Society Reviews

‘This Land Is Our Land’ review: Difficult border crossings

“Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all,” the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday. “People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas.”

If World War I gave rise to visas and border controls, our own time is rife with walls, detention centres, national registers and citizenship amendment bills. Meanwhile, the desperation of immigrants grows as they try life-threatening ways to reach promised lands. Those who make it have no guarantee of being allowed to stay. Those who do can face racism and threats, if not outright harm.

This is the situation that Suketu Mehta surveys in his This Land is Our Land. It is a blistering polemic that takes aim at those who have created the current situation and even tried to make political capital out of it.

Memory and reportage

The book is a hybrid of personal recollections, research and on-ground reportage. Mehta knows whereof he speaks: his family “has moved all over the earth, from India to Kenya to England to the United States and back again — and is still moving.” He himself came from India to the United States over four decades ago.

“Why are you here?” That is what Mehta’s grandfather was threateningly asked in London in the 1980s. His grandfather replied: “Because we are the creditors. You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here because you were there: that resonates on every page.

Mehta recounts tales from the so-called Friendship Park, the only place along the two-thousand-mile U.S.-Mexican border where families can meet face-to-face. He chats with Cameroonian women in the Bronx and a Ghanaian taxi driver in Abu Dhabi. He visits “Europe’s equivalent of the U.S.-Mexican border,” the straits between southern Spain and northern Morocco; and he goes to the Pillar, an obelisk near the Wagah Border where Indians and Pakistanis can come close without a fence. He reveals the humans behind the headlines: “The first thing that a new migrant sends to his family back home isn’t money; it’s a story.”

Mehta’s anger grows as he explains why migrants are moving and why they’re feared. Much of this has been written about elsewhere, too. The way colonialism destroyed lands, the so-called dirty wars and regime change tactics employed by the West, how and why climate change is making lands uninhabitable. Populism, propaganda and racism are eviscerated. These sections are compressed and wide-ranging, as Mehta upbraids rapacious multinationals, corruption, the roots of civil unrest, and the “alliance between the mob and capital”, in Hannah Arendt’s words. “All hail Western civilization,” he writes sardonically, “which gave the world the genocide of the indigenous Americans, slavery, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and global warming. How hypocritical this whole debate about migration really is.”

Little India

The book ends on a more expectant note. Mehta praises multi-ethnic communities — New York’s “Jaikisen Heights”, for example — and dismantles arguments against immigration. It’s untrue that those who come from other lands take away native jobs; that they increase the crime rate; that they are an alien culture. He marshals research and statistics to show why immigrants should be welcomed, not feared. “Today’s immigrants might have come as the creditors,” he affirms, “but they have become a credit to the country.”

Some of Mehta’s suggestions have a whiff of the utopian, but they reveal his deep feelings on the issue. A giant bill is due, he says, asking for reparations. Speaking of those who were enslaved: “Should not 12 million people from present-day Africa now be allowed to live in the countries enriched by the labour of their ancestors?” Further, immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries. “Thus, Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France, for Malians and Tunisians; Belgians, for very large numbers of Congolese.” More audaciously, if a country starts a war, for each person killed on an overseas adventure, one person should get a chance at a new life.

“This book is being written in sorrow and rage — as well as hope,” Mehta writes. One hopes this hope is not unfounded.

As Viet Thanh Nguyen has written, imagine borders as “markers of culture and identity, valuable but easily crossed, rather than legal borders designed to keep our national identities rigid and ready for conflict and war, separating us from others.” Absolutely.

This Land Is Our Land; Suketu Mehta, Jonathan Cape/PRH, ₹599.

The Mumbai-based writer is a critic.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 2:58:53 AM |

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