Saturday, December 24, 2005

Yes, but where is the heart?

People ask him if he's going somewhere for the holidays and he says, "Yes, I'm going back to India, actually", adding "for three weeks" if he wants to keep the conversation going. He would like to say he's going home, but something about putting it that way, saying 'home', makes him squeamish. The word tastes wrong somehow, like too-sticky candy.

What is home anyway? How do we define it, locate it, pin-point it on a map? The OED says: A dwelling-place, house, abode; the fixed residence of a family or household; the seat of domestic life and interests; one's own house; the dwelling in which one habitually lives, or which one regards as one's proper abode. Trust a dictionary to say everything without telling you anything. What if you don't live with your family, what if nothing in your life is fixed and you survive from one nine-month lease to another? What if you have no domestic interests? And what the hell is one's proper abode? Come to think of it, who even says abode anymore, except the people who translate B-grade Kung Fu movies?

Is home where the people most dear to you live? Then, yes, he is going home. Or is home the place where you live yourself, the place you are most comfortable in, the place that all the activities that matter to you are centred around? Then no, he is not going home, he is, in fact, leaving home and going back to a country that he will wear awkwardly at best, like a coat two sizes too small, his shoulders hunched into a shape that is no longer his. Or is home merely another name for a remembered childhood, the places you are nostalgic for, the city and the locality you grew up in, its markets and monuments and streets? If the quest for home is merely to follow the spoor of a wounded memory back through the undergrowth of time, then surely the search ends only in the womb. But no, even by that definition he is not going home, because in the time he has been away the world has changed - people have shifted, old buildings have been torn down and new ones put up in their place - home, like the river, is never the same.

"Home, where my thought’s escaping / Home, where my music’s playing / Home, where my love lies waiting / Silently for me". How many of those criteria does a place have to meet before you can call it home? What if each one of those places is a different place - is it possible to have multiple homes? And how is it possible to be both on vacation and at home at the same time? When did home become a tourist destination?

What was it Tennyson said? "all hath suffer'd change:/ For surely now our household hearths are cold, / Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:/ And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy". He wonders idly what a lotus tastes like.

Home is the place you belong in. The formula offers itself eagerly, shouting its message at him like an urchin with a newspaper. Belong in, belong to. For a moment he is tempted, then he shakes his head. No, that would just begin the cycle over again. One would have to ask: where do I belong? Who do I belong to? And the same doubts, the same questions would raise their heads. Besides, he does not want to 'belong', he wants only to own. He does not really desire to be loved or protected or advised - he sees these things at best as minor inconveniences and at worst as insults - he wants only to love, to protect, to advise. The inconsistency of this stand does not escape him, but it comes back, in his head, to the idea of virtue. If caring for others is a virtue, then surely by caring more for them then they care for us, by being more virtuous than them (is God a relativist, he wonders, does he grade on a bell curve?) we do them a disservice. These are weighty matters.

How do other people do it? How do other people say words like home and love and good and wrong and happiness so blithely, never pausing (it seems to him) to think exactly what it is they mean. Can it be true that the unexamined life is the only truly happy one, that life itself is the one gift horse you should never look in the mouth?

Where is home for him?

What if there isn't one? What if home is only an idea in his head, a fantasy, the colour of grass on the other side of the fence. What if home is truly a mythic place, like Neverland, or Narnia, or Oz. Yes, like Oz. What if Kansas no longer exists and at the end of all these sunlit roads there is no 'whiz of a wizard' but only a wrinkled and ineffectual old man? Does he really need a home? If homesickness is only a kind of gravity then surely there is some velocity at which it is possible to escape it, to leave it behind forever. Can he not find that velocity?

Ships need anchors. The phrase hangs dripping in the air above him. Do they really? What happens to a ship that simply stays in deep waters, is it possible to survive only on stars, on directions? Is it possible to make the ship your world, or to build the world on your ship? Why this fondness for maritime metaphors anyway? Does that itself not betray a certain restlessness? Ships need anchors, yes, but they need anchors that they can retract easily into their own bodies, that they can carry away with them when the leave. An anchor left behind is no use to a ship.

If the longing for home is a kind of gravity, he thinks, then perhaps we are its satellites, falling always towards it without getting any closer. The image pleases him, because it suggests both loss and loneliness of being apart and the ferocious maintenance of one's own identity - forces centripetal and centrifugal.

Very well then. Yes, he is going home. He is just not sure that he will get there.


The Black Mamba said...

Reminds me of Ignorance, by Kundera. Where every 'stranger' you meet is trying to come up with a version of you, after having left you behind years back. Each interrogating you and putting (their version of) you back together, limb by limb.

Seeing each build a new version, of you for them to remember, until the next time, is painful.

Falstaff said...

BM: Interesting. Hadn't thought about that. though on the whole I'd go the other way. What's really painful to me is:

a) That people don't bother to build a new version of you, but just start off from where you were the last time they met you. That's really hard because in the years that have passed so much has changed in your life that you almost wish you could wipe the slate clean and meet as strangers. It's like people who will insist on talking about other people you both used to know back in school / college for instance - people you have no interest in any more and haven't thought about for years and wish you could just say so without seeming rude or self-centred.

Oh, the other painful thing, of course, is doing this reconstruction of other people - especially because more often than not your memories of them will have made them more special than they really are, so that when you finally get the new picture done you'll compare it to what you remembered and be disappointed.

Oh well. On the other hand, at least you'll get home-cooked food. Yaay!

Ash said...

I'm 'home' for the holidays. nad finding it very wierd.

Which is why I loved your post. You put words to the confusion within me.

I liked the image of us as satellites. I think that comes closest to the way I feel ...

Nitin said...


While your post is very articulate and well-written, my own astute observations during a period of hectic international travel is this:

Home is where you put your underwear out to dry.

Falstaff said...

Ash: Thanks.

Nitin: :-).

Arun said...

Lovely post. made me want to define 'my home' for myself. Thank you!

?! said...

Tis the holiday season with much syrupy sentimentality around. Wrong time for me to reading such posts. Causes disquiet and revisiting of lines written when one writing was more of a spilling over of excess emotion than measured expression.

" Home is where there is a soul/ silently grieving with a me shaped hole"

Home is where somebody misses you when you are not there.

Anonymous said...

That's a great story. Waiting for more. » » »