Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

One of Brown Pundit’s commentators, Ruchira, wrote a wonderful piece (titled similarly to this post) on her sadly discontinued still archived but profound blog, Accidental Blogger, in 2007 about being an NRI. It was really very well-written and I thought I would reproduce it here for its 10+ year anniversary. For someone like myself who has such diverse origins and is also “peripatetic” (it’s always nice to have to google words to refresh on their exact meaning); this piece really resonated with me.

This is one of the few personal essays Ruchira had written on her blog and her father-in-law, mentioned below, passed away last year in 2016. I have excerpted & italicized a particularly moving passage on him as he was a noted Urdu writer. 

It is bittersweet that Urdu, an exalted melange borne of poets, warriors & nomads, is cursed to wrestle with death every few generations in the bloodiest of circumstances (1857, 1947, 1971). Truly a tongue more suited for war than peace, for pain than pleasure but then perhaps that is what makes it so achingly beautiful and ephemeral.

A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

All in all a very wonderful and lyrical piece, which I’m very happy to share below.

Home – Lost, Found and Imagined

More than twenty six years ago, I left New Delhi, India to follow my peripatetic husband on a journey that would take us across two new continents and four different cities. Until then my birthplace Delhi, was the only home I had known.  Most of my family and all my friends lived there and frankly, I had never imagined leaving that comfortable zone of familiarity except for travel and tourism. In the years since the initial uprooting, the idea of home has undergone dramatic changes in my mind, as has the definition of comfort zone. What exactly is home for any one of us?  Where the heart is or where the hearth is? Is it the place we ourselves grew up in or where we bring up our children?  Do we define it by the food, the smells, the climate or the faces around us? Or is much of it in our minds?

For ages humans have left their homes in search of food and adventure, as also in fear. They have set down new roots in unfamiliar landscapes . Having done so, they have surely at one time or another reflected back on that decision and wondered if their lives were better or worse for having left. Good and bad fortunes are both ascribed to the decision to leave one’s homestead.

Severing ties with once familiar surroundings can come about in two ways – voluntarily and involuntarily.  For some it is a deliberate choice of a new life in a new place. Others leave under the threat of natural or man made disasters. There is no doubt that the initial trauma and the feeling of helplessness is much greater for the latter group. But after years, when things have settled down and a modicum of normalcy returns, do things even out?  Do those who are violently uprooted from their nests continue to pine for their loss longer and more keenly than those who leave peacefully? During WWII did European Jews fleeing the horror in their homeland miss Poland, Germany, Hungary and Lithuania once they found safe haven elsewhere? Or were they able to shed their attachment for the “home” that didn’t accord them dignity and provide sanctuary? Will Palestinian refugees ever accept a peace settlement with Israel without a “right of return” clause?  Are displaced persons from war torn regions more or less nostalgic about their homes than immigrants such as myself who chose to relocate under placid circumstances? Or is it all in our head, how rooted or uprooted we feel in one place or another?

Both of my parents and my father- in-law lost their ancestral homes during the partition of India to what was to become Pakistan (east & west). My own parents came from the eastern wing of partitioned India which saw far less sustained violence than the western part to which my husband’s family belonged. My parents’ side of the family lost considerably more in material wealth and social standing than did my in-laws. Yet there was a dramatic difference in the way the two families chose to remember their loss. Although their circumstances had been seriously and even brutally altered, my parents and other close relatives went on to live reasonably comfortable lives in India, going about their business in a forward looking manner. They explained the partition in terms of politics, history and the perfidy of the British. Their progeny (me included), born in independent India in safe and peaceful circumstances heard their stories and in their imagination, often conjured up a sense of loss more wrenching than the refugees themselves felt. But that is always the peculiar burden of subsequent generations – to feel more helpless, more enraged and more emotionally bereft for the sufferings of their elders. The victims themselves who live through the terror and the humiliation manage to often remember their experience with aloofness and perhaps even triumph, looking back at discrete events which they managed to survive against all odds.

Like my family, my father-in-law too did well for himself in east Africa (he left India soon after the partition) and in India where he returned several years later. But to this day, he remains very sentimental about his interrupted life and his erstwhile home from where he and his family escaped with little more than the shirts on their backs. He witnessed widespread violence during the bloody mayhem that accompanied India’s wrenching territorial partition and population exchange. A noted Urdu writer, my father-in-law has written extensively on his experience and that of others during these traumatic times. One of his most acclaimed books tells the story of Indian Muslim refugees in Pakistan transforming their new domicile in Karachi into the Indian city of Lucknow from where they were displaced, brick by brick in their dreams. His literary account of the losses on both sides of the border vacillates between regret, fear and doubt – sometimes harshly critical, sometimes sadly sentimental and always nostalgic. Unlike my own family, my husband’s parents have visited Pakistan several times – until fairly recently. I have often wondered why my father-in-law couldn’t let go of the memories while my own parents were able to. Was it because he made the partition his literary genre and therefore it remained on his mind long afterwards or conversely, did he write about it because he couldn’t get over the loss?  Could it be that the carnage he witnessed was so etched in his mind that he bears a far greater sense of betrayal? I don’t know.

Last month I came across the poem, “How Do You Like Austin?” by Maurice Leiter at Brian Leiter’s blog. It is apt to quote a few lines from the poem here.

How do you like your new home? …

But isn’t it different from New York?

I am different from them both.
Once the sightseeing is done,
There is really no place
That is not home.

After initial few years of slight disorientation (especially the two years in Germany), like Maurice Leiter, I too no longer fret about where “home” is. It now is a state of mind that transcends  geography. I have found wonderful friends and a rhythm of life that I can enjoy almost everywhere I have lived. In the early days when I visited Delhi, I felt I was going “home.” Gradually as the years went by, the return flight to the US began to acquire the feel of “coming home.”  Since the death of my parents, Delhi, which I still love to visit, feels less and less like the home I knew.  Also, I am now much less connected to the political / social reality in India, a connection which for me, is vital to feeling at home. Delhi will never fully cease to be “home” for me – it is thoroughly integrated in my memory and my imagination. But “home” now no longer evokes a single concrete image as it did in my youth. Several others vie for that honor – places where I have been, where I am now … and hopefully  also where I will be in the future. I can now go back and forth physically between these spaces at different times and emotionally inhabit them simultaneously.  All feel equally comfortable and I don’t have the need to transpose one upon the other to create an illusion of the perfect “home.”

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