Ramya, a friend, knocks on our door late one evening. She is going door to door collecting signatures for a referendum petition on a contentious local issue. I regretfully inform her that I am not a registered voter and therefore, cannot sign the petition. Ramya looks a bit taken aback. Why? She wants to know.
She knows me as a vocal, and at times, passionate participant in political discussions within our friends circle. She knows many others have consulted me on the pros and cons of various ballot measures and initiatives in the past elections. But I am myself not registered to vote? Ramya is rightfully puzzled. I have after all lived in this country for over 25 years, and was eligible for US citizenship more than a decade ago. My husband and children are all US citizens.
For me, the reasons are a bit abstract and take me back to my childhood days. Raised in the 1970s in India, my generation grew up listening to stories of the battles, the heroes, the tragedies and the triumphs of the freedom movement from varied sources such as history books, Amar Chitra Katha comics, school plays, newspaper features, Doordarshan archival footage, All India Radio programs, and so forth.
We were also introduced to the poetry of iconic figures such as Subramania Bharathi and Rabindranath Tagore, and patriotic music from the likes of Lata Mangeshkar to DK Pattammal. Indeed, the deep association songs like Jana Gana Manaor Vande Mataramhave with my sense of being an Indian is inseparable. To this day, hearing Jana Gana Manaaffects me at a visceral level. Every cell in my being responds to that song, tethering me to the country of my birth as securely as an intact umbilical cord.
Over the years, I have debated the pros and cons of obtaining a US citizenship. The pros are many: citizen rights and privileges such as voting, many forms of federal aid, hassle-free travel, access to any job in the US, staying abroad indefinitely, etc., the list is long. I went so far as applying and getting called for the US citizenship interview once. At the last minute, I balked.
But why? Because there is a part of me that was not fully committed, a part of me that wanted to know — will the Star-Spangled Bannermove me the same way as Jana Gana Mana? Will it make my heart soar and wash over me with warm waves of nostalgia? Will it remind me of all the stories and heroes I grew up idolizing? Am I ready to hold my right hand over my heart and sway to it like I have seen fans do at the start of a football game? Indeed, will it touch me at the very core of my being as it does for them?
Being an Indian citizen is not easy since my motherland demands my undivided loyalty. No easy way out with a dual citizenship, like some European countries will allow. Am I then really ready to switch loyalties? Will I genuinely feel the same sense of belonging to the US as I do for India? To me that is what changing citizenship is tantamount to. Needless to say, the answer to all of the above questions was “no” around 10-15 years ago, and hasn’t changed much today.
The very core of my identity seems inseparable to me from the land of my birth. For now, circumstances have not forced me to abandon the abstract for the practical. As life unfolds, and other considerations force their way through in the form of caring for aging parents, and travel restrictions on permanent residents, I might have to reframe my priorities.
But for now, my allegiance to the country of my birth remains secure. After all, it is the only place in the world where no one asks me where I am from.
I invite Ramya in for a chat, if she has the time. She says she does, settles down on the couch, and stretches her legs. I hurry in to the kitchen — it’s time to make some chai.