run farer and farer, to cut a rope that never breaks. So, everything is a temporary reunion, terrible and correct.
Other good passages: “She (her mother) always said, ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ but it seemed to me that my mother’s blood had deserted her. My father, a refugee, could never go back to Sindh: Pakistan did not let Sindhis re-enter for fear of land claims. My father said, ‘Homeland is in the body,’ and, ‘Land is in the blood’. When I was child, I imagined dirt running in my vein, clotting thick, sweeping around my bones and sinew…”
Again: “As a family we wandered. We had no here. Only there. And there. And there… Wherever we went, my father said, ‘I’m Sindhi.’ Wherever we went my mother was Irish-Catholic, said in one breath as if one did not exist without the other.”
Again: “We formed a triangle of foreignness. Because of my father, my mother was a foreigner to her own people. Because of my mother, my father was a foreigner to his own people. And I was both of them, a foreigner to everyone except myself. I developed an ability to hold two things in my mind at once. Two feelings, two ideas, two languages. The in-between, inside me. Like two spotlights on a dark stage, coming together. And where they overlapped, it was brightest. It was easiest to see.”
Nearly at the end of the book: “When the plane jolts and rolls against Indian ground, I cry and think of my father leaving India thirty-eight years ago, and the strangeness of me, returning. The journey, in reverse. I always fell I will die in India. The rule of land. It cannot be left without consequence. And so this land will one day claim me. Take me back. Keep the balance.”
Thinking about these existential tears, my problem about Sardinian history became secondary, of course. Nevertheless, history bursts into the pages with shocking power, and Neela Vaswani is good in handling this transition without artificiality: “To my father, nationality was fickle, unreliable. He was born in the province of Sindh, British India, in 1945. By his second birthday, Sindh was in Pakistan. Sindh has not moved, but it changed countries. This fact, this dark absurdity, impressed itself upon my father. On August 15, 1947, the newly independent nations of India and Pakistan were carved out of what had been British India. Partition made one country into two, segregated by religion. At the stroke of midnight, the Radcliffe Line went into effect and the country of India cracked. Although the split was expected, the territorial parameters were not revealed in advance. The redrawn borders divided… Fourteen million human beings were uprooted, relocated, rendered homeless and landless. Muslims in India fled to Pakistan; Hindus, Sikhs, etc. in Pakistan fled to India… It was a crisis of category and identity, and one of the largest migrations in human history. The region drowned in riots, reciprocal violence and revenge killings… Up to 1,5 million people were murdered, and at least 100,000 women – Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, alike – were raped and abducted. The nations of India and Pakistan steeped in grief from the moment their borders appeared on paper – an arbitrary line drawn by an English lawyer who at least had the decency to decline his fee of 40,000 rupees when he realized the damage done… Never my grandfather nor my father ever returned to Sindh or the city of Hyderabad or the house on Vaswani Street, named for the eight generations who had lived and died there before them.”
I think that is a great page of history, told with participation and at the same time with a neutral tone that underlines the enormity of the events, of that mad decision (human history is drawn with blood, often as result of crazy or stupid, inadequate, and arrogant individuals, able to kill thousand or million people – how can be possible to deny devil’s existence?).
The pages about Catholic religion are really pleasant, giving me the quiet sense of enjoyment of well-known things. “Every night, my mother fell asleep in a pink nightgown with her rosary threaded through the fingers of her right hand. Framed pictures of St. Teresa of Avila, of Little Flower, on her desk. The Virgin Mary on her nightstand. Mother Teresa on the bookcase. A Sacred Heart, flaming, in the bathroom. St. Francis of Assisi on the fridge, holding up the coupons. St. Jude on a laminated bookmark. St. Christopher tucked under the passenger side visor, next to her sunglasses and parking permits. The old Irish way. Throw out of the Bible. Keep the saints.”
Again: “… If I had ever called the Pope an asshole, my mother would have snapped her head up and told me to have some respect. But she, baptized, confirmed, wholly Irish-Catholic, was allowed. She had the privilege of insider.”
“Once after reading about Partition, I told her I didn’t believe in God any more because religion caused too many terrible things. She was grading papers, and mumbled, ‘Thomas, Thomas, thou art Didymus.’ Then, her face crumpled. She looked up at me, sharp, angry, and asked, ‘What does God have to do with religion?’ It was enough, that sentence. I separated the two permanently in my mind and heart.”
So, it is easy to understand that I liked this book because it speaks to me directly, plucking my heartstrings. I’m neither Sindhi nor Irish; both my father and my mother were born in Nuoro, in Sardinia, and I’m Sardinian. I never had interracial problems. But I left Sardinia when I was 18 (it was my own decision) and that tear I think marked my life, giving me a strong sense of foreignness that only one who was born in a far island can understand, I imagine. So I was born in another place, and Milan or Hong Kong or New York are all foreign places, far away from my soul. Exile is solitude, and you have to reach an agreement with solitude. It is always a matter of how.
I’d like to finish this essay with a phrase of the book, that I think can synthetize my today sentiment: “There is always something unremembered, irretrievable, when moving from one identity to another. There is always something lost.”