Sam Miller’s latest book on migration seeks to change the contemporary narrative

Journalist and author Sam Miller’s book on migration addresses its central importance in human history and aims to reposition modern discussions around it

Migrants queue at a train station in Mumbai to leave the city ahead of a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in April 2021. Image/Getty Images

On a damp October morning in 2018, I spent 25 minutes in my father’s old study spitting into a small plastic tube,” begins a chapter in Sam Miller’s Migrants: The Story of Us All (Abacus, R899), in which Miller , a London born former BBC journalist and author who has lived and worked in several countries in Africa and Asia including India, reflects on his lifelong love of a nomadic way of life.[I]It feels fundamentally like the desire to be on the move, to travel to new places, to be with people who aren’t like me, is part of my being,” he says thoughtfully. Curious about his own desire to keep moving and intrigued by the workings of a “curiosity” gene, an ancient genetic mutation known as DRD4-7R that is found in all human populations, and among some genetic markers that scientifically correlated with the removal of certain groups from Africa in prehistoric migration, he writes about his decision to test his DNA. This rumination is part of one of the book’s several “breaks” — sections in which Miller weaves more personal travel stories about expats and the Passport Index into the book’s larger historical narratives about migration. I use them in all my books and they allow me to break with the usual constraints of narrative non-fiction. It’s liberating,” he said in an email interview at noon. “Here it allows me to reflect on my own migration experiences and include the stories of others in the narrative.”

The main focus of the book, however, is the importance of migration in human history, an issue that Miller says has become a modern proxy for other issues affecting our lives and thoughts, such as identity, religion, homeland, multiculturalism, integration, racism and terrorism. Hence, he proclaims, the book is his attempt to “return migration to the center of human history,” to challenge the ways in which it has been overlooked or misunderstood throughout history, and both the prevailing view about to reposition migrants as well as modern discussions about migration. “It’s a topic that has interested me for a long time,” he says, although his work with migrants in different countries has proved influential over the years. “I felt that in most countries there was very little honest discussion of this – and very little recognition of how fundamentally migratory we humans are as a species. In the Indian context, it was a theme that came up in my first book, Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity and my encounters with Bangladeshi migrants who felt they needed to conceal their place of origin despite living with West Bengal migrants and sometimes were married to them.”

Sam Miller

Miller’s book charts an ambitious course, beginning with the long-extinct “lobster pods,” creatures that could effectively be considered the first migrants, given their symbolic transition from ocean to land some 530 million years ago. It’s such a significant step that Miller calls it “the lobster equivalent of landing humans on the moon.” From the early voyages of the Yaghan, who traveled to the southernmost tip of South America, through the Bible, which “can be read as a migration manual” and Alexander the Great, who spent most of his adult life traveling, to the origins of the Aryans, who Migration of the Vikings, Columbus “whose Atlantic migrations would ultimately lead to what may be the greatest of all modern human migrations,” the North American slave trade, and migration around the South China Sea that formed the heart of what became known as the Maritime Silk Road*, several migration narratives are explored . However, the book falls short of delving into narratives, patterns and themes surrounding modern-day migration. “It was a conscious decision – made after much thought,” Miller explains. “Modern migration has become such a toxic, explosive topic… In most countries, people calm down and speak less emotionally when it comes to migration in the past.”

Among several topical discussions in the book is one about the complex relationship between human mobility and communicable diseases and how migrants suffer disproportionately from pandemics, and recalls the highly politicized plight of Indian migrant workers in 2021. Miller points out that this is rather As economical is migrants or refugees, history shows that those who try not to get infected by fleeing end up spreading the contagion. Additionally, “encouraging people to return to their home villages — unplanned — at the time of a pandemic is a definite way of spreading the virus.”

Miller also writes about how in India, where he spent over a decade, migration plays an important role in modern India’s struggle for identity and the disagreements about that identity. “I used to joke that in India you can get a reasonably reliable prediction of someone’s political views by asking them about migration and the Indus Valley Civilization. Only in India can you make such a prediction based on such an ancient history,” he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that migration is enormously complex in the context of the country. “I would argue that in many, but not all, circumstances, India is better viewed as a continent rather than just a country. This is particularly relevant to internal migration, as India is comparable in size and population, diversity and languages, and has ‘regional’* identities with Europe rather than, say, Britain or France. And this applies strongly to the issue of India’s migratory history, which should be seen through a continental lens.” While India has lately been aping Western notions of what a country should be, other countries could learn from it, as it did at least until recently was a place where diversity could flourish, “always imperfect, but still in a more impressive way than in many other parts of the world.”


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