at 6:30, I am fast asleep when my heavy teak bed rocks. Half-waking,
half-dreaming, I think the fan fast-spinning above is responsible
and go back to sleep. If you have traveled on long-distance trains
in India, a rocking, rattling bed can lull you to deep sleep. A
knock on my door and it opens. “There are tremors.”
Although half-asleep I get up and change into the first set of day
clothes I find. Run to the bathroom. Gather up my passport and wallet.
Then pack my laptop.
I am not the only one in the house to mechanically prepare for flight.
We are all
displaced people. Of this, I am now convinced. We live in each place
as if we have always lived there. But we carry in our hearts the memory
of each displacement, as surely as if it is now happening to us still.
And deep in our souls is the conviction that in one moment we will
have to flee this place. It is a life lived in the interstices between
cooling your heels and standing on your mark.
you from? Oh, from here, Delhi.
No, I mean where are you from? Originally? I am from Calcutta. And
I am from a small village near Peshawar.
I have moved
with those belongings I managed to carry all the way over in the chaos
of Partition. Which as you may guess, were really not anything at
all. Not in the sense that you could carry or store or touch.
But in my heart, I carried a lot. I carry a lot. I carry the small
desk at which we used to do our homework. I carry the memory of the
way rotis used to smell in the winter air. I carry the memory of the
longest walk I will ever take. There is a reason I don’t like
going for a walk as much as some of my neighbours do. I carry the
memory of playing house with my best friends. Who must also be grandmothers
by now. And I have also left some luggage behind.
In another time and place, I have left behind secrets I am sure my
best friends have forgotten. I have brought theirs with me and kept
them safe. My friends had my house, my dolls, my ribbons to remember
me by. I only brought their secrets.
The TV runs
on. We are watching the news. Or rather, the news is being broadcast
to our screens. We sit before it, eyes transfixed on screen and
“We came like that. With nothing.” It is a statement
of fact. That is all.
Now we are all mentally present. The pain of that small memory ends
our wandering and moors our present firmly in the past.
In a tearing
hurry, several small children, a group of women and one man scramble
on a departing boat. They find themselves places to crouch on deck.
The smaller children are tired, excited and curious about their surroundings.
In the eyes of the older children lies the realization that this is
not a holiday voyage. They cling to each other so as not to have to
reveal what they know to the younger ones.
The elders have their own secret worries. Who will they see at the
other end of this journey? Who will they never see again?
Food is scarce, and so is water. The older women are experts at making
nothing stretch into filling meals. They have known poverty and scarcity
The small children are secure in the presence of the elders. The sea
air and the presence of their playmates is enough.
They have not registered the bombing of the harbor as the boat left
for months. No one came. Sometimes there would be word of someone
who saw someone who saw my brothers and my husband. The second someone
was killed by a landmine. Now, hearing that, I did not even want
any more news.
All we could do is pray and we did. We prayed together every morning
and every evening.
And every member of our family arrived in one piece. We were very
There is a god and god does care.
him, I know from Dearborn.” “When were you in Dearborn?”
“Let me see, now is it four years? Five years ago?” “I
thought you were in Madison then?”
“No, Madison was three years ago. The year of the big snowstorm.”
“Where did you grow up?” “Jakarta.”
“Really?! I thought you were Indians.” “Yes, my
father worked for a Dutch company.”
“Ever live in Holland?” “No.”
Silence, while he tries to map my personal geography. I wait patiently
and in amusement. How can he when I barely can? I decide to make things
“This view reminds me of the bay in Dubai. You’d think
it was a drab desert city, but it is quite spectacular.”
“Oh, you lived in Dubai too?” “No, in Colombo. For
many years. But I traveled a lot with layovers in Dubai.”
“You have lived in a lot of places.” Yes, I have. I have
moved from a lot of places. At each of which I have had this conversation
a few dozen times.
as far as they could and then there was no choice but to walk. The
terrain was rough and the trek difficult. But the survival instinct
puts muscle in your calves and breath in your lungs and even those
who had never walked to another compound on the same street were
now moving like experienced mountaineers.
They had left in a hurry, carrying very little—identity papers,
fungible items like gold jewellery, a change of clothing, small
mementos. The exchange process had already begun, and now they shed
the mementos and clothing to lighten their load.
All the usual concerns about cleanliness and creature comforts were
forgotten with each hour of the march to safety. They knew whatever
they saw on the road, living conditions would be worse still wherever
the journey took them.
you lived here all your life?” “No. I am from Laos.”
“Oh, how interesting! When did you move here?”
