Between home and the world
To leave one’s home voluntarily for another place is a choice pregnant with twin sentiments: hope and despair. Hope that a better future awaits. From women deceived and trafficked across the world to high-skilled immigrants, this sliver of promise animates many such decisions to move. But more varied in its contents of expression is the despair that follows. This is especially so if the journey from home has no return ticket — be it the wives from south Indian villages who travel with their husbands to the urban wilderness of Delhi or Mumbai, or the husbands who spend their married lives as lonesome men working in the sand bowls of the Gulf, or the young students who leave the comfort of their homes for the sprawling university campuses of America or Australia. To each of them, the accompanying despair arises not just from physical dislocation but also from the very experience of being awash innew vocabularies, inflections, and manners. What is common to all, at first, is a sense of breathlessness. Before long, as many an immigrant will testify, this breathlessness gives way to an exhaustion from sustained efforts to decipher the unrelenting onslaught of implicit codes and hieroglyphics that mark any foreign culture.
Foreign to the familiar
But eventually, the foreign becomes familiar, a metamorphosis of the mind under way. The vividness of what was once home is now replaced by an inchoate swirl. The memory of what once seemed self-evident and commonplace is now drowned in the maelstrom of the hurly-burly of this new life. Add to this one’s family and friends who have stayed behind and who are often sensitive only to visible changes — one grows tall, puts on weight, strong jawlines become double chins, baldness and grey arrive, unexpectedly, like thieves in the afternoon. Thoseostensibly close to oneself predictably fail to notice the imperceptible changes within. These inner shifts of sentiment and taste now shroud the self in new garbs and are rarely noticed, often, even by oneself. Yet they accrete, patiently, unobtrusively, and with the authority of a despot.
From Edward Said’s autobiography (Out of Place) to the allegorical fantasies of lonely migrants in the sun-baked Arabian Gulf in Binyamin’s Aadu Jeevitham (translated as Goat Days), it is no surprise that writers have mined this sense of dislocation. It is a complex of experiences that lends itself easily to subtleties, greyness, and open-ended questions. As Jhumpa Lahiri writes in The Namesake, her protagonist discovers that foreignness was “a parenthesis in what had once been an ordinary life.” And echoing many other immigrant writing, Lahiri’s heroine discovers that her “previous life has vanished, [and was] replaced by something more complicated and demanding.” This sentiment that describes the immigrant experience as a form of acquiescence to the strange, as a negotiation with the complex, has a certain narrative cohesiveness and intuitive appeal.
Nostalgia for the lost self
What is less explored is the experience of those who feel as outsiders on returning home. In parts, there is an ever-present suspicion that it is an impostor who has returned. The one who left home has been irretrievably lost, while the one who has returned is an altered version — a simulacrum with feelings. Since Odysseus made his journey back home in Homer’s Odyssey, every returnee has had to jump through hoops to prove that he is indeed who he claims he is. For Homer, unlike modern authors, it was not just nostalgia for home that was the animating principle, but also nostalgia for the lost self of the past. It is this effort to excavate the archaeologies of one’s forgotten selves that prods Odysseus to prove himself repeatedly as the very same who left Ithaka.
Narratively, the experience of strangeness in foreign lands lends itself easily to comedy or pathos, while the converse -- foreignness at home -- is harder to describe without beingcontrived. In fact, there is a whiff of treason when declaring that one’s loyalty to home as a place, as a geography circumscribed by the present, has now changed to something more ephemeral and yet just as vivid: a loyalty to the idea of home. In fact, this idea of home that many non-residents carry within themselves of home is an artifice, a lacquer house of memory and melancholy from separation. Upon contact with the fires of reality, much like the lacquer house in The Mahabharata, this carefully architected menagerie of memories goes up in flames.
All around us, as India grows more interconnected, as Indians step out of their homes in search of jobs and prosperity, there ineluctably follows a shadow of dislocation, nostalgia, and the idea of return. Predictably, political movements increasingly speak in a vocabulary where ‘home’, 'identity', and the urgencies of nativist reactionaries figure urgently. But forgotten amidst all the bluster of politics and idealization of home in our media and films is also a growing group of Indians who have returned, who suspect they are foreigners in their own homes.
A version of this was published in The Hindu on October 8th '2017.