Night had fallen on Melbourne by the time I had gotten through immigration and customs. I made myway through the crowd of smiling people, some holding up “Welcome Home!” signs. For a moment, I entertained the possibility that at least one of them could be for me. In the arrivals area, I found a quiet spot and, fortunately, free wifi – always such a boon to itinerants. There was just enough power on my phone to send a quick message to let my folks know I had arrived safely. For a long while, I stood by my luggage cart and eyed the exit. I was not ready, just yet, to leave the neutral space of the airport, and step into terra incognita.
Sure, I had found myself in this same situation many times before. But it never ceases to feel daunting, that alienness of being on the precipice of starting life anew. En route to Australia, I broke my journey in Beirut. At immigration in Lebanon, I surmised that the officer was asking me if I spoke Arabic, but being unable to respond in that tongue, I apologized in English. “How come?” He interrogated. “You were born in Kuwait,” he said, jabbing his finger at the tell-tale information in my American passport.
Just a few weeks prior, the moustachioed official collecting departure cards at Bombay’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport – which will always be Sahar Airport to me from my childhood memories of transiting through there between Kuwait and Goa to see my grandmother – insisted on speaking to me in Hindi. As if to go with the nationalistically inclined name change of the airport, he questioned my inability to articulate myself fluently in “the mother tongue” that is completely unknown to my mother who was born and raised in East Africa. Waving my Overseas Citizenship of India card in my face, he chastised me, in Hindi, for not speaking the language of “your country.” I thought of the title of that novel, the one in which James Baldwin writes, “The aim of the dreamer, after all, is merely to go on dreaming and not to be molested by the world. His dreams are his protection against the world.” I thought of 1961, the year in which Goa ceased being Estado da Índia Portuguesa and, without the benefit of a local referendum to ascertain the will of its people, was handed over to India some fourteen years after a certain “Tryst with Destiny.” I signed my Portuguese name on the exit form, and departed the country that neither of my parents, nor I, had been born in.
“It’s not just another country for you,” a friend remarked. “It’s a whole other continent.” Nonetheless, some things were immediately familiar, I thought to myself as I prepared the cash to pay the taxidriver near the end of the ride from Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport. For instance, there was the crowned head on the heavy currency – the paradoxically common royal visage on the coinage of the Commonwealth. I remember her well from those days of scrounging together my all too uncommon wealth as a student in London. And English is spoken here – that other imperial legacy. I thought of 1968, the year in which England withdrew the right of entry to British passport holders from its former colonies and how the lie was given to the concept of the Commonwealth. I thought of “Rivers of Blood,” Enoch Powell’s speech delivered that same year, in which he proclaimed, “Whatever drawbacks attended the immigrants arose not from the law or from public policy or from administration, but from those personal circumstances and accidents which cause, and always will cause, the fortunes and experience of one man to be different from another's.” The rising anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the turning away of exiles, some of them South Asians from once British East Africa. Never mind that they were part of Britain’s history, or that they spoke “the same language.”
There was an awkward silence when the cab driver finally ended the call he had been on from the time he had picked me up. I had gathered from the phone conversation that he was Punjabi. “How long have you lived here?” I enquired. “Ten years.” After another protracted pause, he asked, “You’re here for work?” I nodded. “Yes. New job.” He said, “Good, good.” Leaning forward in my seat, I queried, “So, some years ago, there were those attacks, no? On Indian students… Some were murdered?” His head bobbed in assent. “But it is safe. You know… just mind your own business. You do your work and you go home after and everything will be fine.”
I thought about whose home this country really is and I thought of homelessness. I thought of 1869 and the ironically named Aboriginal Protection Act, which led to the Stolen Generations of state-abducted indigenous children. I thought of Doris Pilkington’s Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, which was turned into a film and tells the story of just such Aboriginal children who had been taken away from their families. I thought of the earliest South Asians to come to this country, the so called “Afghans” who served as cameleers in the 1860s, transporting goods across Australia’s deserts - Muslim men who married into Aboriginal communities. I thought of the migrant who goes everywhere and belongs nowhere. “This is your stop,” the driver announced as he slowed down. “All the best!”