What makes us decide to stay in one place or leave our homes forever? That is the question that underpins Balwant Bhaneja’s memoir. A retired Canadian diplomat raised in India, Bhaneja decides to search for the roots of an ancestral homeland he visited once as a child – the Sindhi towns of his parents’ youth that now fall on the other side of the India-Pakistan border.
The itinerary is a whistle-stop tour of subcontinental history. Born in Lahore, Bhaneja was a six-year-old in New Delhi when he experienced the aftereffects of partition: the arrival of exhausted relatives displaced by the fear of anti-Hindu violence in what had officially become Pakistan. Like others who have found themselves exiled by shifting borders, going “home” is an exercise fraught with distant memories, stereotypes, and nostalgia. For Bhaneja, the yearning to return was not wholly his: “I had to come this far to my parent’s native land to fulfill their longing to be home at least once.” It is only post-9/11 that he becomes the first member of his family to cross the border.
Bhaneja records his impressions of the places he visits and people he meets. The descriptions are sometimes too sparse, the transitions too abrupt, but the author is honest about his inability to overcome his own prejudices: he flees a group of young Muslims on a train only to realize the missed opportunity for dialogue.
Bhaneja points out that his book is not a work of journalism but an homage to roots, ancestors, and parents. Nor is it a traditional travelogue, but an honest reflection on the importance of identity, culture, and heritage, from a childhood visit to Mahatma Gandhi to the influence of Sufi and Sikh traditions on Sindhi Hindu culture. In the end, the book is a celebration of pluralism where the author least expects to find it.