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Diwali Special: In search of a home in borrowed aching

In the battle for ownership, finding a shared home in each other’s pain


Updated: October 31, 2021 11:01:05 am
After nearly three decades trying to belong somewhere, I have ended up close to nowhere and far from anything I can dare to call “home”.

Written by Devashish Makhija

Bengali by first name
Sindhi by surname
Calcuttan by habit
Bangalorean by upbringing
Occupationally Mumbaikar
Indian, yet stateless

After nearly three decades trying to belong somewhere, I have ended up close to nowhere and far from anything I can dare to call “home”. I was born in a rented home occupied by roughly five refugee Sindhi families — my father’s and all his brothers’. I grew up in a small rented home in a mohalla populated by Bangladeshi refugee families. My father sold saris all his life out of a rented shop, mostly to immigrant Tamilian families in south Calcutta. And ever since I landed in Bombay 18 years ago, I have shifted in and out of nine rented homes, shared with diverse immigrant flatmates.

As a result, I have grown suspicious of the idea of the “ownership” of things. The only thing I feel comfortable calling my own is my artistic output. It’s not only geography, history or demographics that make me feel rootless, but also a sharply specific night that permanently altered any defined edges that my religion may have had up until then. On December 6, 1992, the aftershocks of the Babri Masjid demolition quickly reached our Calcutta mohalla. We were almost attacked that night. That night of dread — of the anticipation of murder, rape and vicious decapitation — burnt into my mind and heart permanently. I did not leave that night with hate though, but an all-consuming confusion. I didn’t know it then, but looking back many years later, I’ve started to understand, perhaps, why I balk at the idea of belonging, of roots, of home, of ownership — all joined at the hip.

These are at the heart of all unnecessary human conflict. In 2014, I had reached out to several wonderful folk in Pakistan to help me journey to Shikarpur, Sindh, where my parents came from, to understand if there’s a place that may “feel” like my own, perhaps to refute the frightening personal truths beginning to solidify within me. The day I was to board that flight to Karachi, there was a bomb attack at the Karachi airport. With flights cancelled, things never went back to how they used to be. Shikarpur was hard to access because of Taliban control. Finally, after years of wrestling with the voices inside my head, I began to embrace the fact that I may never “belong” to a place or people.

I have been jettisoning chunks of my life ever since. The only “things” I used to be possessive of were my books, until about a decade ago. Since then, I have been doing annual “book-adoption-drives” on social media, where I’ve given away more than 8,000 of my books by now. By the end of 2014, my book of short stories was published. Forgetting (HarperCollins) — 49 stories about people trying to forget, recalibrate, shed old skins, carve new fate lines, all the things I have spent half a lifetime trying to do.

Realising that my own rootlessness and sense of unbelonging had no resonance in contemporary times, I began to seek my home in the stories of the “outsiders”, those who don’t find enough representation in what we call the “mainstream”. The violently dispossessed Adivasi (Oonga, 2013/’21, Tulika Books), the delegitimised, impoverished classes (Ajji, 2017), and migrant labourers (Bhonsle, 2018). I’ve tried to appropriate their sense of dislocation as my own, since mine — although painfully palpable to me — is, at most, an abstraction to others. Make no mistake, I indict myself of “appropriation”. I’m aware, no matter how much and how earnestly I research someone else’s “homelessness”, I may never truly know what it feels like to them, in the chilled marrow of their bones.

At best, I can surmise on the basis of what my marrow feels like. And in that borrowed aching, I hope to someday alleviate my own.

Devashish Makhija is a Mumbai-based filmmaker and author

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