Personal Essays and Creative Non-Fiction

Home and Heart

Rituparna Sengupta

One morning, sometime last month, I opened the door to the narrow veranda adjoining our kitchen and was greeted by a curious sight. Hanging from the clothesline was a puzzling structure in a messy combination of twigs, feathers, and scraps of paper. It took me a while to recognise it for what it was—a nest. But whose? No creature came to claim its home the whole day. Or the day after. At least not under my vigilance. But for the next few weeks, every morning when I went to check, the nest had grown a little longer and sturdier—narrow at both ends, and wide in the middle, with a little hole in the front to hop into. An untidy, yet evidently determined little nest.

Far away from this tiny home-within-a-home under construction, another home was in the news a few days ago, for the opposite reason: its destruction. A twenty-two-year-old student activist watched the livestreaming of her home in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, as it was being razed to the ground. This wasn’t an individual instance of property destruction, rather it followed an “evolving pattern of collective punishment by the State”. Since a few months now, in various Indian states, homes and shops are being demolished by the local municipal authorities under the allegation that they are ‘illegal encroachments’. The incidents leading up to these events and the dubious haste with which demolition orders are issued, coordinated, and carried out overnight, leave no room for doubt about the purpose behind this strategic state-sponsored demolition drive and its intended targets. Listening to an incredibly composed Afreen Fatima recount the pain of losing her home of twenty-one years within a single day, I was reminded of this poignant couplet by the Urdu poet Bashir Badr, which he wrote after losing  his home to a communal riot in Meerut, another city in Uttar Pradesh: “लोग टूट जाते हैं एक घर बनाने में/तुम तरस नहीं खाते बस्तियाँ जलाने में” (People break their backs to build their homes/You show no mercy in setting them ablaze).

Videos of yellow bulldozers opening up their crooked jaws and greedily biting into iron and concrete and spitting out dust and rubble, often flood social media these days. Academic Brahma Prakash, in a recent article, observes how the bulldozer has become the defining image of our times: “It moves to demolish; it moves to displace; it moves to dominate. It moves to decimate. It moves to dismiss any prospect of dialogue.  It moves to move the earth where one stands. It moves to create a new site for the settlers at the expense of the livelihood of the others.” He proceeds to argue how this popular bulldozer-fascination complements the contemporary penchant for flatness—of narrative, history, culture, and perception. The bulldozing disposition brooks no opposition, it allows for no appeal to humanity and justice, it admits no other logic than that of a central authority issuing orders to robotic foot soldiers who are more than willing to run over the homes of ‘encroachers’ who stand in the way of establishing a supremacist nation. And thus, the bogey of ‘illegality’ dogs the steps of hounded minorities from year to year and day to day, reducing the legitimacy of their existence to increasingly contrived and convoluted sets of legal criteria.

Sometime in 2019, a meme template called ‘JCB ki khudai’ went viral on social media. In pop cultural lore, the trend was seen as an ironic tribute to the ‘jobless’ Indian’s irresistible absorption in watching a JCB excavator at its digging expeditions, whether by the side of a road, or on YouTube. This absurd meme trend too was reflective of a larger collective consciousness at work—one that seemed spellbound by witnessing the act of digging. And there’s a lot of digging to be witnessed these days. Relentless digging in ceaseless search of ‘the origin’, the ‘true source’, the ‘one true structure’ that preceded it all—the temple beneath the mosque, traces of the ‘original’ religion, the mother of all civilisations, the ‘khudai’ (divinity) to be unearthed by khudai (digging). Bulldozing and digging: two important metaphors of our times, both driven by similar machines. Both impulses united by a growing belief that cultural complexities must be flattened out, and our true origins are lying in wait for discovery, just beneath the surface. 

Of late, a poem learnt at school keeps returning to my mind. The poet persona encounters a group of men bringing down a wall, realises that demolition is quick, unskilled, easy labour (as compared to building), and walks away wondering if he himself has been playing the role of a builder or a wrecker in his own life. I used to think little of this trite moral binary, but in times when the world seems to have been split along many a binary axis, Charles Franklin Benvegar’s ‘A Builder or a Wrecker’ has its own appeal. As I try to make sense of our present condition, in which the discourse of cultural nationalism has come to colour every aspect of our personal and professional interactions, I find my answer in this parable.

