Josna Rege

278. Going Back, Coming Home

In 2010s, Family, Food, India, Inter/Transnational, people, places, postcolonial, Stories, travel, United States, Words & phrases, Work on July 8, 2014 at 1:44 pm

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Even though I have lived in the United States for more than forty-four years, when it has been more than a few years since I last managed to get back to India and England I always start to go a little crazy. Crazy as in scattered, ungrounded, unsure of the rightness of my feelings and responses. Of necessity, my return visits to the countries of my birth and childhood have been irregular and infrequent (by my best count, thirteen to England and only six to India), so I can’t pretend that I am meaningfully part of the everyday lives of my friends and relatives there. And yet I still feel a strong need to reconnect as often as I can, to recalibrate my life, cool my fevered brow, take the pulse of people and places dear to me, and return home on a firmer footing, with renewed clarity and sense of purpose.

Coming home has the effect, albeit short-lived, of turning me into a model housewife. On Sunday morning, as my father settled down to watch Wimbledon’s nail-biting Men’s Final, I set about preparing that favorite Maharashtrian breakfast specialty, poha. It was in the States, not in India, that I first learned how to make poha, but a month of loving aunts and cousins in India cooking for me and waiting on me hand and foot inspired me to make it myself for the first time in many moons—duly garnished with wedges of lime, shredded coconut, and fresh coriander leaves. Before I get swept up again in the frantic pace of life, I will take pleasure in preparing slow food, in grating ginger, chopping fresh cilantro, sitting under the fan on the front porch, enjoying a second, then a third, cup of tea.

Of course, coming home also returns me to my habitual sloth. For the last five consecutive nights since I have returned from India I have settled down to watch a British TV serial and nodded off mid-stream, waking past midnight only to totter upstairs to bed. After nearly a week I have only just begun to unpack the suitcases and to make a dent in the stack of unpaid bills. I haven’t even dared to open my work email account for fear of what I’ll find, but must face it soon, before inertia takes hold (see TMA 19, Lively Up Yourself).

If you asked me to discourse on the concept of Home you’d be in for a long bout of fairly predictable philosophizing—how postcoloniality and diaspora, conditions of multiple displacements wherein there is no fixed Center, make Home unheimliche (uncanny; lit. un-homely); and so on—you get the idea. But after a month away—despite the stack of unpaid bills, the terrifyingly overgrown garden, the un-done To Do list that stretches right through to Labor Day and beyond—actually coming home is a blessed relief. A mess, no doubt, but it’s my mess, mine to address, mine to redress. Simple household tasks, like sweeping the floor, emptying the compost bucket, washing my new Indian salwar-kameezes by hand and hanging them out to dry, take on a sacred quality that makes me warble Home Sweet Home, cliché-ridden as it is, entirely without irony. (Or almost entirely: it is impossible to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved without developing a whole new perspective on Sweet Home, which, in that novel, “wasn’t sweet, and . . . sure wasn’t home.”)

As much as I was inspired by my cousins’ and aunts’ cooking (and I’m still re-living that tall, cold glass of panha (thank you, Yashodhara), that succession of wholesome, wholly satisfying lunches, that perfect Sunday roast (thank you, Neil)), it was our conversations that are helping to guide me upon my return, and my observations of their life choices and how they have been following them through. My generation, many now entering their sixties, and even members of my father’s generation in their seventies and eighties, were looking after elderly relatives and energetic grandchildren with both love and frustration; nurturing relationships with their adult children in which they continued to give them their loving support while respecting their independence; pursuing new interests and aspirations as retirement approached; facing their own health challenges with fortitude; and finding the inner resources to grapple with change and loss. Both generations were finding ways to hold on to what mattered to them and letting go of what they didn’t need and to make their way in a rapidly-changing society without losing touch with their most deeply-held values. They showed me the spirit of service without martyrdom, of balancing battle in the world with a quiet center, of developing household routines that made their homes abodes of peace. And I have carried these shared experiences home with me to help me face my own choices and challenges.

