This is a mashup of many different emotions. Old unpublished work, some recent events in life, love, longing, misery, nostalgia…
If just bricks were to make a home, wouldn’t just words make poetry and mud make life. Yes. This is a oft-repeated idea that a home is more than just concrete arranged in a particular way. Yet I forget it and life brings it back. And it makes me wonder. What do I want to achieve? Where do I want to go? And why?
I remember how with the crimson setting childhood of mine I wanted to run away. Leave! Explore. So I did. A few years later, I wrote one stormy day in Vancouver:
Birds headed far away hang against the blowing wind,
What comforts do they seek to give up the peace within?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. But I know the home of my past is not there anymore. The tree beside which I used to sit and observe hummingbirds has disappeared, I don’t hear cherubic shouts of joy in the evening, the old kinara store is dying a slow death, people have left and every time it is a new story. Of course I have not remained the same anymore either. But this is perhaps not the reason why I have moved ahead.
Kolkata in my opinion is one of the most understanding and accepting cities that I have been to. Accepting? Accepting of my wishes, my aspirations, my differences. I have always found myself fit into the place right in. Lack of jobs, a general backwardness and slow growth are of course factors against the city. But somehow, my expectations have always been very high with the city.
My childhood was without much incidence. My broken Bengali would be ribbed some times; my table tennis coach would joke on my good days that I must have eaten dollops of meat and everyone would ask me about my father’s “business”. I took them as curious folk trying to understand another’s culture (I was of course aware that there were differences). But every place has people of all kinds. A couple of years back I was flying back to Kolkata armed with my flute. A bhadrolok (gentleman) struck a conversation with me and was impressed by the fact that I was a Bengali mathematician from Kolkata who is into music. I encouraged him a bit and he went on to say, “These Marwaris (a certain people from Rajasthan) are such a bane to our society…” I decided not to correct him that I was a Marwari and gulped the hate as it came. It wasn’t fun any more; it was an education.
This shouldn’t make home, less of a home for me. But lately I have started noticing more oblique and direct comments. Maybe I am overthinking. And then there are articles. http://scroll.in/article/768248/in-bengal-why-is-kali-pujo-being-wrapped-under-the-banner-of-diwali Now there is lot to be sympathetic: A man ruing over the loss of his culture. I do understand. But somehow references (commercialisation, vegetarianism, Diwali) makes me feel that he is perhaps laying the blame on the Marwaris and Gujaratis. The idea of home is somewhat problematic and sometimes painful.
But is this a post about others? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let me wash away some of my saint. I grew up under fairly liberal surroundings. I knew nothing about caste and in general never cared about the religious background of my friends. Sometimes there would be a comment from my father and some aggression from my grandfather about Muslims (usually applying some stereotype and how they could not be real friends etc) but I brushed them aside; perhaps the pains and stories of the partition were fresher in their mind than, say, yesterday. It was only later when the question of marriage came up and caste entered. I will not go into my personal caste-relationship stories but specific instructions, though never accepted, have always been at the back of my mind. I can’t somehow get it out of my subconscious.
I consider myself an atheist (except that jolt in the plane and my eyes nearing sleep). I have some strange beliefs of god, purpose etc. but I don’t think I am spiritual either. On a day to day basis, I would think myself as practical and materialistic. It all came to me when I was young. I hate temples. Jostled by crowds, walking bare foot in filth and bowing down to an unknown entity. Perhaps more vivid were the innumerable men, drowning in poverty, bowing down in expectation of some relief. Each visit was a nightmare. I went as far as killing cockroaches with pictures of the venerated landing me in sharp rebuke.
Don’t think me as a heretic. I was usually very respectful to other people but when it came to beliefs there was always an urge to call the person in front of me an idiot. I have learnt to control my urges thereafter. I go to temples for the sake of my parents (to give them company), sometimes for nostalgia and sometimes just to observe. And ideas seep in, I guard myself but they still do.
