Talk

Home’s where only my heart is

Omair Ahmad | Updated on March 20, 2020 Published on March 19, 2020

A matter of time: Unlike humans, most birds and animals build only temporary homes or nests   -  THE HINDU/KK MUSTAFAH

By holding on to houses and lands and barring the entry of fellow beings, we have alienated the world from ourselves

Over the years it has become increasingly difficult for me to identify what “home” is, what it means to claim a piece of land as one’s own. I trace my roots to two towns in two different parts of Uttar Pradesh. In the east lies Gorakhpur, my father’s home town, near the border with Nepal and Bihar. Banda in the south — in Bundelkhand — was where my mother was from. I haven’t spent much time in either of the two places. I experienced them mostly through vacations spent in the company of cousins, and a few years of school in Gorakhpur.

Most of my working life — as was the case with my father, and his father before him — has been spent outside “home”. We went where our jobs took us, and made temporary homes where we could. Currently, I spend most of the year in a rented apartment in Delhi. The time I spend in Gorakhpur adds up to less than a month in a year; my Banda visits are even shorter. Yet, the paths in both these places still seem more familiar. The room I slept in is musty and too many things need to be fixed in the few days I get, but it still feels like home.

Over the last few months, an idea — that of the caves we keep returning to — has been playing in my head. I think the recent sectarian violence in Delhi has brought it to the fore. The images of people huddled in temporary shelters, having lost their homes, have been haunting me. It makes me think of how strange it is that we claim to own places, put them under lock-and-key, and yet not spend enough time in them.

There is a young man who lives in the neighbourhood of my Gorakhpur house. He is a differently abled person known to the families in the area. We try to accommodate him in our own ways, without fussing over his mental condition. Some years ago, this man took a sudden fascination to a certain area of our house. He would walk up the stairs and plant himself in a corner. It was a little disconcerting in the beginning, to suddenly find someone in a place that was not his really. And it was impossible to explain the concept to him. It made my family uneasy and his, a tad embarrassed.

Every time we put a lock on the door, the lad would smash it with brick or stone. The boundaries drawn by society had no meaning for him. He just liked being there for reasons unknown to us. I thought maybe he found solace in the house that had grown quieter over the years — just like wild animals that like to burrow in abandoned places. We could not question him; he could not explain.

In the end we solved the problem by putting a tiny lock on the door that was hard to break. It stopped the unwanted entry that was causing anxiety. I haven’t stopped thinking about the man. Was it the right thing to do? In a way, yes; you cannot have people traipsing in and out of houses. Yet, this perfectly reasonable idea made no sense to his innocent mind.

The cats that live near our apartment — cared for by our neighbour and my wife — remind me of the man. The cats aren’t really pets; they walk in whenever the doors to the terrace are open and they make themselves at home in a building whose divisions they neither understand nor respect. As long as they don’t dirty the house, we don’t mind their presence. But we won’t extend this courtesy to a human being.

By placing boundaries, by calling patches of land our own — our exclusive homes — we have made ourselves strangers to the world and vice versa. Very few animals do what we do. Most of them build only temporary homes or nests, in which they birth and raise their young. Tigers do not share territory with tigers, but they will still wander, and migratory birds fly thousands of miles only to spend winter elsewhere. We humans, though, live far away for years, seal our caves so that no other can use it, and call it home. It makes me wonder if home is where the heart is, or where no other heart is allowed.

 

Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas;

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

Published on March 19, 2020
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