“Home is where the heart is,” is the most common adage about the idea of home. As a child, I learned this saying but I have to admit that I didn’t quite understand it. Sometimes, I felt its import when I returned to my home after a long vacation, or a bad slumber party, but it only rang true when I moved away from India and started living in the United States. In spite of feeling settled and acclimated in America now, in my own writing the idea of home is inevitably ubiquitous; I do not think I can separate home from anything I write. Writing about what I know best creates the compulsion that famous authors talk about, the kind that makes you scribble on rolls of toilet paper in public restrooms when you are supposed to be in a meeting instead!
I’ve always been an enthusiastic reader of diasporic literature. I studied post colonial Literature at the graduate level and read many accounts where writers from diverse backgrounds united in their deep longing for their home. These writers might have been away from their homes for a few years or for generations but the home is almost always a character in itself that lingers through their works. I believe all good writing stems from some sort of longing, a longing to give words to dormant emotions, to create an image for unspoken desires or it is the deep desire to lock down a memory into the tangible clasp of a fist.
One does not have to read purely diasporic accounts to feel nostalgic, some times literature belonging to any time period, space, character or era can remind us of our own longing for home. I always see the image of my home city Bombay in literary fiction that I read. I compare the simplicity and kindness of Gaborone and its people from Alexander McCall Smith’s novel – The No. 1 ladies’ detective agency to the Bombay I grew up in; the Dickensian London of crime and poverty is also my Bombay. The changing Bombay in the gnaws of greed from Arvind Adiga’s Last man in Tower is unapologetically my Bombay too. Different shades of my Bombay are depicted in their various colors in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Sidharth Shanghvi’s The Last song of dusk and is depicted as Rohinton Mistry’s City by the Sea.
As a woman reading about women from all over the world within the realms of diasporic fiction, I identify so much with what it is to be a woman away from her homeland. Integrating into a new culture with its own set of gender roles while grappling with my own set of social constructs was very interesting and challenging. Jhumpa Lahiri captures it very precisely in her poignant work Namesake, where Ashima tries to find her identity in a new place without losing the core of her being. Monica Ali’s Brick Lane also deals with the utter isolation and the sensory overload of adapting to a new place while being expected to assimilate. In Amy Tan’s works, the characters have adapted, but continue to feel a sense of loss through their children’s lives.
A sense of home captures nostalgia for a place that was once home. Whether it is just the passing of time, or political, social or geographical changes that have changed the home, it becomes a place that can never be the same again. Sometimes what we experience in life changes us to such an extent that home is never the same when we go back. Other times, the joy of the imagined home is more glorious and more healing than the real home.
When the writer Rohinton Mistry was once asked if he would ever move back to his Bombay, he replied that he could not because it would feel like a whole new migration. He was also asked if his books would ever be set in Canada where he has lived now for forty plus years now and he said he wants to, but Bombay keeps getting in the way! Yes, that damn Bombay! Is it a rock on my chest or a distant dream? No it is the indelible imprint of a lover deep within my soul!
Preeti Hay is freelance writer. She grew up in Mumbai, India and has a Masters degree in Post Colonial Literature and a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She has written for major publications in India including The Times of India, Hindustan Times and DNA India. She is passionate about creative writing and is currently working on her first novel.