In a world marked by migration, some have the privilege of cosmopolitan professional lives while others scratch out meagre lives on the margins. Attachments to “home” are at once ambivalent and intense, argues Kaushik Barua
To write about home, we would ideally have to understand what home is. I have spent exactly half my life away from the place I usually call home. I should have cultivated both enough distance and enough longing to see and understand home clearly now. I have also spent most of the last decade in Rome and travelling across countries facing displacement, almost entirely in the company of people who have left their homes. My first novel was about the homeless Tibetan refugee community. I have collected many stories, enough to know that home, especially from a distance, is not a fixed point.
Over many Roman evenings, stretched into the night by the brave extra bottle of wine, I exchange notes with friends and colleagues. Lindsay grew up all over the world, attending international schools, growing tenuous branches across continents but no roots, a fortunate victim of her privilege. Home is where you have a reliable group of friends, she says. There is little mention of family. Lindsay’s father is wrapping up his life and his apartment in Asia; a collective of friends, who organised her farewell after a three-year stint in southern Africa, check on her over WhatsApp and Facebook; she spends hectic weeks or months crisscrossing the global South, meeting and exchanging ideas with rural communities; her next destination could be New York or “back in the eld”, which in the specific terminology of the international development sector that employs us could mean any place in Asia or Africa (and, at a stretch, bits of Latin America). Home is where the next contract will be issued.
I have a place I could call home, not just a place, but “an irrevocable condition”, in James Baldwin’s words. A place, a condition or set of events become home when their effect is indelible. I don’t talk much about Guwahati in Assam. For all of us who come from small towns where departure is celebrated so much more than arrival, we will never truly arrive in the big city. We will always feign the sophistication and ease of big-city-slickers, pretending we were always here. But we will long for the alleged warmth of our hometowns, even for the smallness of these towns. Perhaps this longing is my irrevocable condition. Like men from small towns, I am usually blind to how such places offer a completely different menu of experiences to women. Most female friends from Guwahati or similar towns remember not the warmth or the quaintness of our hometowns (Your town didn’t have an escalator? Not a single real bar till the 2000s?), but the many ways in which a small town suffocates its girls (since every indiscretion takes place in front of knowing eyes and eager tongues). They may have started from these towns, but will find their homes, the places they ache for, far away.
My colleague Patrick didn’t start with a home. A Rwandan born in a refugee camp across the border in Burundi, home was a country he had never known, a country where people like him were being slaughtered. Joining the rebel movement (fuelled largely by the second generation of expatriate refugees who picked up arms to stem the genocide in the 1990s), he first crossed the border and saw Rwanda in his mid-20s. For Patrick, home is Rwanda, but the entire country, not a location. There was no single town where he enjoyed what we associate with home: the revelations of childhood or youth, the slow awakening into the world, the steadfast relationships immune to the ravages of time. Is home then what we are willing to fight for? Driven by history or blood or a claim for justice, can we only lay claim to a home if we are willing to stake a piece of ourselves? Patrick thinks so. But if that is the case, he wishes his children, now comfortably ensconced in international schools in Rome, need never fight for a home.
Patrick’s wife Lena, a former advocate who guided post-genocide families through their rights, has a recurring dream. She is searching for shelter, scanning all the towns she has encountered. A mild panic, rising from a wholly unfamiliar world, grips her. And then, in cleansing sunlight, she emerges in the safest space in her memories: the refugee camp in Burundi. Maybe home is not a reward for our struggles; it is just our most stubborn memory. Rome, even after two years, is not yet a memory.
If you visit Rome, you might notice, at the margins of the city’s spaces and economy, an army of Bangladeshi vendors, selling umbrellas, mementos and, most strikingly, flowers through the day and night. Many of the shopkeepers at the Asian market in Piazza Vittorio are Bangladeshi and my wife’s Bengali prompts generous discounts.