A few decades down the line, when we are asked about the legacy that we leave behind, we might not be able to cite a list of things that were lovingly and patiently built (for builders were sneered at), but we would definitely be able to rattle off a long list of places that were renamed, destroyed, and built over with hate and spite. We will say with pride or regret that we erased all evidence of histories that remind us of our complex (even if precarious) multicultural co-existence. We refused to acknowledge the contributions of the many who laid the building blocks of our own home—if the nation is truly to be seen as a home. Instead, we went on a decimation spree so wilfully wild, that we emerged from the haze of our passions to find, in the words of the Hindi poet Rajesh Joshi: “मुल्क़ मलबे का ढेर  बन चुका होता है” (the nation had been reduced to a pile of debris). For how can we take out brick after brick from a house and still expect it to stand?

Artwork by Subarnarekha Pal.

***

I often think of the twenty-first century as the century of shifting homes. Migration may have always been a feature of human civilisation, but the contemporary scale and pace of it is unprecedented. For people like me whose parents left for other cities in search of more suitable job opportunities yet maintained strong cultural ties with the towns, cities, and villages of their childhood, we grew up with pravasi (migrant) identities layered with dual/multiple languages, cuisines, customs, etc. We picked and chose aspects of each according to our personal inclinations, never fully here nor there in our attempts at integration that were frequently interrupted by reminders to not forget our ‘roots’. The question of ‘where is home’ continues to stump me, even though I have long made peace with my in-betweenness and learnt to own it with pride rather than awkwardness.

These days I read bio-notes of writers and artists more closely for the multiple locations that people quote as their places of working and living. There seems to be far more fluidity in movement; many people seem to effortlessly glide in and out of cities, countries, continents, their lives constantly in flux. In fact, among the upwardly-mobile middle-class, not moving out to explore more distant pastures perhaps attracts more attention today. In a globalised world, the airport terminal has come to mean what the railway station once meant for the middle class. 

And yet, for all the apparent welcoming embrace of cities, we know all too well that urban living is not equally hospitable to all. For those of us who are more urbane and/or cosmopolitan due to generational advantages, we can carry our homes lightly from one city to another as we chase our dreams and ambitions of ‘better living’. But the many others who have been forced out of their villages for precarious, barely subsistence-wage labour, homes are forever temporary, and brittle. They are the other kind of ‘illegal squatters’ whose rickety dwellings are an eyesore for a shining new nation that only wants to see its distorted image reflected back, sparkling and magnified. Pushed into ghettoes and hidden from public view, their homes dismantled to make way for fresher usurpers of urban space, they are the first to be belched out of cities in times of crises. Thus it was, that in the first wave of the pandemic, as the most privileged of us locked ourselves into our homes, we witnessed with horror, shame, or indifference, as millions of our fellow citizens were forced to brave a deadly virus and a punishing summer to set out on foot for their villages when an abruptly-announced lockdown put a stop to their urban livelihoods. Left to their own devices, with no safety protocols in place, they trudged on homewards with the kind of determination that stems from despair, and many perished on the way. There is no little irony behind the fact that so many of them must have helped build our glossy middle- and upper-class homes with their own hands.

New homes are always being constructed in our cities, enshrouding our surroundings in a constant swirl of dust and noise without which our daily lives would seem eerily quiet and clean. It is impossible to travel through the city and not be assaulted by the hundreds of billboards advertising swanky new apartments that promise state-of-the-art facilities and easy instalment options. We don’t stop to wonder about what stood in their place before being levelled to make way for the new; individual progress, like national development, demands much necessary collateral damage. The new urban salaried middle classes prefer to live in towers of identical-looking apartments inside gated complexes that clearly mark out—and keep out—the world that cannot breach this fortress of self-sufficient solipsism. The taller our buildings climb, the bigger grows our illusion of how untouched we are from the ground realities that mercifully appear too far away for close inspection. And our safety seems to lie in staying locked in and locking others out, stemming from the firm conviction that our homes are under the perpetual threat of invasion.

***

Popular culture the world over is responding to such anxieties by being increasingly drawn to narratives of invasion: of homes, nations, and planets. Multiple cinematic genres process such fears differently—the horror/psychological thriller grappling with themes of intrusion, entrapment, and claustrophobia, and fantasy/science fiction mounting inter-community and inter-species conflicts on a grander scale.  Each of these could be traced to the biggest fear of the kind of home invasion that extends across countries: the refugee crisis. Millions of refugees the world over are forced to flee their homes for foreign shores, since, as Somali-British poet Warsan Shire so hauntingly wrote, ‘home is the mouth of a shark/ home is the barrel of the gun’. Few of them are welcomed with dignity in the ‘developed’ nations where they arrive in search of refuge; most are treated as parasites by ‘native’ residents, who resent sharing resources and fear cultural contamination. The dehumanisation of migrants is often phrased in the language of vermin, by comparisons with ants and termites.

