OCTOBER 9, 2015
Left: Great Migration into Pakistan, 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan, Margaret Bourke-White.
WATCHING TELEVISION FOOTAGE OF REFUGEES streaming west by their thousands, along the highways of Hungary toward the Austrian border, my first thoughts are about my mother. She made a similar trek, 69 years ago almost to the day, when she was only six. I see her in the girl raised by her father above the fray at the Bicske railway station in Budapest, or holding tight onto her mother’s hand in the throngs filling a nighttime road, led by men using their cellphone GPS to find the way. She too was fleeing war — or more exactly, walking through the heart of it, as what had been the Indian Raj was violently split into India and Pakistan.
The American photographer Margaret Bourke-White brilliantly documented the exodus for Life magazine. Corpses lie scattered in dusty streets; a grief-stricken boy crouches, holding his head in disbelief; masses crowd onto already packed trains; and great rivers of humanity wind their way east and west. It was one of the largest mass migrations in human history — millions crossed to either side, and over a million died, in what Bourke-White called “a massive exercise in human misery.” My mother, and what survived of our family, was among those walking. I sometimes wonder, if I search hard enough, whether I’ll find her child’s face staring back at me from one of the photographs.
My great-grandfather, an invalid, was unable to walk and refused to be carried. He remained behind as his village in the newly formed Pakistan was set on fire by Muslims wanting to purge the country of Sikhs and Hindus. Identical acts took place across the freshly minted border as Sikhs and Hindus forced Muslims out of India. A local leader in the Communist party, my great-grandfather retained an unshakable belief in the goodness of his fellow man and in the power of dialogue. Nothing would happen to him, he promised, as he urged his children and grandchildren to escape. He was burnt alive inside the house as my mother fled, her father pulling her along by the hand and preventing her from watching.
In the end, all borderlands are ghost lands, and every border is painted in blood. Many of those fleeing today, caught in their exhaustion and despair on our television screens, carry with them similar stories. Behind those faces, that far too many in Europe are demanding to be shut out or deported, are often epic and tragic tales. The vast majority of people do not leave their homes, their memories, and their hopes to face the prospect of death by drowning simply for the possibility of economic gain. Real desperation drives them, and the near certainty that their lives, should they stay and somehow survive, would be lived among ruins.
My mother’s walk, from one country to another, neither of which existed when she was born, is a walk that haunts me to this day. There is no escaping being a refugee, or the child of one. It lives with you, through the generations, like the memory of a lost twin who died at birth. That counter-life is always there, peering over your shoulder with a thousand might-have-beens. I’ve spent my adulthood moving from place to place, unable to find a home. I wonder how much my mother’s displacement influenced my restlessness. Once the idea of home is shattered, perhaps no one ever truly finds it again. These days I live on Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, as ancient a crossroads as ever there was. It’s not just me. The Sikhs of India, who fled Pakistan, have become one of the nation’s largest diasporas. We’re in every corner of the world, and many I meet are world travelers.
As Europe struggles to respond to the escalating crisis, by many accounts the worst since World War II, it’s heartening that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has opened Germany’s borders to so many refugees, and also gratifying to watch those Austrians and Germans greet new arrivals with congratulatory handshakes, food, and stuffed toys for their children. However, a tide of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, which is rising with the new influx, threatens to drown any adequate continent-wide response. If Europe’s recent treatment of Greece is any measure, it remains grossly unequal to the task of tackling a genuine crisis. Hungary is near completion on a border fence with its southern neighbor Serbia while other countries are balking at accepting even a few hundred refugees, let alone the tens of thousands who are actually arriving.
Not far from where I live, against the crumbling stonework of a centuries-old shipyard, a group of local anarchists have hung a 10-foot-wide hand-painted banner exhorting passersby to show compassion to the refugees. It’s written in English, not Greek, so I suspect the message is directed at the European tourists who swell this harbor city’s population during summer. Many Greeks I meet, despite their own financial straits, remain generous almost to a fault. That Europe turned its back on them in their own crisis has little diminished their sense of welcome. The only people I hear suggesting barring the refugees are tourists. Yet few here have the emotional bandwidth left after years of national emergency to even talk about what to do, let alone consider options.
Those in Europe arguing for building walls or closing borders are right in one respect. It will change the continent, perhaps dramatically. The massive influx of refugees from Pakistan in 1947 transformed northern India and reinvigorated the sleepy capital city of New Delhi. The Punjabi culture of my parents’ generation buried the last remnants of the city’s once courtly Mughal life. Rooted in village values, it brought a new brashness and loudness, and helped make the city what it is today: blingified, materialistic, non-stop, indifferent to resident and traveler alike yet peppered with moments of startling kindness and sudden rudeness, at times electrically alive, at others so packed with noise and humanity as to be soul-crushing. It’s a city I seldom like, even at its best moments. Given a choice, I’d opt for the dreamy boulevards of that old, lost Delhi. But if a child of refugees learns anything, it’s this: clinging to any idea of an unchanging home is fantasy.
That old Delhi was already on life support; it would have died one way or the other long before I came along to appreciate its charms. Likewise, Europe’s present cannot be held in amber, and building walls just pushes the problem elsewhere. As Europe’s policy makers bicker over how many thousands to accept or reject, I hope they think of people like my mother, children whose worlds were overturned for no reason they could understand. The Mediterranean should be an example. Under the guise of trade and sometimes war, it has served as one of the world’s great crossroads. Without the cultural and economic exchange it has fostered, modern Europe as we know it would be unthinkable.
I live in an Ottoman-era house in the ancient port city of Chania, which has seen countless rulers, and countless different nationalities arrive and contribute both their skills and culture. The 14th-century church of Agios Nikolaos, which sits across the street, has both a bell tower and a minaret, the latter from when it was used as a mosque under Turkish rule. To me it’s an image of hope, and of the possibility for a Europe that can see beyond old divisions and conflicts. Those who make it to Europe shouldn’t be feared. They’ll bring change. That’s inevitable. They’ll also bring an enlivening spirit to what has become in recent years a calcified and rule-bound continent, and maybe shake loose, as they learn new languages and skills and start new businesses, memories of when everyone was poorer and more generous.
Over the centuries the thousand-hued waters of the Mediterranean, with their dramatic shifts of color at sunset, have seen any number of battles, and countless shipwrecks. They have been the grave of sailors and migrants since the days of the earliest boats. From the island’s south coast, looking toward Africa, I cannot help but think of all those setting out into the waves, searching for escape from lives disrupted by conflict, and those who die in the attempt, many of whose bodies will never be found. This too is a border; this too is a sea of ghosts. The contrast to the beauty of the scene is striking. The water here is unlike any I’ve ever seen. There’s often a moment at sunset when it turns a sheer bone white, as white as a fresh sheet of paper. It is as if the dead of that day are being memorialized in the mystery of the dying light.