This home is partisan,
refuses shelter for my soul.
I have always waged war
Even concrete takes sides
some homes are of unshakable foundation, revolution-proof
some homes are sandcastles of dreams
Some homes back,
the serpentine Brahmaputra in monsoon swelled up in a storm ,
left me shipwrecked with poems of broken mast.
Excerpted from Soibam Haripriya’s poem “Nighttime”, these lines speak of the unease as well as transience of home. No longer imaged only as the mythic, unspoilt ideal, “home” is as much a space that creates ruptures and anxieties for some as it is an anchor, a place of healing and community for others.
Homeward, edited by Haripriya, is a curation of poems, memoir pieces, essays, short stories, and graphic art that explore the changing meanings of and the affective underpinnings of the abstraction that is home. The editor calls it a “montage, which attempts to recontextualise and relocate the idea of home from a perspective that moves beyond the glorification of four walls and the heteronormative marriage that upholds the (il)legitimacy of relationships that are forged within.”
Concerning itself largely, but not exclusively, with India’s North-East, the anthology is not intended as an entry point to the region. It does not homogenise the North-East as one easily digestible pill for those on the outside. Instead, it proposes a possibility of unlearning and engagement.
Absence and loss
In literary and popular imagination, home, especially the home that one has left behind, or has been separated from, voluntarily or otherwise, has always been a space of nostalgia. For those of us who have been separated from homes and people who represent home because of a virus that defies both imagination and expectation, home has already become more imagined than real.
Some of the pieces in Homeward represent this absence or/and loss in very evocative terms. Amorette Grace Lyngwa, recalling Christmases at Shillong, images the city as home. When she writes, “Home is most at Christmastime”, the term seems to embrace both the four walls of a home and the expanse of an entire city that accommodates visiting relatives and communal rituals of celebration. Looking back, she wonders, “is it home that I miss when it is farthest, in new city Christmas? / or the memory of, perfection?”.
At once intimate and inclusive, home, rarefied in memory, becomes an unattainable ideal. Janice Pariat also refers to this re-construction of home through memory: “I build a home / of ragged parts, sitting uneasy, / a tattered doll, a map on the wall, / built on steady, this lingering / memory of place.”
In stark contrast, Agastaya Thapa’s “FIR” locates home as concrete, unshifting, almost immutable. In Thapa’s story, home is not plotted by memory but, instead, becomes a space that gathers and holds inter-generational memories. Home is not just the abstract but also material things that accrue sentimental value. The violation of a home then becomes the violation of the cultural codes of the family that inhabits it.
Lapdiang Artimai Syiem similarly traces the history of the family home, dwelling on the transitions that have made it stronger. Trained in theatre, she examines this supposed stable, unchanging home, as a space for the breakdown of the fourth wall, thereby allowing herself, and by extension, inviting the reader, to morph traditional codes of belongingness and to make possible the creation of new structures of families and of homes. In a piece reminiscent of (and not derived from) Adrienne Rich’s “Snapshots of A Daughter-in-Law”, Syiem lives multiple experiences of multiple women, mediating them through Khasi folklore and myths.
In this new poetics of space, then, home is no longer a fixed location. For migrants like Leki Thungon, “home” remains forever insubstantial, hiding between the interstices of appearance and performance. In mapping her multiple strands of connection between Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Delhi, all of which have been homes at some point, she explores that question that all migrants find impossible to answer: “Where are you from?”
When home refuses to answer to any one geographical/linguistic location, how does one plot it on a map? She writes, “Everyone has to be from somewhere. If you cannot explain where you have come from, you become a misfit at best or a threat at worst.” Those of us who have struggled to explain to ourselves where we “come from”, those of us who inevitably talk of “back home”, will find much resonance in her narrative.
Amorette Lyngwa’s story, “Angela”, traces a similar arc of belongingness and hostility in her protagonist’s mediations between Shillong and Bangalore. Kumam Davidson Singh’s “Imagi Tampak” uncovers the often unspoken trauma of abuse and toxicity at home, layering yet another dimension of the un-fixed home – the desire to escape.
In an interesting flip on the geopolitics of space, Amrapali Basumatary and Bhagwati Prasad’s “Beyond the Golden Gate” uses the village / town / city as the narrative voice, embodied in a series of sketches in ink. Rooted in history, the land becomes a space of confluences – of people and animals and trees, rivers and hills, languages and religions, songs and stories. It stands witness to the changes, the nurturings and the brutalities of its people, as they shape their politics, settle into their diverse ethnicities, and parcel and label the land.
The story has a playfulness that tackles questions of identity and diversity with an admirable lightness of touch. The politics of the land remains in the foreground as questions of linguistics and ethnicity are asked in Mouma Mog’s “Renaming Homes: Reimagining New Tripura”. Mog examines the acts of erasure embedded in the re-naming of place-names. The complicity between political power and dominant linguistic groups performs constant acts of appropriation, erasing intergenerational memory and affecting the loss of histories as well as articulations of culture.
The lens of the anthology remains decidedly political. Vishü Rita Krocha, reminiscing about her grandmother and her storytelling, interweaves folktale with history and culture while drawing the reader’s attention to the Japanese occupation of Nagaland during World War II, as well as the alienation implicit in the Indo-Naga conflict.
Rubani Yumkhaibam, situating us withing the larger matrix of the state alienating the citizen, quotes Hannah Arendt: “totalitarian regimes are not satisfied with isolation of men from their political capacities only; additionally, they isolate and destroy private life as well.” Contextualising the Pangal-Meitei communal tension in Manipur, she writes with tremendous empathy about the constructedness of the schisms that cause and inflame ethnic conflict.
Shalim M Hussain, in a brilliantly incisive essay on Miyah poetry, associated with Bengal-origin Muslims in Assam, deep dives into the controversy that erupted in 2019, raising questions of linguistic identity and the narrow confines of who was “allowed” to use what language. Asserting the role of the poet as witness, whether of a personal trauma or that of the community, Hussain claims space within language, refusing to be coerced into compliance.
Homeward is, in its form, as much as its content, polyphonous. Text is interspersed with graphic and digital art, photo essays, and ink sketches, each of which mediates with personal concerns that invariably can also be seen as political, engaging with distinctly different ideas of home and its complexities. It represents familiar as well as new voices from the North-East (and beyond) but does not locate them within a confined geography.
The key to understanding it perhaps lies in the title. “Homeward” could be a spatial or a temporal journey, a journey with an imagined destination that might or not be reached. It might be only an intention or even a sense of longing, made manifest in language, as relevant to those denied citizenship and language and space as it is to those embraced and validated by the state and all its structures. The anthology problematises the very idea of home, that fundamental unit of societal stability, and in doing so, attempts just a little bit of de-stabilising of normatives, just a little bit of the slanting of perspectives.
Homeward: Towards a Poetics of Space, edited by Soibam Haripriya, Zubaan Books.