The idea of home

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

Eli, a settlement of some 4,000 Israelis spread across six hilltops amid Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.

Eli, a settlement of some 4,000 Israelis spread across six hilltops amid Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.

Ask the children

where their home is,

and they point to the sky

as if their home was up among

the clouds that never rain,

as of it was lightning, mute,

bereft of the voice of thunder…

Trees drive us mad; we take

One branch for the drawing room,

Another for the bed.

We try to read the wind's prophecy

On the scorching desert.

WHILE writing these lines following a visit to the West Asia in 2004 in a poem— We Sing from the Ruins in the sequence The Arabian Nights —addressed to the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, I had in mind that searing sense of homelessness that can fill a people with impotent anger and indignant anguish at the same time. I recalled these lines and my own many poems on the theme of home and homelessness while going through Githa Hariharan’s take on Palestine in Almost Home: Cities and Other Places , a fascinating book that transcends conventional genre divisions and combines several elements: of memoir, travelogue, history, philosophy and fiction. What in a journalist’s hands might just have been reportage turns in the hands of this creative writer into a well-conceived, layered narrative, a work of excellent prose.

The book takes us to a variety of places with diverse histories and cultures—from Hampi, Ooty, Bangalore, Madras, Delhi, Bombay and Kashmir to Manila, Tokyo, New York, Washington, Algeria, Palestine, Cordoba and Copenhagen, places whose past and present have profoundly impacted and engaged the author in different ways. These are also journeys in time as we are at times taken to, say, Vijayanagar of the 16th century, Andalus around the 11th, or Granada around the 12th. Recorded historical facts and unrecorded legends get intertwined to produce a unique text, whose texture we will never know comes from where, from the idiom that varies from the intensely lyrical to the factually objective or from a heady mixture of aptly-quoted passages of poetry and ably narrated stories or again from the dizzying passages from one period and one place to another period and another place.

The epigraph to the book, a passage from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities , holds the key to its structure: “Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.” The method is not very different from that of realist fiction that chooses certain elements from reality and reassembles them in creative and imaginative ways so that the work remains rooted in reality but works as fiction. Githa does the same with her experience of travelling to or living in the cities she describes: she reconstructs them, using elements of memory, history and personal experience. The many interesting people she recalls work like characters that reinforce the semi-fictional form along with the fabulous narrative episodes that illuminate the contexts.

Politics of the text No less important is the politics of the text: the author looks at places and histories from the victim’s point of view, that of the vanquished, the marginalised, the invisibilised: the poor woman, the slum-dweller, the homeless tribal person, the displaced worker, the deprived minority. This subaltern gaze transfigures the cities and villages she describes into spaces of suffering and, naturally, of resistance. The victor and the coloniser, those writers of history, lose their positions of prominence as their hegemonising narratives get destabilised. The Western idea of the all-powerful and aggressive nation state, too, is subjected to interrogation, as in the section on Kashmir. The world is shown to be what it is: a space where people battle for day-to-day survival and grope for homes amidst conflicting ideas and civilisations, warring nations and the overt and covert attempts at colonisation by the dominant nations and cultures. Githa shows how the word home, so casually used in everyday conversation, represents a shifting, semantically uncertain and politically ill-defined concept and how under its placid surface lie the turbulent tales of lost and broken homes, homes that at times exist only in memory or dream, homes fervently sought and seldom won, destined to inhabit sighs and tears.

Look, for example, at the way Palestine is evoked in the book: “Seeing Palestine—what is seen in Palestine—has, for hundreds of years, depended on what the beholders are looking for; on the burden of their beliefs, the depth of their wishes to map the place afresh, the sweep of their imagination. Given the variety of beholders, Palestine has been invented time and again. Most of these inventions have been exercises in imposing a sacred landscape on a real one. The holy land and the holy book have been read together: ‘Palestine is one vast table whereupon God’s messages have been drawn, and graven deep in living characters by the Great Publisher’ (William Thomson: The Land and the Book ).”

