I lived for a while in an unauthorised colony (now authorised) in West Delhi, for the cheapest places are available in this area. For someone earning a salary of a trainee, this place ensures food and home plus some savings. The fondest memories from that time are of my landlady. She looked like a character out of a novel. Always dressed in a pair of tattered blouse and petticoat and smoking bidi, this unlettered woman had the wittiest of things to say. She would tell me the reason she is so resilient is because she is a "pahadi" and her mother-in-law "broke her in" in a good way. She told me she had to walk miles uphill to get water. But none of it would seem like work as the other women of her age sang pahadi songs and enjoyed the time together outside household restrictions. That's when they would smoke together and breathe in freedom.
As luck would have it, her husband got a job in Delhi. With no place to stay, the family acquired a piece of land in the swampy areas of West Delhi. It was practically a dump yard when the first settlers came in. With her training in extreme physical hard work, she single-handedly built a two-storey building while pregnant. I never saw her leave her house even once during my two years of stay there. It shocked me to know that she had lived in Delhi for more than 20 years and never visited one historical or popular tourist spot here.
Even as I struggled to understand her attachment to the concrete structure she had built, I contemplated what my own idea of home is. Home has always been a touchy issue for me. Having grown up all my life in rented apartments and living in guarded societies, I have always missed this feeling of pining for home. Desher baari as they say in Bengali. Home, then just meant an ever-changing place where I lived with my parents.
Home after all isn't just a concrete structure. Or else why does home stop feeling like home when mom travels out of town? Perhaps, one characteristic that defines home is that it’s a place where our worst behaviour is tolerated and our sulking understood. But the biggest distinguisher for me is the fact that you can leave home to make your mistakes, or achieve your dreams and are then free to come back for nourishment and nurturance.
Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveller and chronicler who travelled across 40 countries in his lifetime, returned home after 30 years since he first left home at the age of 21. Even the most avid traveller the world has ever seen needed to return. A place that doesn't allow you re-entry because you sought out adventure, or strayed, or made a choice for yourself was never your home to begin with.
When the initial promise of a happy home and secure attachment remain unfulfilled, we can spend an entire lifetime meandering and seeking out security and belongingness. For many of us, home doesn't evoke happy memories of "ma ke hath ka khana". Home could be a trigger word for many. It could bring back memories of abuse, neglect and chaos. Probably, for my landlady her mother-in-law's home brought back similar memories which explains her attachment to the house she built for herself. However, in the eternal search for a final resting place and belonging, we often forget about the ultimate site of security and safety that is always accessible to us — our bodies. We forget that our bodies too are home to our identity and ideas about ourselves and the world, it is home to our health and state of mind. Every time we are anxious, insecure and overwhelmed, we always have the choice of coming back to our body from our head to restore the sense of safety and groundedness.
Nina Simone's empowering and therapeutic creation "ain't got. no" is a song I often go to when I feel unanchored and homeless. It always helps me find my way back to my body's security. Give it a try.
"...Ain't got no earth, no?
No food, no home...But what have I got?
Let me tell ya what I've got
That nobody's gonna take away
I got my hair on my head
I got my brains, I got my ears
I got my eyes, I got my nose
I got my mouth,....
I got my arms, I got my hands
I got my fingers, got my legs... "