The myth of the 
'returning' migrants

The idea of returning home someday has long gripped the imagination of migrants. For many, that day never comes; they end up living out lives of disjuncture. But as ‘home’ acquires new meanings in the age of globalisation, the idea of ‘return’ also changes

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 8 Apr 2022, 12:01 AM

The face lights up, some wrinkles smoothen, while others run deep, almost submerging the eyes, when octogenarian Saifuddin Ahmed relives his annual breaks back home to India, from Uganda — where he was employed as a teacher — in the 1960s. He would land in Bombay, and then take a train to Guwahati, in Assam, from where he would proceed to his village.

I met Ahmed in his cosy house in Leicester some time ago. He moved to England from Uganda in the aftermath of Idi Amin’s purge of Asians, in the early 1970s. But even today, he doesn’t tire of describing that Bombay-Guwahati train journey: “People talk to each other easily during the long trip, they share food, their life stories. They become great friends by the time they reach the destination and keep in touch for years — unlike here in England, where nobody talks on train journeys, even to those seated nearby.”

When I asked when was the last time he undertook that train journey, he said with a hand gesture that said ‘recently’: “in 1969”.

For decades, Ahmed insisted that he would, one day, return home, but every time he made a move to begin winding up, for some reason — work, health, children, grandchildren — the plan would be abandoned. Under pressure from family and failing health, he is now reconciled that the return journey home will never happen, that his home will forever remain an ‘imaginary homeland’; besides, his village, Assam, and India are not the same he left behind decades ago. Reliving images and experiences from a past frozen in the mind, Ahmed is among millions of people of a certain age who left home for various reasons — economic, political, social — but never realised the dream of returning home.

Migration is a reality not only between nations but also within countries, and ‘home’ may lie within the same country. The longer you put off the return journey, the deeper you develop roots in the country or area of settlement, making the return home ever more remote by the day. “The past is a foreign country,” goes the immortal opening sentence of LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between. “They do things differently there.”

Sociologist Muhammad Anwar called it the ‘myth of return’ in a book published in 1979 to describe how the early migrants from Pakistan to Britain intended to save up money for their eventual return to the homeland. The concept has since been much debated in migration and diaspora studies, with research highlighting migrants’ sentimental links with the country of origin; the feeling is referred to as özlem, which means ‘longing’ in Turkish. International migrants often hesitate to make an explicit decision to stay permanently in their country of settlement, and almost always uphold the idea of returning home in the future.

In sociological and anthropological literature, most immigrant communities are portrayed as people motivated by the idea of return, but at the same time, struggle to maintain links with their homeland. Some migrants form an easy pact with the two ‘homes’ and the cultures they 
inhabit, while others struggle with the implications of identity and integration, reflected in everyday life in multicultural societies such as Britain, United States and France, in terms such as ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) or ‘coconuts’.

Homeland attachments

Marta Bolognani, an academic who shifts the idea of the ‘myth of return’ to ‘return fantasy’ in her research that sets out a psychosocial interpretation of migration imaginaries, writes: “‘Homeland attachment’ for young British Pakistanis is constituted through school holidays spent in Pakistan, participation there in life-cycle rituals involving the wider kinship network, and the older generation’s promotion of the idea of Pakistan as a spiritual and cultural homeland. For the pioneer generation, the ‘myth of return’ justified a socio-economically motivated migration. Yet for the second and third generations, ‘homeland’ attachments and the idea of a possible return to Pakistan represent, instead, a response to contemporary political tensions and Islamophobia. Thus, while ‘myth of return’ remains, for the majority, a myth, it has been revitalised and has a new political significance in the contemporary political context.”

There are many stories of migrants settling down happily or unhappily in foreign lands, visiting countries of origin occasionally, but not being able to return home for good. The Internet is full of both positive and horror stories of professionals who studied and worked for years in the US, Britain and elsewhere, returning home to face diverse situations: some easily re-adjusting to life back home, while others struggle, cursing themselves for making the return journey home and soon returning to the country where they went to study or work in. There are also professionals who return home because they do not want their daughters to grow up in permissive societies in the West.

Says Amarnath Hari, a career coach currently based in Hyderabad, India: “We have been and are a family of travellers: I was 2 years old when my parents went on a world tour in 1965 travelling across the US, Canada and western Europe. They brought back with them several stories, pictures and souvenirs and stirred my [our] imagination from an early age. Packing of bags, inoculations, travelling anxiety, long distance messaging and the joy of seeing returning folks permeated the home atmosphere at all times. Hence, it was hardly surprising when a job in Hong Kong came calling, I accepted it readily. I returned to Hyderabad after seven years in Hong Kong, 15 in Singapore and four in Malaysia. Filial piety was one strong reason I came back to India. A close second reason was my career. At 40, I found my life’s passion in a wonderful role. For me it has always been a tale of two cities. Southeast Asia is geographically and culturally so close to India, my ties with my home country remained intact. Readjusting to life in India was easy, but I can imagine it being hard for someone returning from North America or Western Europe.”

