Janice Pariat considers the shifting, impermanent link between us and our real and imagined geographies
I started writing this in an airport.
Appropriate, I suppose, for a rumination on belonging. We know airports are reservoirs of perennial landing and leaving, that they carry a certain nowhereness even vast amounts of ticket issuing and passport stamping cannot disperse. I’m not attached to these spaces—no one is—but today I cast a more than usually careful eye over this great iron and glass chamber, at people around me rushing to be elsewhere, and felt a strange, subdued affinity.
I find it telling that I have no memories of the place where I was born. You hear stories, often, of people wishing to be buried where they spent their childhoods, of wanting even to draw their last breaths in the houses where they drew their first. I am struck by this bond between person and place. In Shillong, the small hill town which I hesitantly, tentatively, perhaps out of habit, call home, I meet friends and acquaintances who cannot imagine being anywhere else. Who know instinctively that it is here, not there, that they belong. Sometimes I am envious, as I am of the faith displayed by the religious: that deep, inexplicable belief almost tangible enough to touch. What does it mean to be drawn always to a particular patch of geography? How does it feel to be certain there is nowhere else you’d like to be?
I was born in Jorhat, a town in Assam, where my father was an assistant manager at the nearby Moabund Tea Estate (another place to which I have never returned). He was—as is still the practice—transferred from plantation to plantation every few years. It was by luck or an oversight at the Williamson Magor head office in Kolkata that we happened to be posted at Harchurah Tea Estate, near Tezpur, for almost a decade. I was three when we arrived. There, I celebrated birthdays, kept a pet dog (until he was unfortunately eaten by a leopard), reared a brood of motherless ducklings, grew a vegetable patch, helped the bagal milk the cows, was a potter’s apprentice, learnt to swim. When the dreaded “transfer letter” arrived, instructing my father to move to an isolated plantation near the foothills of Arunachal, I was heartbroken. As my mother packed our lives into large wooden boxes, I crept around picking paint and plaster off the walls, room after room, and pasting the bits into a notepad, with labels—khana kamra, baby kamra, aina kamra, veranda—to accompany them. My adolescent self had no concept of memory, that magnificent storehouse waiting to be perpetually emptied and refilled. I only knew that I was losing a place, and I had to “carry” it with me whichever way I could manage, no matter how rough and rudimentary.
After, it’s been a series of cities, like lovers. Delhi, London, Brighton; now, I wander in open-ended trails, a nomadic tribe of one. Where will it be next? I am fastidious, frivolous even, discarding places like clothes in a changing room. Nothing fits. I sense, with growing discomfort, that what I had in one place will never merely carry over elsewhere. Isn’t this why we cling to our belongings, childishly scraping walls and looking down upon places, uncertain whether they’re even worth our giving them a shot?
In Luigi Lo Cascio’s 2012 film, La Città Ideale (The Ideal City), a young man moves from
Palermo in Sicily to Siena on the Italian mainland, believing it’s a place of perfection, that he might live out an honest, ecologically conscious existence there. He fits the city into a frame, romanticising it until it turns, through a mysterious road accident, against him, chipping away slowly at his dream. Significant, then, that the 15th-century painting of the same name, attributed to Italian artist and architect Fra Carnevale, depicts a beautifully laid out urban centre, complete with triumphal arch, amphitheatre, Medici-style palace and classical sculpture—but utterly devoid of people. Such a place cannot exist except in someone’s mind. A place where all tensions are released and we are freed from the impulse to look for yet other “elsewheres” is a landscape of desolate perfection: the absence of movement hinting at the absence of life.
What then is belonging? Is it compromise? Many friends who live in Delhi without being “from there” say it never quite feels like home; they stay on for employment and opportunity. Perhaps belonging is built, through the carrying out of routine, the gradual filling of rooms with things, the visits of friends, the discovery of a trusty grocer, a park, a pet.
Belonging is made up of a series of “belongings”.
A friend I met recently—at an airport—upon hearing I was homeless, asked what I’d done with my furniture.
“Sold it all.”
“What?” he exclaimed. “I feel so burdened!” He had done, he explained, a few domestic and cross-continental moves himself, belongings all in tow.
Admittedly, there is in this experience Milan Kundera’s unbearable lightness—the constant feeling of passing through, and being neither here nor there—but also joyful liberation. A sense that the road, long and winding though it may be, still brims with surprises, and the life-affirming thrill of anticipation. Perhaps belonging is ultimately something that can be made and unmade to fit our particular circumstances—not all “belonging” need be the same. The precariousness of friends who live in Delhi without feeling at home there, discloses all the fragility and the ambivalence of this process.
Dom Moraes, in his essay “Changes of Scenery” in Away: The Indian Writer as an Expatriate, wrote of Ved Mehta’s life in Oxford: “They were his friends because they were Indian. They found comfort and reminders of home in one another’s company. I needed no such reassurances. It didn’t matter to me where my friends came from, nor even, any longer, where I came from. The language I wrote was the language spoken and understood by everyone around me. I fitted into English life, but the concept of ‘home’ was difficult for me to hold on to. One lived where one was; different places were only changes of scenery.” There is rare generosity, and gentle fluidity, in Moraes’ way of seeing his place in the world. And it resonates with me, because I find something unnatural and frightening, as well, about belonging.