All too soon the rosy soft-focus surrounding this old house will dissipate, exposing the cobwebs and dust bunnies to the cold light of day. But for now, I see the ordinary in a new light. While hand-washing my clothes still feels like a hallowed ritual, while emptying the compost bucket elevates me to ecological glory, while my once-tedious workaday routine feels so right, let me celebrate the love, the labor, and all the tangled threads of my life, past and present, that have led me to claim this particular place, be it ever so humble, as Home. If you want an inventory of my life, it can all be found here. Put down the clutter to having too many roots,” as Salman Rushdie has termed it. But if this is the postcolonial condition, I don’t want a cure.

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  1. Beautiful! I can so identify with this and I’m sort of envious that you’ve settled down so well now back home.

    • Thank you, and I’m glad you share some of the same responses to this “going home and coming come.” Not sure how well I’ve settled back in, though. Will have to keep you posted on that one!

  2. dearest, glad to hear you are safely back in the valley, and enjoying. YOU and YOUR particular home being, i know, as sweet as ever.hoping to connect soon, bine

    • Thank you, bine, I’ve been thinking of you, wondering how you are, remembering how inspiring your home and your routine were, and starting to reflect on the inner journey of the last three (only three!) months. Take care, be well, and let’s reconnect as soon as. x J

  3. Lovely, Josna! I think it’s only just when we return home that we can so deeply appreciate and celebrate what it means, the everyday details, who we are.

    Welcome home!

    Karen

    • Thank you, Karen! it’s lovely to be home after two separate months of traveling in the past three. There were many occasions over the last month in India that I remembered your wise and affirming words about allowing myself to be the person I was, however complicated and contradictory. Hope you’re enjoying your summer and are able to make sure that you have some much-needed downtime. x J

  4. Bless you! Neil will be delighted to get the mention! Next time you visit I am going to request you cook for us, if time allows of course or if indeed we get to you. Hugs and love xxxx

    • There’s no “if” there, Lesley! I would love to cook for you or cook together, whether here or there. Would be lovely if you could get here. And that golden Sunday with you was a high point of my trip. Hugs, J xxx

  5. The title of this post reminded me of the sections in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines. Intentional? 🙂

    • Hello Shounak! Actually, not (at least, not consciously so); but having taken the book out again to look at the division of “Going Away” and “Coming Home,” I see that how brilliantly Amitav Ghosh has complicated both categories in The Shadow Lines. Both sections are set in both Calcutta and London, the second demonstrates how radically divided “Home” is, and in both that act of going and coming takes place in memory and imagination as well as in actuality.
      In my case, I rejected “Going Home, Coming Home” for this less elegant but more honest one, in which I implicitly acknowledge (though not without a pang) that at this point only this, only here, however emotionally fraught, is Home.

  6. You sound deeply fulfilled. And as the saying goes: Home is where the Heart is.

    • Yes, Anna, I am so glad I was able to take trips to both England and India this Spring-Summer. It’s been such a whirlwind, though, that I’m only now starting to reflect on it all. Good to be home. x J

  7. I can identify Josna. Having my roots in European culture, whenever I come back to my home in Africa I feel a strong sense of dissonance. It’s not always easy to deal with but it presents challenges which stretch me. Thanks for such a good post.

    • Thank you for this comment, Don. I definitely wrote the story while I was still feeling misty-eyed about both coming home and the loving family I had just been with in India and earlier, in England. I didn’t entertain any thoughts of cultural dissonance, which are certainly there to be explored. Yes, you’re right that it “stretches” you to deal with the cultural differences in the way you live your life. I am often faced with weighing choices that would be seen differently in the U.S. and in my different cultures/societies of origin. Sometimes I vacillate, not trusting my own instincts; at other times I draw strength from one or another of my home cultures or from the values I was raised with, that were themselves culturally hybrid.

      • Yes, I can so identify with that vacillation you describe so well. Josna.Thank you for sharing this experience. I find it very affirming.

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