The flip side to this coin are narratives of triumphant homecoming that are a prominent trend in Indian popular fiction and cinema. After decades of post-colonial literature wrestling with themes of exile and cultural dislocation, popular English fiction and cinema is today deeply invested in stories of heroes returning home to become the rightful leaders who can rescue their oppressed citizen-subjects and bring their religion/nation glory. Often, these heroes represent a model of populist authoritarianism that draws legitimacy from hereditary religious and caste origins. Many of them are set in an ahistorical past, projecting modern notions of the nation and religion onto a pre-secular vision of national history. Such narratives deploy Hindu mythology to construct a narrow and cyclical Hindu history strongly suggestive of the claim that the nation’s cultural legacy is the sole preserve of Hindu, dominant-caste, middle-class interests. In story after story, we come across speculative histories based on conspiracy theories of how ‘true’ history was deliberately obscured and hidden by the vested interests of Anglicised, secular historians and elitist cultural custodians in the recent past, and ‘foreign invaders’ in the distant past.

The rapid marginalisation of the non-Hindu, non-dominant caste narrative from popular, public, and political culture has resulted in a foreignisation so deep and widespread, that it has translated into drastic discursive shifts in all matters of law, policy, and public perception. Far too many Hindus today look at their Muslim neighbours with only suspicion and distrust, eager to humiliate, ostracise, and even kill in the name of serving religion and nation. The search for collective identity in organised acts of cleansing violence (as participators and voyeurs) and the pointless search for racial and ethnic purity is rapidly hollowing out the foundations of that very nation in whose name all of this is unfolding. Reduced to flat, bulldozed versions of our humanity along religious and caste lines, we seem to be left with the option of choosing between standing by and cheering on the wreckers, or spectating silently while the homes of others are destroyed.

Or, we could obstruct the bulldozer’s path and hold the fort, as and when we can. For how can our own homes remain safe and secure at the end of this destruction spree? As the Urdu poet Rahat Indori wrote in a poem that has become the anthem of resistance in recent years: “लगेगी आग तो आएंगे घर कई ज़द में/ यहाँ पे सिर्फ़ हमारा मकान थोड़ी है” (In the line of fire will be many homes/Not our houses alone stand here.) A bulldozer is a clumsy machine, it doesn’t have very fine vision; who knows what will fall in its way next.

No identity drawn from declaring other human beings illegal can be legitimate. The paranoia of invasion can never be appeased, it only grows with feeding. Digging for a single point of origin is about as useful as looking for the edge of the world. And homes need each other, no matter how distant, upside down, or suspended mid-air by a thread they may seem.

***

A few days ago, I opened the door to the verandah and saw a long, fine beak poking out of the nest’s opening. And out flew a tiny female sunbird, startled at my approach. Excited, I retreated and when I returned to check after some time, she was back, perched in the same posture, with her little beak thrust out into the air. I wished I could befriend her but also understood her instincts, which taught her to distrust an approaching human. But I would like to believe that I have inched just a bit closer to her trust since then, because even if she flies away, she always chooses to return. And as long as we don’t step out for a closer look, she seems generally tolerant of our presence. In the days to follow, which saw heavy winds and abrupt downpour, it brought me some comfort to know that my little housemate was dry and snug in her nest. All I did was get out of her way, yet I couldn’t help but feel somewhat proud to know that this tiny creature had trusted our house to build her home and lay her eggs. Our home feels completer and more alive for her presence. My favourite thing to do nowadays, each morning, is to open that door as slowly and soundlessly as possible and peek out to see my friend, meditating on her eggs, swinging slightly within her nest as the wind gently rocks it to and fro.

Rituparna Sengupta likes to read, watch, think, write, and meme. She writes on literature and cinema for academic and popular publications, and social media. She translates poetry and short fiction from Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi (in Devanagri) into English. She is also a researcher of contemporary popular culture and fiction, with a recent PhD in Literature. Her published works are catalogued here. She drifts between Delhi and Kolkata.

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