Palestine is seen in the early part of this chapter (“Seeing Palestine”) through the eyes of Raja Shehadeh, a lawyer, walker and writer—the author of Palestinian Walks who “has made it his business to know every wild flower and weed, every spring and stone ruin he comes across in his wanderings in the hills and valleys of Palestine”. Traveller Edward Robinson reported in 1833 that he saw it as “the city where God of old had dwelt”. He saw the cherished scenes of his childhood in Palestine and had no doubt he had always known them like his own home. Reverend Andrew Thomson however confessed to a temporary feeling of disappointment when he actually visited Jerusalem and saw Jacob’s Well, now an open spot covered with large stones, in 1869. This was no “shining city on the hill” and did not in any way correspond to the pictures he had seen in the illustrated Bible, though that did not deter him from imagining that “on this very spot Jesus had sat and conversed”. People like him could only imagine the place had been defaced as they had interpreted a religious text as real history and even real geography. To Mark Twain it was “a hopeless, dreary heartbroken land” and Melville was quick to agree that the country would fast dissipate all the romantic expectations about Palestine, especially Jerusalem —though they both found that the evangelists of various creeds had entered the country with their verdicts already prepared, making objectivity impossible. These vicarious journeys of the imagination evoked a mixture of awe, delight and disappointment in the travellers. Photographs animated old buildings, while what the photos lacked was compensated amply by paintings that would distort the truth to satisfy the imagination of the visitors fired by the Bible. The land now only needed “people”; and the place acquired new geopolitical significance, with trade routes to India, its vitality doubled after the completion of the Suez Canal. The question in 1948 was what to do with the people who were already there. The easiest thing was to ignore them, not to see them at all, imagine the land as deserted, laid waste. “There are no Palestinians”, as Golda Meir would announce later. The “people” to fill the arid landscape could only have been the Jewish people who had been away from home for three thousand years, forcing Edward Said to ask about the people who were already there, dismissed as a bunch of irrelevant “Arabs”: “Do we exist? What proof do we have? The further we get from the Palestine of our past, the more precarious our status, the more disrupted our being, the more intermittent our presence.” ( The Politics of Dispossession, The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994. )

Facts on the ground The author visited Palestine in 2013, meeting writers, academics and activists. And she found how Israel has been systematically building “facts on the ground” in the form of settlements built in concrete and steel over every possible hilltop they had been forcibly occupied, making the visitor feel she was inside the Matrix. They had dislocated villages, gouged out hills, stolen springs, uprooted trees, demolished houses, destroyed the lives of communities who had been living there for centuries, their work, their memories, their hopes.

They built barriers and walls, making it impossible for the native people even to go out, turning their homes into prisons, building houses on the terraces of the houses whose owners would not yield to temptations and threats, placing guard-cabins and surveillance cameras to make them secure. At times markets and public places are sliced and shredded.

Land-grabbing is the order of the day and the settlers resort to any mean method to drive out the natives. Githa substantiates these facts with moving personal anecdotes from Khalid, Abu Nidal, Omar and Muneer.

The chapter ends with a discussion of the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine—with whom I had the fortune to read poetry in France and whose poetry I translated into Malayalam—who famously wrote: “Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time/Close to the gardens of broken shadows,/We do what the prisoners do/And the jobless do:/We cultivate hope.”

Of cities and belonging The basic question the author asks herself and tries to respond to is: “What do you do with a person who can’t decide on her native place? What if she is a natural or naturalised hybrid? A person with too many cities in her life, a person burdened and enriched by too many native places?” She does not have a single and final answer to the question, “Which city are you from?” It could be Bombay, Manila, New York, Madras, Bangalore, Delhi or just a composite city of visible, remembered and imagined cities. Initially she belonged not to a city, but to Perinkolam, a village in Palakkad in Kerala. Up to the age of eight she was Perinkolam Hariharan Githa, a student in a Tamil medium school, her name mapped geographically and patrilineally. Then the family moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), which she recalls as different localities rather than as a single city. To be in Napean Sea Road meant mingling with speakers of Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati, all of them ruled by Indian English, to practise what they imagined was English but was not understood by anyone other than her sister who shared the same guttural speech and then to know that English proper was a less exciting and more exacting tongue than theirs. Then there were the problems most South Indians share when they grow up and fill in forms of all kinds, of the first name and the surname. And once she had a surname, English followed meekly, as the twins have been sired by none other than the great Macaulay, our White, unnameable, granddad.

Manila followed, adding Spanish and Tagalog to “the pungent kichdi of Tamil, English, Marathi, Hindi and ‘French’”, besides teaching the schoolgirl the steps of the tarantella and the French minuet and initiating her into the complex world of Thomas Aquinas and the nuns’ idea of virtues and vices. In Manila she learnt she was “Indian” as she was asked to explain the caste system and the transmigration of souls. (Nothing is as universal as the cliché: when I visited, along with a woman writer, a school in Stockholm some years ago, she was asked to speak about arranged marriages and explain the sindoor on her forehead and I was asked about elephants and the caste system.) But she also learnt about the life of the upper classes and the politics of Christian radicalism that opposed the corrupt and authoritarian Marcos regime.

Moving from Manila to Mount Road, Madras (now Chennai), meant to be fed with music and to get drunk on coffee, though getting a place on rent was hard for a single woman unless she promised not to be dropped home by “men on motorbikes”. “Madras showed me, almost painlessly, what my stakes were all about: as Indian, as modern Indian, as modern Indian woman, as modern Indian woman writer….” Masala dosai and filter coffee were available in Bangalore, too, but “in gentle Bangalore it was possible to remember that there is beauty in the world, even in a city, even in a city without the sea”. Meandering houses, gardens crowded with bushes and flowers of all kinds, old women’s tales, everything contributed to this beauty.

