On April 5, 2023, I became a Canadian citizen. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear when the clerk played a video compilation of scenes from all over Canada; from the colorful homes in Newfoundland, to the Inuit herding reindeer in Nunavut to the wild prairies of the central provinces and the natural glories of my home here in B.C. I’d also be lying if I said it was easy to always take it seriously when the video kept stopping to buffer every few seconds.
It was a long road to get to that moment. Eleven years, 4 months and 2 days to be exact. I’ve spent most of my adult life in this country. It has molded me into the person I only dreamed of being as a child and young adult in Dubai. I was always an inquisitive and rebellious child, but without outlets like art and political freedom, my energies were wasted. I’ve known for many years that I wanted to be a writer, but felt crushed under the constant watch of the UAE’s media monitoring. I yearned to be a vegetarian, but the exorbitant prices of imported fruits and veggies made me shy away (Canadian cherries were $25 a pound!).My love of nature and environmentalism was moot, given the UAE had none to speak of. I remember reading how the UAE had one of the largest carbon footprints in the world, and feeling so anguished by it that I tried to create a compost in the hot desert sand that enclosed my house - it did not go well.
Canada gave me a voice to be politically outspoken, environmentally conscious, free to say and be the things I could never be in the UAE. But the one thing it didn’t give me was a sense of identity. Despite living here for over ten years, I look around and still can’t see where I fit in. There are societal norms in this country that I can’t bring myself to adhere to, or even accept. When I look around, I see myself drowning in a sea of whiteness, swallowed up in every room I walk into, or worse - made a novelty; my race, my skin color, my nationality a talking point for those who want to appear worldly, those who believe they are welcoming me when in fact patronizing me. The longer I live here, the less I see myself in the mirror. Instead of Megha, I now go as Meg. I hear my Indian accent disappear and reappear depending on whom I am speaking to, I find myself constantly having to explain why I am so well spoken in english and of course, why did I choose to come to Canada?
I didn’t choose this. In fact, I am not sure anyone would choose to endure what immigrants, particularly visible immigrants like those of us with foreign names and brown/black skin, are made to endure. The tokenism of this country continues to astound, even as so many Canadians pride themselves on being welcoming and antiracist and "not like the US". Cultural ornamentalism is so prevalent that it is easy to doubt if someone wants a genuine relationship, or just wants to seem culturally relevant. The thoughts of being a diversity hire plague me everyday, but it is just something immigrants have to swallow in pursuit of career advancement. In India, English-speaking Christians like myself are also a somewhat of a rarity, so I give in to being the novelty here, tired of fighting a war of identity on every front. When people ask me where I’m from, I say “Dubai”, when in truth, I have no claim to UAE nationality, despite having been born there. Being untethered in the universe is a scary thing, and the only thing that kept me grounded was my Indian passport
Indian nationals, however, are not permitted to hold dual citizenship. Furthermore, Indians who were not born, and do not live in the country are regarded as NRIs- Non Resident Indians - and are not afforded the same privileges as other Indians. So where did that leave me, an already alienated, barely belonging Indian? The internet has many theories as to why this is; in 1950, India ratified a new constitution after its bloody split from Pakistan in '47 in what is known as "Partition". The new constitution included, among other things, including securing India's identity as a secular country, a clause stipulating that Indian citizens may not hold dual nationality. One theory is that India dis not want citizens to hold Pakistani nationality as well, but did not want to say it outright. The border between the two countries left millions trapped on either side of the border in the bloodiness of Partition, unable to get to the "right" side in time. Others theorize that India, which relies heavily on the rural, agricultural vote, does not want the balance of political power to be weighted on its millions of educated overseas citizens. Whatever the case, this little blue book meant a lot to me. So even as the years went by and each travel plan was somewhat thwarted by my having to seek visas for every country I wished to visit, that passport gave me something to cling to.
That is, until the summer of 2021, when I tried to renew it. I was repeatedly put through the ringer, including filing fingerprints at my local (Bombay) police station (what?), paying the fees in rupees (why?) and the greatest of these, having a police officer, come to my ancestral home (which no longer exists) in Bombay to “verify that I lived there”. Some digging online led me to suspect that this curious visit was code for a shakedown. Friends in India begged me to allow them to simply pay the bribe and allow us all to move on with our lives, after all, it was only about $35...but I was adamant. Here was a country that I went out of my way to belong to, and this is what I get in return? I refused to pay them a cent more and instead, proceeded to make upwards of 15 calls a day to that very same Bombay police station, threatening government and newspaper action if they did not give up this jig. One fine day, a plain clothes “courier” showed up at my door, handed me a package without so much as a word and left as mysteriously as he came. Suddenly, my mind was made up. I loved my country so much, but it didn’t love me back. That was evident not only in this particular instance, but at other times I needed its assistance too. It is painfully obvious each time I turn on the news to see its growing hatred and persecutions of Muslims, fellow Indians. The same constitution which forbid me from holding dual citizenship guarantees India secularity, and here I was clinging to a false sense of safety in a country which has clearly lost its own sense of self.
Soon after, I applied for Canadian citizenship feeling the loss of identity ever more acutely. But, perhaps I thought, Canada would want me the way India never did. Aside from its video failures, the online citizenship ceremony showed me a cross section of people who have bounded into the arms of Canada - people running from war torn countries, fleeing religious, gender discrimination and persecution based on sexual orientation. A warmth spread over me seeing that they, like me, were simply adding a new layer of identity, not shrugging off their old one entirely, and soon I began to relax into the process.
But as the oath process began, discomfort and something akin to dread once again filled me. I cringed then like I cringe now at the thought of swearing allegiance to a decrepit, outdated institution like the British monarchy, its unappealing and lackluster leader and all the wicked, colonialist ways it stands for. What an insult, I thought, to swear allegiance to the very same people who caused the destruction of my country. The words felt sickening in my mouth and I dare not repeat them now. As a mindlessly mouthed along, the same way I would sing old hymns in church whose words I did not know and did not care to learn, I thought of my ancestors who lived under the tyrannical rule of the British Raj, and their integrity to the identity of India and themselves as Indians. How no one could define my idea of my Indian identity so long as I chose to retain it.
When the whole process was over, I breathed a sigh of relief. Eleven years had gone by so fast and yet so slow. I looked at myself in the mirror. When I first came to Canada at 19, I cried every night wanting to go “home”. But now Canada was my home, the only home that ever embraced me anyway. Becoming Canadian didn’t magically give me a new sense of self or identity, I still have to work that out myself. I didn't come to see myself as any less Indian however. I wasn’t suddenly a different person. I was still me, a blend of all the identities that I choose to inhabit: borderless and free.