Where is home? Is home made of concrete? Or does it denote a lived physical space that you share with others? It doesn’t feel that way anymore.
In literature, we refer to home very often, and these conversations are usually approached through a reading of poetry, novels, short stories, essays and such like. Every reading throws up new possibilities of thinking about home.
Who is talking about home? What is the politics and location of the speaker? These seem to be unavoidable questions, and quite rightly so. But these conversations about home via literature have made me realise that home is also emotional territory. And does emotion necessarily have a geographical anchor? I have thought about this with little success.
Trying to go back home
I spent my childhood in a neighbouring district of Kolkata’s. Having lived away for over a decade now from what I once identified as home purely for reasons of being born there, I have grown emotionally distant from that place, though members of my family continue to live there. My trips to this place of my birth have gradually reduced.
The upsurge of communal politics in West Bengal doesn’t make it any easier. Those I once considered my friends now speak a language that I find incomprehensible. Religion is weighing high on everybody’s mind. We are speaking in binaries constantly – us versus them. This place seems increasingly foreign, or perhaps I have outgrown it completely.
However, I have duties to perform – son, grandson, brother, friend – an entourage of social relations which mandate annual retreats to where home once was or where I thought it existed. When my ten-year-old nephew saw the title of this piece I was writing, he grew worried and asked if I was having trouble finding a house to rent.
My most recent visit to West Bengal coincided with Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee’s short trip to Kolkata after winning the Nobel Prize. The city wore a festive look. Kolkata has many peculiar ways of claiming and showcasing the laurels bestowed upon one of its own. It turns everything into a spectacle. Ostentatious is the new normal.
A local newspaper went to the extent of covering Banerjee’s visit in granular details – what he ate, where he went, whom he met, what he bought. The worst paparazzi behaviour of the media was on display. I am sure Banerjee wasn’t amused by it at all.
Soon afterwards, the CAA-NPR-NRC conflict began to dominate the news, and I looked for ways to allow my mind to veer away from these events. To be able to look away is an act of luxury, particularly in the treacherous times we live and I do recognise that as a privilege. However, we also endeavour to find ways for self-preservation.
Seeking a refuge
Sensing growing unrest and trying to battle my concerns for and about home, I began to leaf through books in our small library. I knew that I didn’t want to read another English book, which I usually do for work. I was soon attracted by the title of a Bengali book, Takate Hoy Peechon Phire (One Has To Look Back), a collection of personal essays on society, literature and literary personalities by the noted Bengali author, Sunil Gangopadhyay. The yellow book jacket also seemed very fetching.
I had been reading Gangopadhyay’s work closely over the past few years for academic purposes. I thought this might be a good addition to my reading list. I plunged in and found the gentle pace of his writing, the simple nature of his prose, and the range of topics discussed rather absorbing. Instead of making hefty intellectual statements about the world we inhabit, Gangopadhyay’s prose was dotted with experiences from everyday life and its challenges.
After reading through the accounts of his travels, of his reasons for writing, of battling poverty as a refugee in Calcutta, of writing to make a living, of his time in USA at the IOWA writers’ workshop, of his meetings with Allen Ginsberg, amongst, I felt that I knew the person better. I had acquired an intimacy with his writing. And reading about it all in Bengali, in my particular context of wondering about home, made me feel emotionally anchored.
This is a strange and feeling difficult to articulate through the written word. It seemed that I had finally found / arrived at home in / through language – not so much in the contents of the book but in the act of reading in Bengali, which lent a sense of location, thus establishing a connection with my immediate surrounding. I had found a home in language.
The essays towards the end of the book mentioned above are directly political. Though written in the late 1980s and 1990s, they appear more apt for our times. In an essay on religion, Gangopadhyay writes – “For years altogether, I have been writing against religious and communal fanaticism. I have been abused for it. Some have cursed me with a deadly affliction. Does writing change anything? Could Rabindranath change the people of this country? But writers ought to write. Even if some people change, that’s good enough. In such moments, there is a crisis of self-conviction.”
In another essay, he says – “I felt angry when someone addressed me as Hindu but I couldn’t dispute the fact that I was born in a Hindu family. I don’t believe in religion but society at large still identifies me as Hindu.”
Gangopadhyay didn’t say anything unknown to me. These are ideas I have long known and believed in. He wasn’t altering my worldview, so to speak. Yet reading these lines in Bengali gave me a sense of purpose. I felt sheltered and protected by language. It also made me realise that perhaps when we move away, we also begin to look back, and maybe that’s where home is to be found.
The writer is a cultural commentator. He teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.