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Saturday, December 05, 2020

Where I belong

Homecoming has been fraught with uncertainties in this year of dread. Ahead of Diwali, we look at the many winding roads that led people to their places of comfort and security during the pandemic. First up, a writer stranded in a foreign land, grappling with the notion of boundaries, as she tries to find her way back home

Written by Janice Pariat | New Delhi | November 8, 2020 6:15:27 am
The world as we’d known it had been turned inside out, upside down. (Photo: Getty)

This year, the home has shifted in ways I could’ve little imagined. I’ve been a drifter — floating around Assam, moving from Shillong, my hometown, to Delhi, London, elsewhere, pronouncing with a small stamp of pride, that home is where I happen to lay my suitcase, that I— and I’d feel lucky for this — had many places to call home. Earlier this year though, in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was compelled to reassess this notion. I happened to be in Rome, on research work, and, suddenly, found myself in the midst of a worldwide flurry of lockdowns and travel restrictions, with rules changing daily or on the hour. At the airport, on the day of my Al Italia flight to New Delhi, we were told we couldn’t board without a COVID-19-negative certificate — impossible to procure in a country reeling under the pandemic wave. There I stood, beneath the departure board, watching the gates close, and the home had never felt further away. Home at that moment was a country. And not being particularly nationalistically inclined, this was a strange new feeling for me.
How would I travel back to my home country?

A situation like this, I realised, realigned the parameters within which I’d always imagined “home”— what was once free-floating and existing in multitude became encased within national borders. This was complicated by the fact that despite holding a passport proving I “belonged” to India, I wasn’t being permitted to return. A document, sacred some would say, that under any circumstances should always be sufficient was suddenly not. “Please,” we pleaded with the airport officials, “let us just get on a flight home and we can be quarantined there.” It was not to be. Everywhere, borders were hardening, calcifying — and so was my idea of home. It took the shape, not of a capital city or a small town in the hills, but a large triangular landmass, delineated in a way I’d last reckoned with long ago in school, drawing a map for Pratap Sir in geography class.

Somehow, with a little help from a friend in Berlin, I was lucky enough to find a route back. A zig-zag flight path across Europe, bated breath all the way, waiting to be stopped, summoned, detained, perhaps even sent back to Rome. Anything, I realised, was possible. The world as we’d known it had been turned inside out, upside down. Everything seemed uncertain. Apart from borders, closing, closing, all around me. Finally, on a flight that would (hopefully) land in Delhi, I sat back in my seat and allowed myself a moment of pause, of breath, of reflection.

When have I ever really called this nation home?

Not for the longest time, I was convinced. In fact, for many years I’d been writing stories, even an essay or two, questioning the idea of political borders, their man-made artificiality. Then briefly, a memory flashed in my mind from December 2019, when anti-CAA protests were gathering quiet momentum across the country, an evening when we’d gathered at India Gate, a large crowd of us, to link hands and read aloud the Preamble. “WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA,” we chorused, “having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC and to secure to all its citizens…” “This is awkward,” I’d whispered to a friend, “I don’t really believe in nations.” She’d whispered back, “But given they exist, isn’t this what you’d like the nation to be?” I hadn’t thought of it that way before; it made complete, simple sense.  Back on the plane, as we neared Delhi’s hazy skies, I held on to that moment. There was a long way to go, for me, for the nation, but yes, home, home can be a country.

Janice Pariat is a Delhi-based writer

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