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The Day I Stopped Being an Indian
That wrenching feeling of signing your nationality away
It was a hot day in May 2010 when I stopped being an Indian. Officially.It happened in a musty little office of the immigration and naturalization authority in the German city that had come to be my home.
I was early for my 3 p.m. appointment with the official responsible for einbürgerung (naturalization). As I sat outside the door waiting to go in, I felt weighed down by the enormity of what was about to happen.
It had been a long road that had brought me to this door: a childhood and youth in India, through university and a 14-year stay in the US and finally to a life of two and a half decades in Germany. I’d been rooted and uprooted several times, but this is where I’d lived the longest—where I’d struggled to master a foreign language; where I’d found work and made new friends; where I’d brought up my son, largely on my own, and learnt to be truly independent.
Yet, in all those years, I’d hung on to my Indian citizenship, ambivalent about giving it up in spite of the difficulties I faced because of it—the inability to vote and the problems with international travel being the most important ones. But after 25 years in Germany, I was much more in touch with Germany’s politics than with India’s, and it was frustrating to have no voice in shaping the policies that affected me. In fact, the irony was that in spite of being very political, I had never voted in my life.
The author, Rima Datta Holland
Now, approaching retirement, I realized I’d like to spend more time in India, where I also have a house, family and friends. I was afraid, though, that an absence of more than six months could result in a loss of my resident status in Germany, which over the years had come to be my home. Ambivalent though I was, I knew I couldn’t afford to let this door to Germany close forever, and, given that dual citizenship was not permitted, I knew of no other way of keeping it open.
Looking at my watch, I saw it was time for my appointment. I knocked gently and went in. The official, an unsmiling middle-aged woman with greying hair and a raspy smoker’s voice, asked me to take a seat while she got my file out. I felt unaccountably tense as if I were there to be assessed once again. The mandatory written test was behind me, but I wasn’t sure if I’d have to pass some sort of inspection to prove myself worthy of the citizenship that was about to be conferred upon me. I worried that I would fail. To control my nerves, I forced myself to look around the office. There were a few small plants on the windowsills and nondescript art prints on the walls. The only picture that stood out was a face, round as a ball—Klee’s ‘Marked Man’—divided into variously coloured sections. How appropriate, I thought! A sectioned face, symbolic of the immigrants who sit in this chair, their souls broken into the colours of the cultures they come from, their multiple identities, their divided hearts.
I was surprised by her first question:
“Have you brought your last salary statement?”
“No, I thought the salary statements from last year were enough.”
“Well, that was four months ago!” she said with a disapproving look, and I knew that I’d already failed, that I’d been found wanting. Yet, there was an underlying sense of relief as well.
“Should I come back some other day?” I asked quickly.
“No, no that’s all right,” she said grudgingly, wanting to get the whole thing over with. “We can go on. Just make sure you bring it to me later.”
So, on we went.
She handed me a piece of paper and asked me to read it out loud. It was a half-page of text in German. I started reading it, but she interrupted me, saying, “Please read it all … including the place and date.” So I started again, stumbling inexplicably over words I knew well. It was an oath I was reading, swearing to be loyal to this country and to observe all the duties of a citizen. I reached the end and put the paper down on her desk.
Handing me her pen she said, “Sign here,” tapping on the bottom of the page I’d just read.
And so, with one stroke of her pen, I signed my old nationality away.
My eyes were too full of tears to read the citizenship certificate she handed me.
We shook hands to seal the deal. That was all the ceremony there was to it. No photograph, no cheers, no fanfare—just a dry handshake. Trying to explain my tears I said, it was a huge schritt (step) in my life and, at the same time, a terrible schnitt (cut).
The lady looked surprised at that, but agreed that it was a very important step. “You must be willing to give something up to get something else,” she said sanctimoniously.
I watched sadly as she took my old Indian passport away and slipped it into a plastic envelope to be sent to the Indian consulate in Munich.
“Can I get it back after it’s been cancelled?” I asked.
“That’s something you’ll have to ask the Indian consulate,” she said. “It’s their property, not ours. And certainly not yours!” This last bit was said with a certain amount of vehemence.
Earlier, as I’d been waiting to go into the room, I had taken my Indian passport out of my bag one last time and run my fingers over the golden emblem embossed on the dark blue cover and flipped through the much-stamped pages, curling slightly at the edges. All the countries I’d been to—the US, Switzerland, South Africa, Lesotho, Bhutan, Mexico—all with their own visas, entry and departure stamps in different colours.
This passport and its predecessors had confirmed my identity as an Indian national. It’s what I’d held in my hands when I’d stood in various consulate lines to get visas, in other lines at airports to have it inspected, while others, Germans, Americans, British citizens just walked through with the breezy confidence of ‘first-world’ citizens.
There would be none of that anymore, now that I had joined their ranks. Like them, I could live in Germany indefinitely, vote, go in and out of Europe and travel to most countries around the world without needing a visa. I, too, had become a first-world citizen!
Why then, instead of rejoicing, did I feel so sad?