One day last month, I decided to take myself on an adventure in my own city.
The idea struck because I’d been bingeing on South Asian American history in my free time. I’d always assumed that particular historical category ran barely two decades deep. But the Internet is a gorgeous place if you poke around enough, and somehow I discovered and began reading about the Ghadar Party. I got shivers as I read about them; their spark, their revolution, their verve —their headquarters. The headquarters of the Ghadar Party, located at 5 Wood Street, San Francisco, CA. The building where men in exile from their homeland printed pamphlets and met to organize for the independence of my parents’ nation… sat just behind a diner where I’d eaten boozy 2 a.m. french fries on Halloween.
I have always loved American stories. I fell, hard, for what one of my favorite high school teachers called “the river of American voices” somewhere between a glittering party at Jay Gatsby’s and a ride through Louisiana with Governor Willie Stark. But the trouble with falling for your country as an Indian-American is that you never really see anyone who looks like you in the pages of its history.
That is, I never had. Until then.
So on one Sunday evening in July, I took two buses across town. I’d looked up the address of the Party’s former headquarters. I expected to find a small plaque labeled Ghadar Memorial on a street full of San Francisco Victorians. I expected to touch it and feel blessed for that miniscule square of space marking my skin’s history in a city I haven’t yet made mine. Instead, I found an entire building — a home, on a residential street, squat and pale green, with Hindi script on the outside. I could only read the first word: Ghadar, गदर.
The door was locked. I looked in through the window and caught a glimpse of a framed image of a Sikh man. It was real. That’s all I needed to know. I turned to leave, grateful to myself for having set no expectations of what I would find, because it would have been too easy to. It would have been too easy to imagine some grand theatrical homecoming, a dramatic melding of worlds. I had expected nothing of this history, and found something physical. I was almost afraid to ask any more of the gift. But then I rang the doorbell. A woman in a salwar-kameez answered. She looked at me, a bit bemused, while I panted something about couldsheletmeineventhoughitwasclosed. “It’s closed. Wednesday only,” she said. But she let me through the doors anyway. I sat in a wide meeting room and placed my hands on papers from 1913, 1938, 1943, 1971. Papers calling on the U.S. to change its immigration policy, ignore the colonial demands of the British crown. Papers that, heartbreakingly, called for “Moslems, Sikhs, and Hindus” to unite, to not fall for the same divide-and-conquer policies that the British had pulled on Ireland. (We know how that one turned out.)
Home is a weird concept, one that children of immigrants like me are taught to see as nebulous. (Ugh thanks, Jhumpa Lahiri.) We learn, by experience at first and then by the stories we tell ourselves, that we are denizens of two countries and residents of a theoretical place called diaspora. Diaspora has multiple names. There’s Bollystan. There’s the flattening world — title courtesy Thomas Friedman and Nandan Nilekani. Some might call being a citizen of diaspora a cosmopolitan pleasure; others might decry its alienating placelessness. Salman Rushdie called it an imaginary homeland.
But I think I found something rare the day I discovered this history. Something that suggests home isn’t quite so abstract — because people were moving and traveling and swapping ideas long before Thomas Friedman declared that the world was flat. Screw the alienated angst. I had a piece of my own history nearby this whole time, just 20 minutes down the road.