Then there was Delhi, that flaunts its staid power, infectiously grandiose, inescapably landlocked. These cities are all taken up one by one later in the book, as locations of memory, of love and loss. Nightmarish New York where, however, she first saw her Bergman, Bunuel and Truffaut; Colaba in Bombay where the Arabian Sea is a seething opaque grey; Hampi with its proud memories of the Vijayanagar empire; Washington with its White House intended to awe and diminish the spectator; Ooty with its history of colonial pleasures that only added to the woes of the Todas; the pastoral inhabitants of Kothagiri whose lands had caught the eye of the new master; Kashmir, where desolation is known as peace and the violation of basic human rights—from illegal detentions to mass rapes and forced disappearances—a glimpse of which we had in a film like Haider —by the state and its armed security machinery aided by a series of black laws like the Enemy Ordinance Act, Public Safety Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act has become routine, forcing an elder to ask “what does security forces mean? Does it mean the killing of children?” and a school principal to wonder “why does a principal start pelting stones? I can’t sit with my hands bound, I want Kashmir free” (the chapters on Kashmir and Palestine are the longest and the most insightful in the book, the most comprehensive and the most moving): the stories are different and yet they have a common core of suffering, survival, the anguished search for a home that will not turn into a prison, for the freedom to live without the fear of violence, of being subjected to ruthless power from within or outside.

A mixed-up place Githa remembers Basho to introduce her visits to Japan in 1970 and 2003 and discusses haiku at length: its impressionist nature, its ambiguity, its ability to reduce a large untidy world into a small space, making it an effective tool to decode the world (“Summer grasses, /all that remains/ of soldiers’ dreams”) and also perhaps the work of a writer like Kawabata, especially The Sound of the Mountain , which uses a series of linked episodes to depict a web of crises in the Ogata family of Kamakura. She found a faded ghost of Basho in Yamagata, waiting by the water. In Japan she realised, too, the impossibility of living in a world without translation whose kinship with the original is akin to that between dream and waking life: “There is more than one way in which language makes a home. We need a Gen Watanabe, loving interpreter, when we travel, whether we travel at home or elsewhere. And we need haiku, since its function, as Basho once said, ‘is to rectify common speech’.”

Looking at Cordoba the author finds the truth: the world is a mixed-up place. The present plays deaf to messages from the past, but the past is always there, reminding one of mixed histories, tangled roots. In Cordoba, everything—the streets, houses, colours of trees, music, food, the names of places, language itself —says they are more than just Spanish or Arabic or Jewish or Roman. “To understand the slippery, almost cruel games played between remembering and forgetting, you have, perhaps, to play discoverer in twenty-first century Andalusia.” So she goes to the Jewish Quarter and in the interiors of Casa de Sefarad she discovers the hand of Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter who is believed to have performed many miracles), an amulet called hamsa. This open hand is a symbol of patience, abundance and faithfulness: Fatima, shocked to see her husband come home with a new bride is supposed to have gone on doing what she had been doing then: stirring the halva: only she had dropped the spoon in her consternation and was now stirring with her hand without feeling the scalding and burning. There are other stories, intense, lyrical, humorous, of Wallada the Umayyad, of Ibn Zaidoun, of Muhya, of the warrior poets Hafsa bint and Nazhun bint, tales of poetry, of love. And forays into philosophy, of Averroes of the twelfth century, especially.

Algeria celebrating the 50th anniversary of freedom from the French somehow brings the author face to face with the sort of melancholy— huzun —Orahan Pamuk associates with Istanbul. And she naturally recalls Frantz Fanon, who best understood the trauma of the place and the people.

There is history here, and poetry about the fellows without land and reason, and a discussion on the difficulties of managing memory. Copenhagen makes her realise that “we need elsewhere to complete us” as she recalls how the Danish were enamoured of the Orient, found in the maps of the countries as well as the songs of the poets, and brought Aladdin to Denmark through the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the fantasy-bazaar built by Georg Carstensen. But all is not past; there is also a discussion of the conflict between the “Danish Danes” and the “Muslim Danes” and the well-known controversy around the cartoon which was far from innocent; it was only an extension of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that was always there, though the young Muslims, she found, are far from being fundamentalists or potential terrorists.

The book concludes with a discussion of Delhi that “rests on the shoulders of other cities not visible to its more respectable citizens”. And that other city is occupied by the children of refugees like Balraj Bahri, now the knowledgeable bookseller at Khan Market we all love and revere, and the eternally struggling slum-dwellers like Naseem, and poor community workers like Soniya from Kusumpur, and girls like Tara—born in Nepal, left by her aunt in the railway station and brought by the police to a shelter in Delhi—who dreams of filling the libraries in Delhi with the stories of the children she has been meeting in Delhi.

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