But what does this have to do with the idea of home. Yes religion was part of my idea of home but the passage above was more about how difficult it is to keep your surroundings out and how inevitable is influence. Perhaps my biggest problem is this idea that I should respect others beliefs. Maybe I should. But should I? Should I keep quiet? Should I always argue? Is it worth the effort? Why? Why not?
These influences tend to create the idea of us and them, ours and theirs, fair and unfair, good and evil and therein lies the issue. I teach my nephew weekly. At some point while discussing history Ambedkar came up.
I: Who was Ambedkar?
Nephew: I don’t know.
I: You must have some idea.
I: Acha tell me something about caste.
Nephew: Oh wait! He was a Dalit.
I was shocked. He, of course, had no idea who a Dalit was. Frankly, I know that I never really will either. This conversation took me to my learnings on the subject. It was long ago as an undergrad I remember spouting a lot of crap about how students who come via reservations need to be shown their place etc. I later found that some of my close friends were from lower castes. Later I learnt what caste is about. Yes. There was something in my history books, in some stories but it was all very sheltered. It is a general perception among kids of upper castes that casteism is dead.
“Marry anyone but not a lower caste, a Muslim…” I am sure many of you would have heard this.
Perhaps my background wasn’t all that liberal after all. Is liberalism a relative quantity? I do not know. I now understand that liberalism is not not seeing caste and religion, the first step is understanding them.
But Nishant this is all very childish. What are you talking about?
No! This is not childish. People might call it: Keeping our traditions alive. I call it widening the chasm. These are the small seeds from which the vicious thorns of racism take birth. Ours and others, us and them!
Not so long ago my sister and her mother-in-law had to quietly listen to a man viciously shouting abuses in a local train asking them to go back where they came from. The words echoed in my ears, “Go back where I came from?”
Where did I come from?
Last summer, I visited the holocaust museum in Jerusalem called Yad Vashem. My tear ridden note-book echoes my childhood: filthy, dirty, uncultured, Jewish rat burrowing into the roots of Aryan supremacy. I don’t know why I cried so much that day, was it the horror of what I saw or was it the horror of what I might see later. Yes. I have grown up with such words about the so-called others. I never, of course, realised. And yet victims are often quick to forget.
And home sheds some more meaning. I wrote at a particular painful instance:
A Home It Must Have Been
Broken ledges and a grey façade,
Long had the colours faded,
The tree with the twirling yellow flowers
And the bitter fruit
Which one must not eat
For the poison it carries.
The verandah for cats on a winter afternoon,
And paper boats during the rains,
The narrow alleyways
Where the sound of wood reverberated with the shouts of joy and despair
While the glass lay shattered on the floor.
The friendly store from that other street
Had all that one may need.
Oblivious, a child whiled away hours
Looking intently for the glimpse of the hummingbirds
As the bauls passed by
Singing some distant song
(That) he wished (that) he could understand.
This ain’t your home or so you say.
The house still lays as grey as it had been,
A few more ledges have broken down since,
The cats laze around while the crows caw,
But the friendly store from the other street
Lies in tatters
And no wood sounds in excitement anymore.
Not all is the same
And not all has changed.
Every gust of wind brings forth a memory
Every drop of rain enlivens a forgotten dream
And yet you say
That I do not belong.
You may be able to explain this to me;
It is possible that I may understand.
But will he understand,
That little child
Who is still swimming in the depths of the baul’s song
As alien to the land now
As the land considers him to be.
Who am I to decide whose home it is? Yes! Go on. Preservation of culture, traditions, economy… What culture? And at what cost? I don’t think I want to talk anymore. But perhaps I mustn’t leave at such a miserable note. I will leave with a beautiful graffiti in southern Tel Aviv which I had posted before.
All is not lost and everyday I hear and see another story of human compassion, one which transcends the many superficial differences. It is just that negative stories tend to prick more than positive stories alleviate. To me Kolkata, my home still feels home. It is comfortable and I know how to set myself in. I hope that this never changes.