The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

RANDOM NOMAD: Balaka Basu, Ph.D. Student in English Literature

Born in: New York City, USA
Passport(s): USA
Countries lived in: India (New Delhi): 1981, 1987-89, 1991, 2003-04; Italy (Rome): 2002
Cyberspace coordinates: The Society of Friends of the Text (collaborative blog)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
I’ve inherited displacement from my parents, who moved (individually) to the United States from India for graduate studies and sort of never left. They made periodic attempts to pick up stakes and move back, taking me with them, but these never lasted for more than a year at a time. My childhood left me feeling like a person without a homeland, always living between worlds, never quite belonging anywhere.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced over the course of your many displacements.
As a child, it used to be while saying — or rather, in my case, not saying — the Pledge of Allegiance at morning assemblies. Now, every so often, out of nowhere, I’ll have this weird sense of wanting to go “home” and smell the jasmine and the honeysuckle, and the smoky, pungent mustard oil, and have someone bring me a glass of freshly pressed pomegranate juice.

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
This is a difficult question because the land of my birth is sort of my adopted homeland. I was born in the United States — but was taken back to India when I was 28 days old. My first language is not English, but I can neither read nor write in Bengali. I’m pretty much always feeling displaced. However, I’ve got the subway map of New York tattooed on my heart, and it’s always been the place I’ve come back to. I love coming into the city early in the morning from points east and watching the rose-gold light of the sunrise reflecting back from the million glass windows. And one of the things I loved about Rome is that it felt a bit like Calcutta — a city also caught between two worlds, displaced all on its own.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from the country where you’ve lived into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
From India: A beaten copper sculpture of a woman bathing, a gift from my father.
From New York: A poster of the New Yorker cover “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” by the Romanian-born American cartoonist Saul Steinberg. It depicts the supposedly limited mental geography of Manhattanites.
From Rome: A copy of Bernini’s marble baby elephant.

You’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
Llish (a fish only available in India/Bengal) in mustard and chili paste, which has been smoked in banana leaves; rice; green mangoes in oil; and for dessert, by way of Rome, blackberry gelato and an espresso.

You may add one word or expression from each of the countries you’ve lived in to the Displaced Nation argot. What words do you loan us?
From India: Arbit, short for arbitrary, used as slang in India. Whenever I hear Indian people say “arbit,” it reminds me that English is one of their national languages, too, and has evolved in a distinct and separate way.
From Italy: Prego: the indispensable word! How can you not like a word that means “if you please,” “you’re welcome,” “excuse me,” “would you mind if I walked in front of you,” and so on. You can say it any time, and it will almost never be wrong. How economical!
From New York (which I think is fair to include even though it’s my birthplace): I’ve got to go with the unprintable expletive here. When I go other places, it’s terribly difficult to remember that curse words aren’t universally accepted as terms of endearment.

This month The Displaced Nation is celebrating Alice in Wonderland as a literary analogue for disorientation and displacement. Upon entering Wonderland, Alice commits many social blunders, as when telling Mouse all about her cat, Dinah. Can you describe an instance where you inadvertently offended someone in one of your adopted lands?
Well, there was this one time when I met an astrologer in New Delhi, who apparently used to read the stars for a previous prime minister. I asked how anyone in the civilized world could take these things seriously. But I’m not sure that was exactly … inadvertent.

QUESTION: Readers — yay or nay for letting Balaka Basu into The Displaced Nation? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Balaka — find amusing.)

img: Balaka Basu by Edie Nugent, taken in Edie’s Manhattan apartment.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine Libby — and see if you can spot the Alice references!

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11 responses to “RANDOM NOMAD: Balaka Basu, Ph.D. Student in English Literature

  1. Kym Hamer June 2, 2011 at 5:47 am

    Prego is excellent! Entirely useful for someone who has merely travelled to, not lived in, the land the queue-ing forgot.

    • ML Awanohara June 2, 2011 at 4:38 pm

      So, Kym, I gather you think Balaka deserves entry into The Displaced Nation on this grounds? I agree that encouraging the use of prego amongst TDN citizens should make for a more civilized atmosphere…

      On the other hand, do we want her to bring in four-letter words from NYC? I fear that might cancel out the prego effect!

    • Balaka Basu June 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm

      the land the queue-ing forgot

      Now that brings back memories…

  2. amblerangel June 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    I personally applaud the ability to use 4 letter words in multiple languages and have felt extreme displeasure with Andretti-san and Sensei that neither will teach me ANY- an obvious cultural defect. But I’m off topic. Thumbs up- I vote in favor of auto-inclusion to all the courageous folks who grow up speaking the native tongue of origin but never learn to scribe due to being schooled in someone elses.

    • ML Awanohara June 3, 2011 at 11:21 am

      I agree that not being able to read and write one’s native language — in Balaka’s case, Bengali — would drive anyone to the use of expletives at some point in their lives. What’s more, Balaka showed admirable restraint during her Alice moment. I refer to the moment when she was confronted with a soothsayer in New Delhi who had a claim to fame. She gently (albeit somewhat cheekily) asked how anyone in the civilized world could believe in such nonsense, rather than swearing a blue streak…

    • Balaka Basu June 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm

      Because of this, my father sometimes calls me “the child without a mother tongue”.

  3. Kate Allison June 3, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Ah, the Pledge of Allegiance… It can be a bone of contention for expat children in the US. I’d be interested to hear what other people think of it.
    I like that you mentioned the smells that evoke ‘home’ – jasmine, honeysuckle, etc. At the top of my own list is newly mown grass. I don’t know why that should be, because Americans mow their grass as much as Brits do. (Perhaps a more pungent type of grass?)
    And I agree 100% with amblerangel about the auto-inclusion clause. Can’t get much more displaced than that. 🙂

    • Balaka Basu June 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm

      I agree the grass smells different in different places. The quality of light too, and presumably it’s the same sun everywhere. 😉

  4. ML Awanohara June 6, 2011 at 4:52 pm

    I find it very interesting that both you and Charlotte Day, who are the two so-called third-culture kids I’ve interviewed thus far, mentioned the New York City subway as the place that makes you feel least displaced. Charlotte put it thus:

    My old life would always be waiting for me on the subway, ready for me to pick it up again. That’s something only a New Yorker could say!

    I mentioned this coincidence to my sister, who’s lived in NYC for at least ten years longer than I have, and she said she understood it — she likewise thinks of the subway as a kind of “home,” she said.

    So, should someone let MTA know? Perhaps they could adopt a new tagline: “The heart and home of NYC.”

    • Balaka Basu June 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm

      There’s just something about the subway! Maybe it’s something tangible, like having a transportation system that never sleeps & doesn’t require a designated driver… or maybe it’s something more mythic than that…

      • VP Namatovu June 8, 2011 at 11:54 am

        Sometimes, when trying to fall asleep under my bednet in rural Uganda — hearing the pigs, roosters, or mosquitoes — visions of riding on the New York subway appear in my mind. I do not consciously invite them, but maybe these visions come because I crave anonymity when in a place like rural Uganda, where anyone who is not Ugandan is a “muzungu”, and therefore always the center of attention, creating a constant spectacle. I just want to be on the subway where people don’t care about who I am or where I am from, and maybe that is the place where displaced people catch their breath.

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