Born in: New York City, 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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