Flight Paths: Homecoming
‘Nostalgia is a dangerous trap that bends the shape of memory.’ And yet it is this trap that constructs the meaning of home.
In this series, titled Flight Paths, three women writers of South Asian origin invoke ‘home’ as the immigrant experience, sharing the real and metaphorical journeys they have made, in the shift from Asia to America.
Devi Laskar faces disruption in her quest for the yellow brick road in Homesick. In Je me Souviens, a road trip to Montreal urges Shahbano Bilgrami to remember – rather, to never forget. Even as Himali Kapil realizes that the true meaning of being uprooted is reflected in a new-born baby’s eyes, in a cup of ginger cardamom chai, in Homecoming.
My son looked incredibly pissed off when they put him, still freshly bloody and encased in cheesy vernix, on my chest. He wailed, squinting with blind rage at the newness of light. His arms and legs railed clumsily against the space he had suddenly been thrust into. We rejoiced, while he puzzled wordlessly over his new, incomprehensible situation.
Being displaced is always hard.
Even if it’s for the best reasons. Like love.
S and I met in a pokey Prohibition Era jazz bar that’s been around since the 1920s. Here, where it is, even such tenuous traces of vintage are proof of pedigree, however dubious. A known bluesman was playing ragged notes that swelled seductively in its womby warmth, martinis were poured, there was ice on the road outside and we felt an undeniable pull.
Before there was time to dwell on consequence, after a year-and-a-half of breathless flights and giddy reunions, my suitcases were packed and from one day to the next, over a 14-hour flight, I went from calling a dusty, sweat bowl of traffic, impatience, and unfathomably deep roots, home, to embracing an entirely different landscape of people and their ways, halfway around the world.
Meanwhile, surreptitiously, memories began to inject themselves in unaccustomed places.
Thankfully it was summer, and while the light lasted, that first day was delirious. Then came nightfall and with it, the unbearable weight of too much space, too much distance, too little that was familiar, and a dawning sense that this was permanent. In spite of loving arms that reassured, I felt the tear of a yawning abyss that I couldn’t fill fast enough.
That’s how I came to be stuck indefinitely between here and there, wondering about where.
Meanwhile back home, shortly after my departure, people I loved imagined a cinematic vision of my magnificent new life and went solemnly back to their lives vaguely aware of an absence, and slightly glum from the aftermath of raucous farewells and final celebrations. Emails and messages were congratulatory, cards were hollow and hallmark, and their tone suggested that if the state of my head was anything but celebratory, I must be an ingrate.
So off I went with hooks and spades, in search of things in which to cleave the shape of comfort.
In the beginning of course, familiarity nestled in all the little clichés of South Asian living. In ginger cardamom chai, in Bollywood on YouTube with scarlet ears because my father is a post-colonial snob, in cold samosas disgracefully wrapped in oily filo skins, in secret trips to Little India to eavesdrop on snatches of ungrammatical Hindi, and in cussing. Desperation, at some point, also brought me to relish malodrous globs of rubbery paneer swimming in unspecific pools of curries, and seek the company of those from ‘back home’, never mind that we had as much in common as salan has with kheer. Predictably, this was deeply unfulfilling, because nostalgia is a dangerous trap that bends the shape of memory, and luckily I hadn’t been away long enough to fall into it.
Meanwhile, surreptitiously, memories began to inject themselves in unaccustomed places. At the corner of this street and that avenue, we had a bitter argument. Three avenues later, we kissed, and all was well. On the way home, passing through the tunnel under a raging river we made sense of things and spoke words we would speak again, and again, until we didn’t need them, because kindness had crept into their deep furrows.
At one restaurant we announced our engagement. At another we had dimsums before I would fly home the first time. Jasmine tea from chipped cups became the flavour of our conversation. Morning sickness accompanied me on the train to the university for German classes, and even now, when I try to recall roughly scribbled grammar tables from my arbeitsbuch mid-conversation, I feel the overwhelming urge to vomit.
But this was just the backdrop to my intense, secret ache. Because how can you occupy two states of being so fully? It is confusing. For everyone. So they must lie, quietly storming in crevices that become increasingly stressed and cavernous, battling each other’s dominance. And you walk around, ravaged and hollowed by a war that you wish wasn’t yours, because all you ever wanted was to be whole and content.
By the time we had inched towards our first spring together through a historically harsh winter, it was apparent. I missed home, enough to rejoice openly at the purchase of my ticket back to Deshland. S viewed our (because by now I was a twosome, swelled and plump with pregnancy) imminent departure, and more than that my unconcealed joy at it, with mild sadness.
In that state of anticipation, everything I uttered in comfort to him about our return sounded insincere. He listened quietly while my eyes shifted guiltily at the discordance between my somberly placatory words and the flame of delight that lurked and leapt beneath.
Between preparations for the journey and the arrival of our baby, time slipped along, and very quickly, though not soon enough, I was on a plane, headed homeward. Except, that I hadn’t expected the flight to be so long.
And so filled with the longing to return.
Something had changed.
The flight back home had become a flight away from home.
Months later, the day our son arrived, raw and raging from being ripped away from comfort, we had our arms ready, S and I, because even though he didn’t know it yet, and it would take him a long time to knowing it, he was finally home.