Home is ideally the space where we find our refuge, where we can just be – lolling, flopping, idling, taking our leisure. Or that was what it used to be, in the time before the new world order. Far from primarily a space of rest and rejuvenation, our domestic structure has evolved to an interminable meeting area / school / university / office / studio / TV room / restaurant, where we hold our breath in horror and anticipation, and, every now and then, let out a collective gasp.
Sometimes at night, when I am unable to sleep and my heart beats faster in a sort of roaring panic, my bedroom comes alive in the darkness with things from when I was a teenager and young adult – this room that I left behind when I moved away. It has happened that I have confused the head of the bed from its foot and flailed my arms, not knowing, for a moment, which direction to face.
At these times the inside of my mouth is a desert of thirst that desperately needs to be slaked with a long drink of water. As I finally figure out where to place my feet and stand up, tottering, I occasionally bump into chairs that have suddenly become wider, knock over small items on the bedside table that has taken on ominous extensions, and let out an infrequent frustrated expletive.
This was my room, my home, and I was its familiar. I am reminded of playing Dark Room with my friends when I was younger, enjoying our respective abodes in a different way.
Over the past several weeks, I have taken to turning on the lamp and thumbing through my yellowing copy of The Black Book, ensconced in Orhan Pamuk’s enchantment yet again. And I follow anew Galip’s trepidation as he enters the living room of his cousin Celâl’s apartment, fumbling for the light switch, almost missing his footing as he makes his way “across the dark and cluttered room”, where everything exactly replicates the room of fifteen years ago, when he visited last.
Sitting in these previously well-loved rooms awhile, I muster my fear of lizards and make a beeline for the store on the floor above, where cartons of books from the last three decades await. Dragging the boxes down the stairs – a mammoth task – I find once again all my academic texts and a sundry collection of all-sorts. Already on my bookshelf, my Pamuks are lined into neat rows where I can devour them anew with my eyes: they go with me wherever I move, and take pride of place.
Dusting the books, preparing the shelves, arranging and fussily rearranging hardbacks and softcovers is a rapturous exercise, bringing me back to old favourites with a fresh perception, and discovering, too, the many books I have meant to read but have not so far quite got around to. Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay “Unpacking My Library”, claims that as a collector holds a book in their hands, they seem to be seeing through it into its distant past, evoking a sort of magic.
Memories, asserts Benjamin, crowd in upon one, and sure enough, I find myself dwelling on days past that dawned with Pamuks crowding my writing desk, and nocturnal meanderings into the vicissitudes of my doctoral dissertation on his oeuvre. I have spent close to a decade considering Pamuk’s writing in relation to other Asian writers, giving lectures, and participating in research forums in cities as far flung as Los Angeles, Santiago, Istanbul, Singapore, Delhi. Much of this writing and thinking, at least its initial years, have been accomplished right at this desk, in this very room, its challenges and joys enhancing and shaping my life in a myriad disparate ways.
I look around this room now with gentleness, recalling the intensity with which I read, the breakthroughs that would fill me with an unexplainable joy. I am home again, in my old room with all my books at hand, and with all the time I’d need to write, but the capability to exercise a choice in isolating myself to write is no longer mine.
Besieged by ourselves
On Instagram the other day, I listened to Pamuk speak about writing yet again – as part of the Jaipur Literature Festival series of talks – and I marvelled at doing this in my home, and at how the viewers can see a bit of his home. I recall meeting him twice, both times watching him speak live.
I sit at my old desk where I feverishly wrote my dissertation and let a tranquil sense of respite wash over me. The noise and hurry and emphasis on productiveness is, for, a while, hushed. And as I let my eyes flit over the familiar words of Silent House again, I feel a sense of calm purpose flutter around me. The seeming strangeness of the interior of the visiting siblings’ grandmother’s “dreary seaside home” is marked with the distance granted it by time.
“The room smelled of mildew, furniture wax, old soap, maybe mint candy, a little lavender, cologne, and dust.” I too had forgotten the smell of the room that I, at this precise moment, inhabit; well, not exactly, it did linger, awaiting my re-acquaintance. Of course, I have been living in this house all through the lockdown, and the spaces intermittently wear the patina of an extreme sort of closeness.
During this period of quarantine, we are deluged with a proliferation, not of visitors, but of our own self, often in isolation, frequently in relation to people living with us – our families or friends, the odd pet, perhaps a burgeoning calendar of virtual meetings. And the manifestations that a room can have been particularly illuminating for me. In questing for home we travel all over the world, realising, over time, that the only true home we have is within our own self.
Pamuk, in an essay on My Name is Red in his book Other Colours, avers, “The shape of the novel is hopeful, plain for all to see; far from challenging life, it affirms it,...it calls the reader to enjoy what miracles life affords.” Pamuk’s focus on the miniature details that make up his characters’ lives are testimony to what we, more than ever, need at this point: in our own small ways, to be at home in the world.