When I was first learning German — and that learning was quite a tell-tale sign of tightly-lidded roilings within, only I didn’t recognise it then and nobody else noticed — we had these coy little conversation pieces prescribed to us. They ranged from pretending to be at an outdoor café, waffling over the menu (a ridiculous exercise for a hot, dusty city with crowded streets, where no one eats salads for lunch), to affecting the imbecility of mapless foreign tourists.
There was one particular piece, however, that was designed to draw us out and make us air our shaky Deutsch. (For communal entertainment, no doubt). It was called ‘heimat’. “Home”, our teacher explained. “Ein Ort wo man fühlt sich zu Hause”. “Plc whr one feelz @ home”, I scribbled covertly in my notebook (we were strictly discouraged from being multilingual in the classroom).
Cosy though ‘heimat’ sounded, talking about it was a royal fishbone in the throat. The cruel injunction on English, Bangla and Hindi nipped our more philosophical musings — and thank goodness — but even our baser questions created quite the ruckus (probably because they were short and sweet and easy to fling about). What should we consider ‘home’? Was it a place? Was it people — one’s friends and family and suchlike? Was is patriotic nationalism? Was it cultural similarity? Was it the comfort of a shared language?
“I am a Delhi-born Bengali raised in Jamshedpur”, said the boy next to me. “I love Calcutta and I love Jamtown. So where should my heimat be?”
“That is up to you”, said the teacher, taking refuge in democratic subjectivity. “Where do you think you feel most at home?”
“I feel equally at home in both places”, snapped the exasperated boy, “but never completely at home in either place!”.
Given our teenage pimples, stumbling vocab, and the essential sense of homelessness within the German language, this was, I thought, an excellently-made existential point. I remembered his frustration and dilemma for a long time after.
I’m reminded of it all these years later because of this gorgeous piece by my friend Sue, about her many homes all over the country. And in pre-liberalisation India, living all over the country really meant living in several little countries, distinguished from each other by language, food, clothing and customs. The homogenising urban sprawl, fuelled by IT and crafted by the brands-chains-FMCG market culture, was still a couple of decades into the future.
Here’s a little taste of Sue’s piece — a touch rearranged — but I encourage you to read the original:
The other day the husband and I had (mild) words over the person he had married. He thought he was marrying a Bengali girl from Calcutta; I thought he knew he was marrying into the Coromandel Coast. I feel a pull to the south that that you would have be Southie to understand.
Do I belong to Bengal because my husband and son are Calcutta born and Calcutta bred? Do I belong to Vizag because I find myself slipping into Telugu when I get off the train at Waltair Station? Do I belong to Madras because I miss it so heartbrokenly now that my parents no longer live there? Or do I belong to Secunderabad because two of the happiest years of my life were spent there?
Life is further complicated by the regional parochialism which dictates that the Telugus poke fun at the Bengalis and the Bengalis lump them all as “Madraji” and refuse to take the barbarians seriously. [And] as every self-respecting Telugu girl knows, these Tamilians are good for nothing apart from a wholly misplaced sense of pride.
Think about it. When the jokes are flying around, who do you laugh with? And more importantly, who do you poke fun at?