Sunday, January 10, 2016

What is Home for the Migrant/Refugee?: Filter Coffee Column

The Kindle magazine has an issue on the global refugee crisis this month. I write on an issue I have thought about on and off for many years now - that of what home means to someone who has migrated from one place to the other, for whatever reason. Can it ever be "Home", with a capital H? Or is it an illusion of home we create in the new place? Isn't the home we leave behind an illusion as well?

Read the column here. Or see below.


We design the idea of home to be fluid, to be like water, to pour and flow and fill any space that we inhabit.

Come this new year and its month of May, it will be a decade for me, living in this big city. Ten years since university, ten years since moving to neighbourhoods larger than my whole district, ten years of navigations and heartbreaks and loves and fears and joys and changes. Maybe I can start calling Bangalore home now. Or maybe I never will call it home.

Back then, even when it was a land of opportunities, it felt like a transit place, a pit stop in between graduation and ‘something else’. That something else was always a return to the roots, of sorts. The pit stop has extended a decade now and unless I keep calling it not-home, I worry that it will extend another decade or two. No. No. No.

A lot of people I know are migrants, from smaller towns and villages to this city and other cities. Driven as we are by the glitz of being happily away from families to do as we please, driven by the job offers we are made, driven by the glamour of choosing to be as free as we would like to be every damn day, I and thousands like me have made these heartless, soulless cities ‘home’. There is a wonderful little word in Havyaka, a little known dialect that my community speaks. ‘Bidaara’, with a sharp emphasis on the ‘DA’. It translates to ‘house’ but is often meant to denote a temporary, most times a rented place before you move up the socio-economic ladder and get married and buy a home or rent a bigger, posher house with an extra bedroom for when parents visit and utility area for the washing machine and a balcony for the mandatory holy basil plant and all that. Some of us spent entire lives in these bidaaras, moving from one to the other, from a 1BHK to a 2BHK, from this neighbourhood to the slightly better one where the schools are nearby and supermarkets are aplenty. These carry the hopes of never calling this or this city home. Calling it that is wringing the neck of hope and settling for here, where your heart never is. Let us never call this home.
How long does it take before the others, the ‘locals’ begin to consider you one of their own? Very long, it seems, going by the way things happen in your city and mine. 

A dear friend from a neighbouring state has been here for as nearly as long as he was ‘home’, speaks the local tongue, albeit a little broken and has lived all over the city, in its north and south parts. Yet he is still an outsider, neither here nor at home, at home. Decades can go by and these things will never change, no matter what the effort you put in, it sometimes feels like.

We are the privileged ones, we the migrants of this sort. The exodus from Syria and elsewhere and the devastation it brings, the lifelong scars that it gashes against the soul is impossible to imagine. At a microcosmic level, arrogance would permit me to say that leaving home is leaving home for everyone, either them or me. But of course that is a ridiculous notion. I can always go back home, to a safe place and be that girl in the hills again. Privileges that I, we have taken soundly for granted.

Does home remain just that? Amongst the very few quotes I can quote, this is one. “You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it's all right” by that gorgeous woman Maya Angelou. Somehow, back home, while the walls and the gardens and the pets and trees remain the same, older certainly, but same-same, something has changed with every visit back. Perhaps it is just me, I have changed. The city and this hard life here have taken something away, even when it gave so much. As it always happens.

Back home, the walls don’t whisper old secrets and crazy stories anymore. Or perhaps I fall asleep too quickly to listen. The foxes that hooted into the night somewhere on Stewart Hill bang behind my house and gave me company when I devoured book after book every night, till 2, till 3, till ma yelled have gone elsewhere. Perhaps to the other side of the hill where there are fewer lights and fewer houses and people and chicken coops are not so securely fastened that they can’t steal even one at night. The winter wind that whirled around the microwave signal tower, shrill and much like the wail of a banshee – we warned guests who stayed the night about her – she is gone too. That is because the tower is gone now, after some fifty odd years and all that remains is an abandoned building, covered in moss and black soot where the boys in town go to smoke and drink beer and watch the sun go down over the hills of Kodagu.

The hills are there and so are the fig trees I learnt to climb trees on and the pond and the house and my room from where I can see the sun rise. Yet, there is still…a void?...a vacumm? emptiness…? I can’t be sure. I don’t want to be.

Home is a myth, I read somewhere. Perhaps it was Adichie, longing through her woman character and reducing brilliantly to a phrase all that home means to a migrant. It is never where you are from, it is rarely where you are at or will be. It is a dream, a nostalgia, a foolish wish that you know can never be fulfilled. But we migrants are the adaptable sorts. We design the idea of home to be fluid, to be like water, to pour and flow and fill any space that we inhabit. Thus, home is the red yoga mat that I hold on to, despite how old and slippery it is today, for like the safety of home, it has seen me through it all. Home is the few books I can never send back to the home library, for in them lies the stories of comfort, of people I bought it with or read it with. Home is the cheap plastic figurine of a Radhe-Krishna that even the agnostic in me cannot let go of. Home is a badly framed, hastily made painting that was my first art buy and that has followed me into all the houses I have lived in. Home is the inscribed ring on my finger, the silver keyring that holds my house keys, the yellow fountain pen and this and that and all this, the sentiments and memories, bad and good and everything in between that we carry along like extra baggage. And in these concepts of fluidity do we build a home, we outsiders.

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