Whether you plod through Barack Obama’s 751-page political memoir The Promised Land (burnished with glossy photos) or enthuse through Annie Zaidi’s 159-page personal memoir Bread, Cement, Cactus (replete with line drawings), you will be rewarded with these three paradoxes:
- Home is away;
- Insiders are outsiders; and
- To be vulnerable is to be powerful.
Given that few of us will ever make the White House our home, let’s give Obama a fleeting glance and dedicate our attention to this précis of Zaidi’s award-winning (Cambridge University’s Nine Dots Prize) thesis on belonging and dislocation. But first, let’s open where both authors end, with their metaphors of home: Zaidi likens it to a morning mist, and Obama references an evening commute.
After having visited the SEAL team and pilots who were involved in killing Osama Bin Laden, Obama returns to his home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. From the perch of Marine One, on his way to the West Wing, Obama writes: “The helicopter began its gentle turn, due north across the Mall. The Washington Monument suddenly materialized on one side, seeming almost close enough to touch; on the other side, I could see the seated figure of Lincoln … I looked down at the street below, still thick with rush-hour traffic – fellow commuters, I thought, anxious to get home.” Even after a decade in Washington D. C., the Hawaiian remains on an island with two dead presidents and “fellow commuters” to keep him company; when he speaks of home in The Promised Land, it is with the lonely voice of someone doing the job of a former president. The White House for him was his Karm Bhoomi, his place of work. A house that slaves built could never be a home for Obama and his family to fully inhabit.
Zaidi aches for a different kind of home, a place where one truly belongs, one’s Janm Bhoomi, one’s birth home; this is the mitti, or soil, that you breathe in after you’ve moved elsewhere and the earthy scent after a rain reminds you of home; this is the soil where your body or ashes might return after death. In that home, you are never away, no matter which diaspora you are part of; in that home, you are always welcome as an insider, no matter the superficial outsiderness of your being; in that home, you feel powerful in your vulnerability, like a baby in her mother’s lap. You are loyal to your land of birth; and that land is loyal to you.
But, as Zaidi eloquently writes, “For a person to give her loyalty to the land, to trust those who create and enforce laws, safety is a prerequisite. One essential aspect to this illusion is familiarity: systems functioning as we expect them to, people talking in tongues we understand.”
Zaidi begins her memoir in Rajasthan, my own ancestral home. She weaves in words from people talking in tongues that are slipping away from my family now that almost all of us have left our desert origins: mitti, colony, Aravalli, Sirohi, tribal, Garasia, Rabadi, Bhil, Mt. Abu, bigha, panchayat, thikana, odni, gur, imarti, mofussil, nanihal, mulk, vatan, zameen, ghar. And that’s just in the first 25 pages. The list grows as the pages flow. I feel at home reading these words naturally inserted into the serious text; underneath the political writing, there’s a leavening of sentimentality that is neither mawkish nor falsely nostalgic of better times that probably never existed. Instead, Zaidi simply acknowledges the challenge of rediscovering home once it is lost.
Zaidi’s professional life takes her to Karm Bhoomis such as Bombay, Delhi, and Gujarat. There is a sad episode in Gujarat after the 2002 riots, alternatively called the 2002 Gujarat violence and the Gujarat pogrom; Zaidi prefers calling the inter-communal violence a pogrom. As so often is the case in India, there is both a domino effect and dissemblance as part of the political play that proves tragic for ordinary people. The riots in Gujarat began with the psychological violence associated with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya; it proceeded to the Godhra railway station where a fire of disputed origin engulfed four coaches and took the lives of 58 Hindu pilgrims returning from their pilgrimage to Ayodhya; the political conflagration grew across then Chief Minister Modi’s Gujarat as Hindu stalwarts claimed that the fire was instigated by Pakistan’s intelligence agency aided and abetted by local Muslims; and then suddenly a violent tragedy of numbing numbers struck Gujarat, home once to M. K. Gandhi, the apostle of nonviolence:
- 200 police officers dead while trying to control the violence;
- 230 mosques and 274 dargahs destroyed by the violent;
- 1,044 dead, of which 790 were Muslim and 254 Hindu;
- 150,000 people displaced during the violence; and
- Countless acts of heroism committed by Hindus, Dalits and tribals who tried to protect Muslims from the violence.
Rather than retelling this oft-told story, Zaidi reports on her own reportage. While in Gujarat, she became self-conscious of the tabeez her grandmother had gifted her. Because the amulet was “inscribed with a verse from the Quran … with a subtle gesture, I tucked it out of sight, lest the script give me away as one of ‘those people.’ People who had been shown their place. People whose homes had been burnt down. Women who had been raped.” After years of putting the tabeez away out of fear, and years of resultant shame, Zaidi began wearing it again visibly. “Because, as much as home is a place of safety, it is also a place where you are visible.”
Perhaps for Zaidi, her writing is a similar amulet, affording her paper-bound protection against evil, danger, and the disease of religious intolerance. Since my college days, I have dedicated much of my reading and writing to reclaiming India; this has been my way of belonging to a house that my ancestors built. I claim a birthright to all parts of India, and in my dozens of trips back home, I’ve always felt welcome in all parts of my matra bhoomi, my motherland. However, Mother India is not as welcoming to all of her children and grandchildren.
I have two friends who have experienced the welcome mat being obstructed for one spouse, but not the other. Both are educators: one born in India to a Hindu father and a Muslim mother; the other born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents who at Partition moved from India to Pakistan. The latter is unlikely to get a visa to visit India … even though both parents were born in the same India as mine.
I feel both outraged and sad: outraged that government policy poisoned by religious intolerance has made my house of belonging too small for my friends; sad that the India that I’ve spent decades reclaiming is slipping away from me.
When I was much younger, I would feel a tinge of shame when swimming in public. The source of the shame? My sacred thread. Shame was a childish response to the low risk of American xenophobes targeting this symbol of my otherness, my Brahminical ancestry. I can empathize with, but can’t fully imagine, what it would be like to live in my country of birth (or my adopted land) and feel fear of wearing my version of Zaidi’s tabeez. Perhaps I am not brave enough to let my imagination tread such dangerous waters.
Zaidi’s brave book has many memorable quotes about home. Here are three that remind me that from the land of our birth to the abode of our love to our final resting place we all look for a place we can call home:
“Zameen … has dual connotations. It means land, but also a certain psychological environment. It is soil, mood, air, culture … You make it as much as you need it to make yourself.”
“Home, they say, is where the heart is. If home is a location of love, then in my country, home is a guilty secret.”
“Home is where others come looking for you, in life and after.”
The last pages of Bread, Cement, Cactus close with Zaidi’s misty metaphor: “Sometimes I think of home as morning mist. I see it as wispy strands engulfing around me. I feel its cool fingers on my face, but it is beyond my grasp.” She then proceeds to list the “moving picture” of her life that she evoked in the previous 140 pages. Then, suddenly, she writes, “Like mist, these things disappear. Rivers and hills too may disappear within my own lifetime. But like a train of thought, like a film of moving images, something of home remains within.”
Subsequent to Independence in 1947, Indians like me were born into a promising land that was their own. Over the past three-quarters of a century, many, like Annie Zaidi, have worked to have India deliver on its promissory note of a pluralist democracy. If that proves to be elusive, then perhaps the only option remaining to us romantics is to return to our promised land after our final breath.
For RCO’s granddaughter Eshni and her parents as they make a house their home.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza, is a Change Management Consultant working with clients across the world; he also facilitates the development of MBA students’ interpersonal dynamics at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.