The pushes and the pulls

Different reasons and push factors lead professionals to move abroad, who then have diverse experiences after returning home. Manila-based Abigail Asaldo, a production operator in the semiconductor industry, says: “I went to Taiwan to help provide for my family, to gain work experience and taste life in a progressive country. At 18, a palmist predicted I would live and work abroad. Since then, I started dreaming of this possibility. If you believe in the Law of Attraction, this indeed helped me seek and find work in Taiwan. I later returned home after my work contract expired. I was keen to return for the sake of my ageing mother and growing son. A constant worry upon returning home was to find a job and remuneration equal to what I was earning in Taiwan. Also missing was the discipline and attitude of the general Taiwanese population. Back home, every day is a shuffle and a jostle. Inflation is sky high.”

The sensitive binary of home and abroad plays out at various levels, including in the world of films and literature. The life situation of the migrant, living easily or uneasily in two or more worlds, has provided a rich menu of love, loss and longing for writers such as Hanif Kureishi, 
Monica Ali and Zadie Smith. A generation of Asian writers based in western countries has mined the pull of the sacred homeland, the ambiguities and angularities of the migrant’s life in countries of settlement, the theme of multiculturalism, and the local passions aroused by the presence of migrants in foreign lands, particularly in Britain and Europe.

As London-based Kureishi writes in The Guardian, “The immigrant has become a contemporary passion in Europe, the vacant point around which ideals clash. Easily available as a token, existing everywhere and nowhere, he is talked about constantly. But in the current public conversation, this figure has not only migrated from one country to another, he has migrated from reality to the collective imagination where he has been transformed into a terrible fiction. Whether he or she — and I will call the immigrant he, while being aware that he is stripped of colour, gender and character — the immigrant has been made into something resembling an alien. He is an example of the undead, who will invade, colonise and contaminate, a figure we can never quite digest or vomit. If the 20th century was replete with uncanny, semi-fictional figures who invaded the lives of the decent, upright and hard-working — the pure — this character is rehaunting us in the guise of the immigrant. He is both a familiar, insidious figure, and a new edition of an old idea expressed with refreshed and forceful rhetoric.”

Not all writers see migrants as a homogenous mass. Some of the best books on migrants and migration include Season of Migration to the North (1966) by Tayeb Salih, described as a classic postcolonial Arabic novel; The Buddha in the Attic (2013) by Julie Otsuka; Travelling While Black: 
Essays Inspired by a Life on the Move (2020) by Nanjala Nyabola; The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move (2020); and America is Not the Heart (2018) by Elaine Castillo. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003) was made into a film by Mira Nair in 2006, starring Tabu and Irrfan Khan.

Returns in ‘reel’ life

Of the many strands of the experience, the migrant returning home has been a recent focus of interest, particularly as represented in the cultural ecumene of the Indian subcontinent. Many films have focused on the emigrant after s/he leaves home, but there has been little portrayal of her/his notion of returning home, until recently. Researcher Moutushi Mukherjee writes that there are two ways in which the Indian films have chosen to look at the process of migrants returning home: “The first is largely concentrated upon stressing on the need to return to homeland. This is largely characteristic of the films which talk about the greatness of the homeland, uphold patriotism, and urge the emigrant to return home…In other words, they glorify the phenomenon of ‘return’ as opposed to the trials of living away from home…The second is a minority, albeit significant films, which have looked at the experiences after the return. They seek to ask questions on the actual ‘lived’ experience of return in terms of lifestyle changes and ideological changes…These films may be made by fellow emigrants or they be made in India, but they serve as a means to relive the notion of home.”

Mukherjee analysed six popular films with the returning migrant as a major theme: Des Pardes (1970), Purab aur Paschim (1978), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Pardes (1997), Hyderabad Blues (1998) and Swades (2004). The first four films, she writes, created or aimed to create ‘idealism’ about homeland by idealising return, while the last two films focused on the experiences of the returnee. They also reflected the changing context in which they were made and how perceptions at home about the migrant and the diaspora changed over the decades, reflected not only in India but across the subcontinent, which has long been one of the largest zones of out-migration and inward remittances of funds.

The ‘returning migrant’ theme has a part and a counterpart. If it features more often in films now, there is also the reality that ‘home’ has been decentered geographically in the age of globalisation, and moves near the migrant abroad; for example, in the many ‘homes’ recreated in foreign lands by country-specific diasporas: by British expatriates in the Middle East, the many Chinatowns in various western cities, or areas in London known as ‘Little Bangladesh’ (Brick Lane, Tower Hamlets), ‘Little India’ (Southall, Hounslow, Wembley), or towns such as Leicester, Birmingham — recreating cuisines, cultures and also places of worship.

New media and communication technology 
also make it easier to maintain links on a real-time basis with countries of origin, which meets some of the longings to share time with friends and family back home. These new ‘homes abroad’ are increasingly woven into themes in Bollywood films (Delhi 6, Tanu Weds Manu 
Returns, Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal), partly to cater to the large audiences among the Asian diaspora in global markets.

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