Belonging, we ought to remember, also entails exclusion: what and whom we keep out. It comes with the enclosing security of an “inside”. It can be a crutch that restricts our motion and distils our encounters to familiar faces. Yet we don’t wish to kick the crutch away because of its comfort. “Belonging” may be a strange kind of self-willed prison, whose inhabitants stare in horror or jarring disbelief at those who appear to abide by Moraes’ serendipitous philosophy. It isn’t for everyone, this acceptance that where one is follows life, rather than steering it. You live where you are, where your suitcase happens to be placed.
If we concede for a moment that belonging can have a darker side, it’s not too far a step from admitting that it can quickly turn into a liability. So much so, in fact, that one might want to advocate freedom from belonging, something like a right to forget. “The right to forget” is imbued with digital drama after a landmark European Union court ruling in 2014, which gave Europeans the right to request for personal information to be removed from internet search results. But the phrase also occupies a space less virtual. Jason Hill, professor of philosophy at the College of Liberal Art and Social Sciences at DePaul University, has coined the term “the right to forget where one is from”. In his book Becoming a Cosmopolitan: What it Means to be a Human Being in the New Millennium, he suggested that embracing forgetfulness “dispenses with the attachment that makes difficult the resocialization of self and values warranted by any attempt at radical self-transformation”. Paradoxically, then, it might well be that the only way to belong, to heed the call of becoming, is to “unbelong”, to forget where you came from.
If belonging entails attempting to fit past selves into the present, adjusting shifting identities so they suit where you are, there will forever be disjuncture and displacement. Hill’s idea is one of a self-inflicted type of death to one’s past and the identities and selves that were shaped there. Consider the poet Warsan Shire’s sentiment expressed in an interview with The Well&Often Reader: “… it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
We can find in Hill’s call for a “right to forget” much more than a how-to of personal becoming in “self-help” mode. This is because, no matter how much one may try to assert an erasure of belonging, it is not a given that the erasure will be acknowledged by others; that our supposed “belonging” won’t be pinned on us, again and again. Dom Moraes in Oxford was happy to evade belonging through a cheerful nomadism. Yet, we don’t know the extent to which the world he embraced was willing to embrace him back, fully, as just a human being. Or did his friends and colleagues keep considering him an “Indian” or a “migrant”?
Wherever you go, and decide to be—even if for a while—it matters that you aren’t reminded, constantly, of where you came from. Those levels of erasure have to take place on both sides—yours, and also others around you; so that cries of “dkhar” (Khasi for outsider) don’t echo in the Shillong hills, and “chinky” isn’t heard in the streets of Delhi. Belonging is not a place, but people. Those that you care about deeply: family, friends, lovers. As the author Sarah Dessen wrote in What Happened to Goodbye, “Home wasn’t a set house, or a single town on a map. It was wherever the people who loved you were, whenever you were together. Not a place but a moment, and then another, building on each other like bricks to create a solid shelter that you take with you for your entire life, wherever you may go”.
Belonging is moveable.
In Seahorse, my recently published novel, Nehemiah, the young narrator, is at dinner with his friend Eva, when she asks: “I wonder how inextricably bound some relationships are to particular places. Can we imagine ourselves with a person elsewhere?” He replies that what’s important is not the place, but how it changes her … or the other person. Eva adds, “That’s what I thought too … but now I feel it’s the other way round … how a city is changed for you by someone else.”
It is intricate, the way places are shaped for us by the people we choose to be with, how some relationships are bound by a particular geography. Belonging shifts and shuffles as we move from person to person, or trail after a lover to a new place, where we seek, perhaps erroneously, to recreate the rituals that made us belong elsewhere. Nehemiah, for instance, is a drifter who searches, much like the title creature of my novel, for a still place to anchor. He finds it in Delhi with an older man, an art historian named Nicholas, but loses it when his lover and mentor mysteriously disappears. Nehemiah is unbridled by many of the imaginary lines that mark belonging: gender, ethnicity, nationality. In fact, he becomes a “builder of new worlds”, a nomad, in order to follow only one trail—that of his love, in the uncertain hope to revisit the past. The two, love and belonging, are inextricable.
At the airport, we’ve been called to our gate. I make haste. Soon we board our flight. In less than an hour, we will be suspended thousands of feet above the earth. This too is appropriate. As I walk down the aerobridge, lines from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man flit past me: “When the soul of a man is born … there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” It is the same with belonging. It must be thrown to the wind. Forgotten. Abandoned. And perhaps then we find it.
Waiting just around the corner; there, but not really anywhere.
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land, which won the Crossword Book Award for Fiction and the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writers’ Award in 2013. She writes cultural features and edits Pyrta, an online journal. She lives between the UK and India.