‘World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings’ review: Banyan tree reflections

“Where are you from?” This query has often stumped me. Do I belong to my place of birth? Or where my parents came from? Or the various places I grew up in? Questions that came flooding back, as I read Vishakha Desai’s World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. This personal chronicle, writes Desai, was “an effort to reclaim global as a kind of palimpsest that allows for the layers of the local, national, and transnational to coexist and comingle.”

Fragile values

In her Introduction, Desai points out that both India and the U.S. “share the ideals of openness and respect for diversity.” If it’s the Vedic Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (treat the world as family; the phrase that gives Desai her book’s title) in India, the national motto of the U.S. is the Latin “e pluribus unum (from many, one)”. Diversity, equality and tolerance are the underpinnings of both and Desai accepts that these have been “imperfectly actualised”. Current events in both countries are “a grim reminder that these values, to which we have aspired, are actually quite fragile” and “now more than ever, there is urgency to fight harder to make these aspirational values operational, not only at home but in the world.”

Beginning from her birth (and her mother’s feelings at birthing a third daughter) through her childhood and then her journey as a member of the Indian diaspora, Desai takes the reader through a journey that crosses many geographical and cultural lines. Whether she is writing of moments of success and triumph or of loss and despair, the account is candid and compelling. Desai likens her life to a banyan tree: the foundational roots stay put in Ahmedabad, where she was born, while the branches and aerial roots spread all over the world. But she reconsiders this metaphor when events offer the opportunity. Gracefully she accepts, “The metaphor of an ancient banyan tree that takes its time to grow wide-ranging roots all around its centre feels too passive and unrealistically tranquil for the generation that already inhabits a fast-changing multi-layered life. It may also seem too dated.”

Pandemic and fallout

This ability to pause, reflect and reconsider makes this memoir a page-turner. Certain vignettes linger long after the covers are closed: the youngster arguing for a synthetic nylon dress in the place of khadi cotton, the connection between women praying to statues in their home and her later life as an art historian, how her dance class caused the clash between her “independent self” and her “interdependent self”, how the arrival of her siblings in the U.S. gave rise to a conflict between the “‘American me’ who prized privacy and the ‘Indian me’ who always felt selfish for not doing more for the family”; becoming the President of the Asia Society and the reactions it threw up.

The final chapter addresses the pandemic and its fallout. The idea of world as family is more relevant now as we wrangle about vaccinations, their availability, vaccine passports and more. The “interconnectedness running through the personal, local, national, and transnational layers of our reality was amply apparent even before COVID-19. But now it is in our faces, staring us down and demanding that we pay attention to the linkages that make us human,” writes Desai, urging readers to “rebalance priorities and implement the principle of reciprocity” so that “we can treat all inhabitants of the planet earth that we call home as our family.”

World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings; Vishakha Desai, Columbia University Press, ₹552.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 11:37:30 AM |

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