We often run into Shakib, who prefers to be called Raju, near the Monti fountain where every evening young Romans fetch their guitars and tales of heartbreak that they reconstruct with animated hands plucking words from the air, their tragedies met with exaggerated sighs of Nooo or Daiii. Never part of the conversations, but always in the backdrop, Raju is prepared for these emergencies of the heart with his roses. Raju has been in Rome for about eight years. The years haven’t yielded a real job (“niente lavoro, nessuno”, he says in the broken Italian we sometimes use to communicate, no job, nobody, as if he is talking about his condition and his invisibility in Roman society at the same time) or humanworthy accommodation (Bangladeshi migrant vendors, often up to a dozen of them, share cramped 300 square-foot apartments). Raju teeters forever on the verge of disillusionment, wishing to return to Bangladesh but clutching on to the phantasmal hope of a job and steadier fortunes in Italy.
This sense of being forever unsettled, of belonging wholesomely only to the distant place of origin, of return always being an option, is reflected in Raju’s terminology for places (and in those of most Bangladeshis in Rome, I suspect). When he speaks of Dhaka and Bangladesh, he refers to his “bari”, a word for home. Rome, even after a decade and its slow offering of hard-fought advancement, and his shared apartment in Piazza Vittorio are only “basha”, a place of dwelling. But his hopes are as stubborn as an Italian heart. Next year, there will be jobs in Milan, he says. I nod and buy a rose from him.
I am often accompanied through these Monti evenings by my friend Lucas. He does not buy a rose. Perhaps I buy a rose every time I see Raju because I had once scrawled “Bangladeshis Get Out” across a neighbour’s car—a seven-year-old’s display of solidarity with the brewing Assamese insurgency of the late 1980s, a movement that viewed immigrant Bangladeshis and non-Assamese speakers with hostility. Or because my wife is half-Bengali and engages in long conversations with Raju when she’s in town.
The only city Lucas knew intimately before he reached Rome was Copenhagen. Now he has spent six years in this forever-unravelling city, with ruins in every neighbourhood. He has acquired, with varying degrees of difficulty, the Italian language, friends and partners. But on the rare occasion—this has only happened once, Lucas claims—when he is drunk beyond recognition and returning home, he remembers only the way back to his flat in Copenhagen. The whole of Rome feels unfamiliar, a city feigning the winter-warmth of his hometown.
Of course, this longing for a home that awaits us is a conceit in today’s world. For many, in the midst of the worst global refugee crisis since World War II, there is no plausible hope of return. Millions are fleeing Syria, Yemen and countries in the broader neighbourhood, cramped into dark boat holds and making journeys that are almost as treacherous as the wars they are fleeing. A kilometre away from the Tiburtina railway station in the northern reaches of Rome, as a member of a loose volunteer initiative, I met Qais, an Iraqi Kurd from the city of Machmur, a two-hour drive from Mosul. I asked him (a naïve and bordering-on-insensitive question, I now concede) whether his parents were “back home”.
“No, nothing,” he said.
“No one back home?”
Qais was learning German.
“Germany, Austria, good,” he said, “will go to Germany next.”
I don’t know if he will make it. Or if he’ll reach yet another country and yet another language. There is no home, only a journey.
Many of these migrant journeys will end in distress, their hopes will dissipate. Their new countries will never provide them the opportunities they need, their original countries will be reconfigured by wars, leaving no safe place for return. Thankfully, sometimes the years take a toll not just on hopes but also on fears. In Somalia, some of the extensive diaspora, flung across the continents by the initial burst of the still-unresolved war of the early 1990s, is returning. These reverse-pioneers are tenaciously rebuilding the country, their efforts brutally punctuated by attacks like the blast that claimed 350 lives in Mogadishu in October.
On my last visit to the country, we climbed to the hills above the bay that separates the curling horn of Somalia from Yemen and visited Abdirahim on his farm. On our way to his farm, we drove past bombed-out buildings. No roofs or doors or windows. Only sky pouring through the open frames. Abdirahim was, in his own words, London- born and England-bred, but Somali by history and hoping to be Somali again by the time he’s dead. He wore a black robe and a large black beard that jangled when he laughed. He worked on the farm with his employees and slept in the open. His wife and children hadn’t joined him yet. But they will, he reassured me, “when we have rebuilt this country”. Like so many devout farmers we met in the region, he was delighted to be farming, “drawing fruit from this God-given land”. His farm had been productive and the markets warm to his organic fruits.
