Altaf Tyrewala, Jaishree Misra and Tabish Khair talk to Bhakti Bapat about why they left India, and why two of them came back.
Indian authors writing in English have always been an eclectic bunch. The one common, unifying thread maybe that most of them have travelled around the world. Some of them stayed put in foreign lands, while others came back. Why did they leave? What drew them back? Three authors, Tabish Khair, Jaishree Misra and Altaf Tyrewala, share their stories.
“I was brought up on the myth that migration is the panacea to all existential anxieties,” says Altaf Tyrewala, author of No God in Sight. “It didn’t help that I grew up in an Ismaili Khoja household. The Aga Khan lives in France. The Ismailis have always been the migrating sort. If you were not settled abroad by your early 20s, there was something terribly pathetic about you. I went to New York to study at the age of 18. The assumption was I would never return.”
He returned after getting his degree. “I had enrolled for a BBA, but by the end of my four-year degree I had decided I would write a novel, come what may. Trying to write away from India is like running out of gas in the middle of a high-speed drive. The momentum of past material keeps you going for a while, but then you gradually come to a halt. Even after I returned to Mumbai, I maintained a cautious one-foot-out-the-door approach to life in India. The four years of writing my first book, that was when I really engaged with life here.”
Author of The Thing about Thugs, Tabish Khair left for Denmark almost 14 years ago. “Initially, I left for just four or five years and I still have only an Indian passport, so I guess I have not left for good in my mind yet. But it is true that the years grew, and now I have been abroad for almost 14 years. I left to be with my girlfriend who was Danish, until she could finish her studies and possibly move. We got married and had two children; we got divorced about seven years ago. Now I stay on because I love seeing my children growing up.”
For Jaishree Misra, author of Ancient Promises, leaving India meant both a fresh start as well as a necessary step for her daughter. Says Jaishree, “I went at first to do a post-graduate diploma in Special Education at the University of London, but my hope was that I would get a job and stay on as I have a daughter with special needs whom I was very keen should go to a good school there. Luckily, all those plans fell into place and I stayed on long enough for my daughter to finish her school and college too. My writing career also took off in England, so I really have many reasons to be very grateful to that country.”
Being out of India comes with its pros and cons. Says Altaf, “Life isn’t perfect here. But I suppose I prescribe to Arundhati Roy’s way of thinking when she said she can only be in India because she understands its darkness. I found the U.S. too far away for my liking. My one year in Berlin was slightly better, because I was geographically closer to the motherland. I also found life in Europe more organic than life in the U.S.”
Tabish hates the tag of ‘diasporic author’ bestowed on him with what he says is maddening persistence. “Why focus so obsessively on the fact that they moved to the West at the cost of the many differences in their backgrounds and trajectories and experiences (including experiences of the ‘West’)? I am afraid that such terms are only the latest version of the West’s incredible self-importance and self-love: such descriptions reduce the rest of us, and hence I would prefer not to subscribe to them.”
Unlike Tabish, Jaishree and Altaf have come back. “There’s no one specific reason, because there hasn’t been one single big ‘coming back’. I’ve gone away from India several times with my mind completely made up never to return. And I’ve eventually always come back,” says Altaf.
Jaishree, on the other hand, had a reason shared by many Indians : aging parents. “Both my husband and I were starting to worry about our mothers, one of whom is 77 and the other 82. We were both quite sure that we wanted to spend quality time with our parents. Unlike many others in our position, we were fortunate to have the kind of jobs where being itinerant is an advantage.”
While imagination is a great thing and may be the only resource really needed by a writer, there’s no doubt that travel will give you a bunch of novel experiences and perspectives, all grist for a writer’s mill. As J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Or, as another master storyteller, Terry Pratchett, once wrote, “Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”