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How do you go home when the people who made up home are no longer there?

Home is made up of our stories of it -- all the beautiful, sad, funny and loving tales that speak of who we are and how we began

Written by Vatsala Mamgain | New Delhi |
November 1, 2021 12:44:57 pm
home, homecoming, homecoming nostalgia, experiences, Diwali special, coming home on Diwali, festive season, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsIllustration: Suvajit Dey

Homecoming welcome runs — in the opposite direction

Whenever my sisters or I came home, we knew that Daddy would be at the railway station to pick us up, pacing up and down with his impatient athlete’s energy. As the train steamed in, he would start jogging to where he thought our compartment might end up. We would laugh till tears ran down our faces, waving and shouting out to him through the frosted window panes of the AC compartment, as every single time, he sprint-walked his way in the wrong direction, sheepishly doubling back when the train finally stopped.

Of fulfills and refills

My mother’s famous mutton chops, her Hyderabadi biryani, her meat loaf, her aloo tikkis, her mouth-puckering pomelo salad spiked with sugar and basil salt, which we ate sitting in the lawn in the winter sun… a list of my food cravings, as long as the perimeter of the former USSR, always arrived at my parents’ home before I did. Ma would be sure to punctiliously knock off every request before it was time for me to leave, even as I lay prostrate like a fat, overfed slug.

And yet, even the things she made routinely — a simple yellow dal with aloo sabzi, the arbi patta patore, the pahadi palak which wilted to a sweet vegetal moosh in the iron kadhai, the quickly whipped-up pakodas with diced potatoes and onions flecked with green chillies, the hundred chutneys and salads that always arrived miraculously on the table — they were always fabulous and cosmically comforted me in a way that nothing I ate anywhere else ever did.

News and views

Daddy’s news was always vastly different from Ma’s. Spilled on the drive back home from the station, his news would likely cover how the un-repairable geyser had been repaired because of his ingenuity, his golf games, the Indian cricket team’s performance and an update on the dogs. Ma’s would wait for the ideal moment and be unveiled with all the pomp and ceremony that real news demands. Updates on births, deaths, career moves, marriages, rifts, petty squabbles and genuine heartaches of friends and family were all covered. Somehow, hearing it over the phone never felt the same as hearing it from Ma face to face — over guavas with masala in the sun, or sitting in their bed, curling one’s toes against the hot water bags as the temperature of the news and the water alternately harmonised and collided.

Revenge visits

Every time we went home, Ma would make sheep’s eyes at us and tell us that no matter what happened, we “had to” visit a few people. “They love you and look forward to your visits,” she would cry, handing us the entire electoral roll of their little town.

Sometimes, she would also schedule random revenge visits. These were people who she didn’t ordinarily deem close enough for us to spend our precious time home visiting. But because their daughter had come from Dubai two months ago, and not only shown up at Ma’s door but also carried some dates stuffed with almonds, the only fitting reply would be a revenge visit by us, clutching something equal to, but not eclipsing, the social, financial or aesthetic value of the dates. We always told Ma that the only way she could actually get us to meet everyone she wanted us to, would be to hire an elephant to perambulate majestically across town with us atop it, like the children getting bravery awards on Republic Day, waving enthusiastically to all her friends and associates.

Eau d’home for the homesick

Daddy used Old Spice, a hugely generous slathering of Nivea face cream scooped out from the old-fashioned blue tin and a really vile smelling hair oil called Cantharidine, which I have never seen anywhere except on his dressing table. Ma used Johnson’s Baby Oil, Pond’s Dreamflower talc, and, pushed heavily by us, Nivea deodorant. Their garden smelled of flowers, of mowed grass, of whiffs of woodsmoke from the villages in the distance, of the fruits on the mossy trees. The house sometimes smelled of damp. The cutwork dining-table cloth and the towels, most of which I recognised from my childhood, all smelled of the sun. The dogs smelled of dog. There is a secret but precise alchemy with which these came together to create the most beloved, the one, the only — Eau d’Home.

Homecoming when you can’t go home

My darling eldest sister, an ace at math, is so spaced out that we know she was abducted by aliens as a child and is, as we speak, being controlled by a benevolent alien mothership. We had a dog called Rakshi who won all the dog shows for obedience, and one called Honey who had trained us to expect that she would only ever sit on the couch and leap down just for food. My middle sister once had a too-enthusiastic tot of brandy the night before her board exams to cure a cold and walked around on her knees quacking like a duck instead of studying geography. My dad kept telling us to “Relax! Relax! Relax!” when we got injections, which was weird because we weren’t at all scared, but he would be so tense every time he got one that the needle would invariably break. My mother loved mangoes and would eat a kilo of langda every day in season and when she got sick from it, she would claim it was the lauki that did her in.

Home is our stories of home — all the everyday, ordinary, funny, sad, beautiful, rage-inducing, love-filled tales that speak of how we began and who we are. And, when there is no homecoming on the cards, because of where we are or how far we have travelled or because some of the people we call home are never going to be home anymore, that’s all we can do. Tell our stories, all of them, and let love lead us back home. This season of renewal and homecoming — happy Diwali!

(Vatsala Mamgain is a glutton, cook, runner, tree lover, shopper, reader and talker)

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