Fractured Homes and Wandering Souls

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?

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18 comments

  1. For me home is where I live, wherever that may be, the place we get back to after our travels, the walls that enclose for now my books and my music and all the accoutrements of my life.

  2. Rimi – I feel most at home where my family is . having said that , I grew up in Jamshedpur and that place runs in my veins – because there is so much of it in me . Although I spent a very small part of my childhood and a major part of adulthood in Kolkata – I still do not feel as if I belong primarily because the Kolkatan Bengali belongs to a very insular world which does not take kindly to outsiders like me .

    • The Bengali society here doesn’t accept you? But aren’t you the ultimate Rumamashi of your para? I’ve known very few probaashis who returned to Cal as adults, so I’m most keen to hear about this alienation aspect.

  3. Ruma mashi, there’s no one place where my family is, so I’ve had to make my peace with multiplicity. My parents (as well as the joint family they were part of) split up when I was quite young, and after I was ten, I never lived in one house (I’ve lived in about 8 in Cal itself, and had multiple ones simultaneously) until I came to Gainesville 4 years ago and had to re-learn how one sleeps in the same bedroom night after night for months on end. It was strange.

    Even now, my fieldwork in India still ensures I’m continent-hopping on a regular basis. So home becomes anchored in people, for me, as much as it does in spaces. I can finally call Gainesville home because I have friends I consider family, ones I can really talk to, much like I do in Cal. Without those addas, no place would be home.

  4. Funny that you write this- of late people have questioned my sanity- and have told me that I am going mad, that what I’m looking for isn’t real, isn’t to be found.

    To that, I tell them that if this is madness (as opposed to Sparta :-D), then I’m not going mad, I was always there. And one of my earliest scribbles on the subject was into my book, when I was much younger:

    “I want to go home; I just don’t know where it is.”

  5. I wish I could make peace with the gypsy way of life. The more I travel, meet more people, the more ‘homes’ keep cropping up. Which basically means I now have several homes where I do not quite feel at home. :-/

  6. home could be everywhere. i am quite at home in kolkata, where i have lived most of my life. i loved patna when i lived there. i cried when my father left muscat for good. now i feel a pull towards bhubaneswar where my parents live now. of late, i have felt the same heart-lifting feeling when i visit puri. perhaps there will be other homes for me yet.

  7. So what it boils down to, except for Dhruva, is that people are where the home is. Which is ironic, given how determinedly social D is.

    I think I can safely assume, Sudeshnadi, that Bhubaneshwar is your recent favourite because you ma lives there now?

  8. There’s nasty state-ism over here in the US. I feel quite bad, often, that I now live in MA instead of NY where I belong. I’m almost thinking of making my accent thicker… but it’s the kind of thing that whenever anyone knows ANYTHING about NY, or if they’re from NY, that’s what our convo is about. A lady friend is recently moved out from the Central NY area (around Rome to be precise). So at parties where both she and I are, we drag the conversation over to local, NY politics. Like Shale Fracking, and corruption, and what they’re doing to the school districts (it isn’t good). I also moved in NY, and thus have two areas where I spent 10 years of my life. Two vastly different areas.

    I think anyone who moves finds themselves at a loss. Because for all of globalization and “everyone is the same and dresses and acts the same!” people don’t. And I think never will in my lifetime. I am a product of my culture, and my culture is half white-collar, half blue-collar, Central NY and Capital District NY — but fully NY.

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