A flight to Ranchi, followed by an almost a four-hour-long journey by train and then an auto or bus ride to finally cover the last dusty leg to reach the interior village in Dhanbad. It takes one full day to return to my village in Jharkhand from my Bangalore home.
This is the journey that my body performs. There is another that is going on inside me, which makes me feel as if I have become a tree that desires to shrink to its tiniest form inside a seed. Or, a rivulet that flows in the reverse to its source. As I approach my home, my soul wishes to return to the original darkness of the womb.
I watch my school and college as I pass them by and think of the route life would have taken had I selected some other subject in college or some other university itself. Every choice in our lives is like a seed out of which the tree of the future sprouts. How unaware we are of the form and size the tree will take eventually.
Though my family looks very happy upon my arrival, my mind wanders to believe that in these regions of Bihar and Jharkhand, perhaps a time will arrive when parents are glad to see their own blood arrive only as guests. Even during the lockdown, most parents consoled themselves in the thought that their children, who had returned home, would go back to their jobs once the situation is normal. In the society that I live in, it would be no less a disaster if a child announces to the world that he has given up his city job and life and come back forever. Young men and women are welcome in the villages they left behind only if they come with an assured return date.
I put my black airbag in a corner, which settles uncomfortably in the jazzed up room. As if a big solitary black question mark is printed on an A4 size paper. I do not arrange my belongings in the cupboard emptied temporarily for me. I know I will return to the city soon. I try not to interfere in family affairs.
There is a pond right behind my house. Before the pond is a small ground, where the Senna obtusifolia grows in its yellow glory in spring. In the months of February and March, butterflies as shiny as those yellow flowers flutter around them. If you catch one of them, all in the group will flutter around you till you release the one you are holding. The butterfly disappears but not before leaving a yellow golden, powdery dust from its tiny wings on your fingers. This woefully reminds me of the unkind words that shot out of my mouth like arrows I had uttered to someone a long time ago. The sting in the words must have left a sour feeling in their hearts. The yellow colour left behind by the butterflies can be washed off. The deep tinge of harsh words, however, cannot be rinsed clean with years of rain.
I think about the prodigal son from the Bible who had wandered off from his home in search of a better life. He asked for his share of the legacy from his father to spend all of it on luxuries in another country until he was left a pauper. He then served as a slave in a family and realised that the servants in his father’s house were treated better. He decided to seek his father’s forgiveness and be a servant to his own family. The father forgives and accepts him back with love. The story is told in a way which reflects the greatness of the father’s behaviour but does not say much about the son. What could have happened to the son who left home in search of a better life but returned empty handed after losing all? The father accepted him but could son ever accept himself?
A journey our body performs, going away from home and returning to it off and on, always visible to all, which is welcomed on return, which is beseeched to stay some more. There is another journey performed by our life on the unending path of time and space. No one knows where they have reached and how much of the journey still remains. But we do know that there is no possibility of returning.
With time, Herta Muller says, we lose that instant satisfaction which comes with the feeling of homesickness. But with age, homesickness does not remain bound to one place or home. The feeling gets stuck to our whole being and remains connected to our past.
The meaning of ‘nostos’ (as in nostalgia) in Greek literature is a special emotion associated with ‘returning from the journey’, considered very honourable in Greek culture. It is heroic to return safe and successful from a sea voyage. I wonder if there is something special about my returning to the past, too.
The main theme in Annie Ernaux’s writings is her return to her personal memories in her mind. She has beautifully captured her childhood in a small French town with her father in La Place (A Man’s Place). In another book, she writes about her passionate relationship with a European man, her abortion and her other deeply personal experiences.
As an author, I feel that it is impossible to create literature without revisiting our memories time and again. Almost every author has mentioned their hometown with varying degrees of homesickness and nostalgia at different points of time. If not, they have created an imaginary city similar to the city they loved or despised.
I am reminded of Tomas Tranströmer when I think of memories and returning. He compared his memory with a comet. At the age of 60, when he looked back at his whole life from that point of time, he wrote, he feels that his memory is like the head of a comet. As he moves farther away towards his childhood, the tail becomes dimmer and darker. It totally vanishes as he reaches back to the darkness of his mother’s womb. Almost all writers traverse such memories. Writing in a way is nothing but living one’s existential homesickness on a piece of paper. It is a process of consistently returning to various points of departure of own identity.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Life is a Comet")
(Views expressed are personal)
Lovely Goswami is a Bangalore-based Hindi poet