It’s that time of year again. The Chinese New Year break is around the corner and, for us, that means a trip back to Delhi. My son is so excited, he is counting down the days in a way that brings back memories of the time I served in an Indian boarding school. DLTGH, we used to call it: “days left to go home”.

I’m torn between being charmed at how obviously he so misses an earlier part of his life, and exasperation. He’s settled well into this new world by now. He knows Beijing’s ways. As a family, we’ve invested in that process. Yet that distant Delhi, which is so firmly in my rear-view mirror, is very much part of his day-to-day world.

At almost-10, he’s an articulate soul. He tells me he must be from somewhere. He was born in Delhi, had his first years there.

Isn’t Delhi home?

If only it were that simple.

I was born in Punjab, grew to early boyhood in Delhi, saw my first school there go up in smoke in 1984. Delhi ceased to be a comfort fairly early in my life.

I was happy in boarding school. Yet, the “Home” in DLTGH was always Delhi. That’s where my family was, along with my bedroom and dog and friends happy to see me in the park. I didn’t really care for Delhi, but I had such memories there.

In time I’d grow to recognise this as a sign of growing up. That you don’t have to love every part of a person, a thing, a place — it’s perfectly reasonable, even advisable, to cherry-pick the best bits and ignore the dross. But Delhi’s myriad unpleasantnesses grew less and less easy to evade as I grew older. By the time I was an undergraduate abroad and manufacturing excuses not to come back, I knew the cord was cut. My parents came out to see me. I was happy with that.

Home, I’d say glibly, was wherever I was, where I had my friends, my life. Whoever said that you had to be from only one place?

One of the features of Chinese New Year is the huge internal migration that takes place. This is a time when people all over China, indeed the whole diaspora, get on any transport at hand and travel vast distances to be with their families in their “native places”. Certain dishes are cooked on special days, plans are made, crackers set off. Ties are renewed to people you normally only see on a phone’s screen, to hearths that have long ceased to warm your particular self.

It is a time of homecoming (or home-going, if you prefer). Which means that a city like Beijing — packed full of migrants in every social strata — looks like a ghost town for the duration of the festival, because everyone is gone. Imagine a monocultural Delhi, where everyone goes home for the holidays at the same time. Can’t? Neither can I.

But Delhi isn’t just a magnet for “voluntary” migration, if there was ever such a thing. So many of its inhabitants are refugees. Where will the Punjabis go, the East Bengalis, the Tibetans and the Kashmiris; all those whose homes are now at the bottom of reservoirs so the rest of us can have power and water and the other accoutrements of “better” lives?

Where do you go, when the only home you have is that difficult city?

Beijing is a difficult city too, of course. I’m just insulated from its harsher realities. There are plenty of people here scrabbling a living, their presence, at best, tolerated. Their children aren’t eligible to be schooled here. They live subject to summary ejection. Yet they, like their peers around the world, like moths to a bigger place’s flame, have made this city their home, even though they’re tethered to it by the most slender of threads.

What a relief it must be to them that they can actually go back “home” once a year. To be refreshed, to begin again.

Which is what a New Year should be for.

A formula for a child’s homesickness, well-known to those who move away with young families: “Home is wherever you are. Our family. This is home.”

My son knows this to be true. He has his dog, his own room, friends who wait for him outside the house when it’s time to play. Our little corner of Beijing has been colonised by him and filled with memories that he takes with him even when he’s with old friends in Delhi.

He tells me that he misses all his homes. In Delhi, with his maternal grandmother in the US, in Beijing. Perceptive as he is, he knows without my telling him how lucky he is to have a plurality of places where he is welcome, and missed when he’s away. As am I, lucky beyond price to have left places behind that I can return to, and leave anew when they pall.

To leave voluntarily is more and more a luxury in our desperate moment, in this fissured world. So spare a thought this New Year, for those who have nowhere left to go.

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Avtar Singh


Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing