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Expatriate sensibility

"Let us `unskin the expatriate', or at least nail the creature to a bed and look at his form and features". INDRAN AMRITHANAYAGAM writes.


What do I do with my shadow life?

LEAVE your prints in the sand; run off into the waves, disappear. This option strikes the expatriate with the sun light on a morning by the beach. It suggests like the siren, a lulled sleep and forgetfulness, an alternate way of life and death, irrevocable, what lies in wait beyond the suspension bridge in the far depths.

The expatriate walked the suspension bridge every day between Brooklyn and Manhattan, spied the World Trade Center in the near distance, the Statue of Liberty. He walked because he found himself a resident of the New York portion of Earth during the 1980s and early 1990s. He walked because Allen Ginsberg had told him to cross the planks and then read Hart Crane's poem "The Bridge".

He walked because Walt Whitman had crossed Brooklyn Ferry, and the East River and Hudson reminded him of other waters he had walked by in earlier incarnations: the Beira Lake in Colombo, the Thames on his first expatriate jaunts in London, even the Ala Wai Canal in Honolulu — not a grand river at all, but yet water flowing through a city, near an ocean.

The expatriate sensibility, a filigreed quiver when salt rushes by on the wind, jumps at the sight of a betting shop, becomes transported into daydream and goose bumps when the copper-skinned, and magenta-sareed young woman steps out of the taxi. As she steps, a lyre starts to play, the siren calls and the call lasts for a time. Then the expatriate wakes up and shuffles off to the isolated life, buried in pockets and scarves, to the transnational cafe and espresso. How can we keep our secrets in the conversation that ensues? Perhaps, we shall talk about what everybody permits: the latest forays of the powerful nation, the price of bread, victors and losers in the sports meets. Perhaps we shall shout and fight with words as weapons, and drown out our irrelevance.

Yet, relevance belongs to the victor. Bet and you might win. Do not underestimate the expatriate's ability to ride right into the saloon and settle the poker match and ride out into the night hailed as hero and enigma. Yet, why should there be a saloon and holsters, a frilly lass and evening? Why not some panchayat, a round table under the overseer moon, or a palaver by the banyan tree? Why not a fanciful modern reading of ancient conundrums in contradictory Mahabharatas — conducted by men and women spotlit in black tights, rainbow-coloured, vulnerable and smart? And why not as the big tent can shelter a thousand million interpretations of the sacred texts: post modern, modern, conventional, pre-historic, post-post modern, apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and Edwardian.

Let's dispense with the tyranny of categories, yet focus on the one that sparked this essay: the expatriate, ex-patria, out of country, patriot in a foreign tongue, shadow boxer with assassins sent by dream armies. The Armies of the Night. Who will come to pull out my eyes? For which of my sins, and must my murder occur abroad?

Let us unskin the expatriate, or at least nail the creature to a bed and look at his form and features. Of course, being human, he does not exhibit any unusual variation in nose, leg or eye. Perhaps, in attitude, or the emotion hidden in the pools of his eyes. What to do with his shadow life, the question plagues him. And why do shadows, what's hidden in the interstices of conversations, allusions, make up the expatriate's public self?

The expatriate is essentially a confidence artist. He lulls you with tales of far-away heroism, struggles for self-determination, as he coos bits of old songs. The man is a bit sorry for himself, wears his pot belly like a flag or invitation card. He wants to welcome you in, swaddle you in his sarong — no matter that we are wintered and the city is Hamburg or Oslo.

Actually, Oslo is just the right city for him given the Norwegian role in moving the process forward, bringing the parties to sit down and chat, attempting to make peace in that far-away polity from which this particular flesh, blood and mind expatriated himself, was sent off to Coventry, built the raft that he claims unsinkable and afloat between continents.

Confidence — rather the lack of confidence — which engenders the need to compensate in camouflage, this is the expatriate's psychological state. Representation is one disguise. I shall appear on your behalf, my friend. Tell me your story, give me nuts, bolts, warts and secrets. I have accepted the President's commission. I am your man in Chennai, your guide in Kathmandu, I will roll the carpet and make it smooth. Let there be commerce between us and them; let us not worry about differences; we are re-made, American, new again. But at the end of the day, after the negotiations and signatures, before the empty plates and tumblers, what food and drink shall we serve, and shall we eat with our hands?

The expatriate is a glutton, cannot deny himself the sweet and hot, aware that his food may not be served tomorrow, that he must take advantage of this invitation and eat well at the host's table. Of course, he will serve as guest, guest worker, useful companion for chat, a quixotic and multi-coloured raconteur. He will enchant the party, spin a few tall tales, lie or tell the truth, as he sees fit, for at the end is his reward: a fancy meal and a seat for the night at the table.

But surely we can overcome our bodily hunger for food and shelter, warmth, a kiss. Surely, our man in America can go beyond the need for a home.

The expatriate is the modern man or woman, cut off from village, unaware of the cycles of potatoes and cabbages, flat-chested owing to walking machines, engaged in making capital, in love with the blips on screen, transported by dacoits into the Wild Indian West. He welcomes the dacoits, the pirates: they keep him in touch with stereotypes and help him escape the humdrum. The humdrum rules in all countries. Yet, the expatriate has a crucial advantage. He can see Eden on the other side. He remembers a Golden Age now obliterated. He believes in rebirth.

The expatriate in the end believes his own prophecies, but thinks he can escape the mushroom cloud into another country and another skin. The expatriate, already dead, is a kind of living dead, and he will wander the earth as long as there is earth.

Indran Amrithanayagam is Consul for Public Affairs at the American Consulate General, Chennai. He is a poet who writes in English and Spanish. His latest book, Ceylon R.I.P., has just been released in Sri Lanka.

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