I just returned from a bike ride in Mumbai’s July monsoon. What felt like a light drizzle as I cycled along Marine Drive started to feel heavier and more persistent as I cycled up Walkeshwar, round Teen Batti Police Chauki, what has to be one of the coolest police stations in the world, my impression of it spoiled only by the memory of a policeman relieving me of 200 rupees on our very first Sunday drive through Bombay ten years ago, further up to Malabar Hill, past the Hanging Gardens and then racing down to Kemps Corner, by which time the drizzle was not just persistent but full-on rain.
As I cycled along Hughes Road towards Babulnath Temple before the sharp turn left back onto Marine Drive I started asking myself whether the masochistic pleasure that I derive from cycling through the rain and getting progressively soaked and feeling more and more proud as the t-shirt becomes heavier and clings to me is linked to becoming a certified local ten years after moving to Bombay, to enjoying the rains as much as the people gathered along Marine Drive in groups, laughing and backslapping each other in ways that people in other Indian cities are not likely to do while getting soaked, or harks back to to my Dutch heritage and to the years in my teens and student days of cycling up and down to school and to university through the most God-awful rain?
A year ago I was in New York attending and speaking at a UN conference and so got to meet my sister and brother-in law for dinner. Before I could take a sip (gulp) of red wine my sister had me spit into a test tube, to be sealed in a box and spirited off to 23andme for a DNA analysis. This was so that she could glean more about the paternal side of our shared DNA. When the results came in a few weeks later I was surprised to learn that 52% of our ancestry was being described as European and only 48% as South Asian / Indian, making me wonder what had happened on the Indian side of my father’s family. Had a wandering British soldier come too close for comfort? A year on, 23andme having further pottered around with and refined their model tell me that I am now down to being only 45.7% Central Asian, Northern Indian & Pakistani, 30.2% French & German, which they go on to explain is an umbrella term for people descended from ancient “Alpine-Celtic and Germanic populations” (by now mostly Dutch / Frisian), 7.6% British & Irish (there’s that marauding soldier again), 5% Scandinavian, and no that’s not because I worked for Maersk, and even some bits of Iranian, Caucasian & Mesopotamian thrown in, not to mention a 0.2% West Asian or North African straggler.
This is all fun stuff and one can pore over the data endlessly, the chest puffing with pride and importance as if the diversity of heritage is somehow your own doing. This diversity is of course the story of humanity itself with all of us the product of the wanderings of our ancestors. Blond haired and blue-eyed Fins would have been brown-skinned and black-haired as recently as 15,000 years ago. Polynesians are said to have sailed to the Easter Islands off the coast of Ecuador, but there are now theories that the Easter Islanders themselves may have sailed towards the Polynesians. Will in generations to come the Indian side or the Dutch side of our family become a distant memory, an anomaly that suddenly pops up in a test, if it isn’t by then automatically included in childrens’ school admission records?
Perceived racial purity and fear of those not like us, from a different clan, caste, nationality or race defines a lot of conflict and yet genealogically speaking we obviously have more in common than sets us apart. That isn’t to say that individual societies have to open the floodgates to endless numbers of immigrants on the basis of the fact that we shared a common great great grandmother to the power of 10 in East Africa, but it ought to deal a blow to any misplaced feelings of superiority or otherness.
I remember shaking my head in disbelief when the first protests against globalization took hold ten years ago, led by people on the extreme left of the economic spectrum. Asking for fair wages for an employee is one thing, but arguing against globalization and the movement of goods and services is arguing against one of the most fundamental drivers of humanity. We are a species that is almost always compulsively on the move, come rain or shine.
Btw, the banner photo was taken from our holiday home outside of San Gimignano at 6.20 am. What light! It lasted all of five minutes.