The life of the farmer seemed romantic, but there were new troubles every week: markets were shutting down, landmines were discovered (by accident, and hopefully someone else’s accident), new coalitions and strategies of extremist violence were constantly being built, and climate change was taking a toll on any form of agricultural planning. With the rolling hills behind him, his robe stretching all the way down his six-and-a-half foot frame, he told me why he returned (he always said returned, though he had spent his entire life away). I was expecting many reasons, enough to convince him the risks were worth enduring. He had just one.
“If I don’t return home, who will?”
For some, home is not a place to which you can return. In the Palestinian West Bank territory, I met Hani Agha who lives in a treehouse between the village of Beit Liqya and the Israeli wall. Hani raises poultry in a barn. Perched in his wood-and-asbestos room, he floats over a nightly chorus of clucking chickens. Above his bed, I spotted a framed key. That was the key to his family home in Haifa in north Israel, a house Hani had never seen, only heard described in fossilised detail in his parents’ reminiscences. Across Palestine, families displaced for years or even decades place these keys above their beds, like unanswered prayers. Hani had been across the wall. He spent three months a year working across the border.
“Did you ever go to Haifa, to find the house? The house for the key.”
“No,” he said, “the key won’t fit any more.”
“Then why do you keep the key with you?”
Hani didn’t respond. But much later, in fact while writing this essay, I chanced upon a clue provided by Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet of the exiled. He spoke about people leaving their homes behind: “The owners of these homes still keep their keys in their pockets and their hearts full of anticipation for their return. Return to where?”
The only physical place I regularly call home is Assam. And I see myself at home, in Assam, only as an Assamese-speaking individual. “Language is the only homeland,” said Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet who was born in the sometimes-persecuted Polish-speaking community in Lithuania. Language was the first homeland he recognised, moving back to Poland with his family, writing mostly in Polish through his life. But later, he moved effortlessly between language-homelands, working on extensive translations to and from English.
I associate home with just one language: Assamese. Of course, this is the kind of language chauvinism that has alienated non-Assamese speaking indigenous communities and fuelled the xenophobia that marks Assamese insurgencies. There is a real case for preserving our non-dominant languages (if not for reasons of history or identity, because our stories have different flavours in different languages). But if we can enter our homes only through one language, do we then keep that door firmly bolted? Or allow other languages to saunter in and make themselves at home? Perhaps I will find different homes, enough for the languages I wish to possess. For someone with an unreasonable attachment for a language he barely uses any more, and greatest facility in English, what is home? A Saturday Night Live skit?
Patrick is particularly concerned about the flattening effect of an increasingly English-speaking global elite. Having finally secured an international education for his children, he fears they will be foreign in their own tongue, Swahili. Maybe they will be a different tribe, he muses, an English tribe. At home only in London or New York.
Now we belong to no tribe, no nation. Of course, this is true of Patrick or me by virtue of our privileged professional positions. But there are entire communities of nationless people scattered across the globe, much against their will.
“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate,” Wallace Stegner suggests in his mid-20th century classic Angle of Repose, a retelling of the brutal creation of the modern American nation. I was reminded of his lines when I met Hani Agha and his orphan key. Or Lhasang Tsering, the inspiration for my first novel, Windhorse. I first met Lhasang at his bookstore in Dharamsala, the primary base of the Tibetan community in India. Over repeated visits in the winters of 2006 and 2007 and over endless cups of tea that exhaled steam into the crisp afternoon air, I learned that he was also an ex-medical student, a member of the resistance movement that furiously sprang to life in the Tibetan diaspora in the 1970s, and finally a poet and bookstore owner. He reminisced endlessly about Tibet, pondered the what-ifs and could-have-beens of the movement, and still retained the urge for action. I asked him why he wanted to return after having spent four decades in India in relative peace and prosperity, cultivating a community across this no-longer-foreign country. He said: “Because that’s where all my stories were born”.
Note: Names and some identifying details have been changed to protect identities.
This article was published in the Jan-Mar 2018 issue of The Indian Quarterly. The theme of the issue was “Home”.