by Tony d’Ambra
I often wonder how it feels to be at home in your country of birth. As a child of immigrant parents, and though an Australian by birth, I have never been confident that I ever will. There is a discontinuity, and bridging it is as unlikely as me flying to the moon. It is a strange feeling that I am in a place but not of it – a stranger in the only home I know. Perhaps it is me and not my situation, but the feeling of estrangement is always there under the surface, dormant, but ever-ready to puncture that rare sensation that I may have found that elusive threshold to a life unhindered by a feeling of not belonging.
I imagine this is how Slumdog Jamal feels. A Muslim in a hostile Hindu nation, first as an orphan eking out an existence on a refuse heap, living little better than a dog, later as a hustler on the edge of society, and then as a lowly chah-wallah in a Mumbai office tower. He has no home and belongs nowhere. This is how Longfellow Deeds feels in New York City. A fish out of water. A decent man surrounded by conceit and deceit. At least he has a home in Bedford Falls to go back to, where he truly belongs – a place in the world that is inviolably his – a very part of his being.
I grew up in a tenement behind my parent’s fruit store. There was love and we struggled together, but my life was different from the other children I knew. My brother and I between school and homework toiled with ours parent in the store seven days a week. We had no vacations and no lawn, or a shiny car. And we were seen as different: dagoes who didn’t amount too much. My dreams of what life could be were shaped by Hollywood. Andy Hardy and Frank Capra were the stuff my dreams were made of. Mickey Rooney, James Stewart, and Gary Cooper populated my imagination. They belonged and they knew who they were – their lives were magic. Jamal wades through a cess-pit to get a glance of his Bollywood idol. Shit: the stuff that slum-dreams are made of. The conceited quiz show host tries to set Jamal up for failure, and when that stratagem fails, he accuses Jamal of cheating and delivers him to police brutality. Longfellow Deeds suffers humiliation at the hands of his literary idol, he is manipulated by a cynical young reporter, and finally his shyster lawyer, who is after his dough, tries to have him declared insane when Longfellow decides to give his inherited millions to the needy. They each overcome by their essential decency and natural intelligence. Jamal says he didn’t want the quiz show prize, he wanted to find his girl- and he does – just like Longfellow Deeds. Bollywood meets Hollywood. Jamal’s millions may buy him a measure of comfort and respect, but Longfellow Deeds doesn’t need the money – he has something more precious and inviolate – a place in the sun.