“Thirty years ago, as refugees. We are refugees.”
who sought refuge once.” Not an unusual identity for a group
to acquire. The history of flight becomes an inalienable maker and
marker of who you are.
Ask Parsis in India. Their story begins with flight in the seventh
century CE and the compact they make with the local Indian ruler
who gives them permission to settle in his domain. They are still
identified in terms of where they came from (Persia) and they still
adhere to the promise they made about remaining distinct from the
local community while contributing to the betterment of society.
The story of flight, refuge and integration is part of being Parsi,
thirteen hundred years later.
Ask muhajirs in Pakistan. Almost half a century after they chose
to move to Pakistan, they were still identified for their migration.
Accepting the markers associated with this migration—Urdu,
for instance—the diverse non-community of Partition migrants
transformed themselves into a single identity group. Who are they?
Those who once fled.
Ask Jews all over the world. The word ‘diaspora’ referred
first to them before it became a fashionable contemporary word for
all émigré communities. It referred to flight and
Jews were probably the first community in human history to be identified
by flight, and to remain a community although they were scattered.
The Diaspora. ‘Those who were scattered.’
‘Those who were scattered and those who fled and those who
We were just
going about our morning chores. It was a perfectly normal morning.
The children had holidays and so we were not rushing. Suddenly the
sea, our closest neighbour, retreated as if afraid to touch the land.
Before we realized what was happening though, it rose up in a wall
of water and came to us. Like a rakshasa, an ogre.
Like Hanuman met on the way to Lanka. She would have swallowed him
whole had he not been able to shrink and fly out of her mouth.
We were not so lucky. I grabbed my children and ran towards the road.
But the sea gave chase and I fell. The children ran on. It has swallowed
and swept me away. Then deposited me elsewhere. Yes, I am alive.
But where are my children? I lie in a temporary shelter where those
hurt by the wave are being helped. It must be somewhere near my home.
But they say I am not well enough to move. I must find my children.
I must find my children. I close my eyes to lock in my tears.
Around me. Those who were scattered. Those who fled. Those who sought
refuge. Those who are not dead.
had the clothes we wore. And were utterly dependent on the kindness
of strangers. In our case, distant relatives who never forgot they
had done us a kindness. Or let us forget it.
Hardened by experience, we knew we had to make good. To never be
in need again.
Yes, we walked all the way. All of us—men, women, and many
children—trekked through the plains, the mountains and the
valleys. Surviving landmines and air-raids.
It makes you believe that someone is looking out for you.
Once, just once, my sister broke her ankle as we were scrambling
down a hill-path. That healed. When she is tired, she limps. When
she limps, we are back on that hill-side, praying there will be
are not dead. That is all of us in this moment. In the next moment,
it will be a different group. Everything changes from minute to minute.
When people said, this was our ancestral property, I always imagined
it was at least 600-700 years old. And for that, it was in very good
condition. I grew up. Studied history. And realized the mansion was
only built 95 years ago. But in those ninety-five years, it nurtured
a sense of timeless permanence in the children who played hopscotch
on its side porches.
We lived in a flat by the sea in India’s first city. When I
was born it was not built, and the sea licked the shores a thousand
times and more each day. My parents would wheel me out in my perambulator
in the causeway by the water.
They filled in the bay, one barrow-load of sand and gravel at a time.
And then on that sand and loam, skyscrapers were built. Towers on
sand on sea.
And we moved in, and built a life. I had lived in two other buildings
in the first seven years of my life, but this is my home. It still
For every tile laid, every cupboard built, every shade of paint chosen,
we thought we would live there forever. And then we left, first one
by one, then once and for all.
my room, I feel the fever rise and rise, burning up my strength.
My body aches. I close my eyes. I want to go home. There is a problem.
I don’t know where home is any more. And the image of tall
corn-stalks comes to mind. Home.
But now, amid the cornfields and the Great Lakes, I sit alone in
my apartment and watch the snow fall incessantly. The night is still
and silent. The white powder piles up higher and higher covering
half the French windows in my living room. The heat is on low because
turned up any further it will give me a headache. There is nothing
on TV and it is too nasty outside to go get something to read. What
am I doing in this icebox of a town? I want to go home. And the
deep gold-and-coppersulphate of the Arabian Sea comes to mind. Home.
I walk through the subway market in downtown Seoul. Except that
all the writing is in Korean, the stores could be in Churchgate
or Palika Bazar. The crowd could be Victoria Terminus or Shinju-ku.
The merchandise could be Pettah or Pondy Bazar or Bangkok. All the
walking makes me hungry. But I speak no Korean, and cannot ask for
vegetarian food where no meat or fish touch the food. Hunger makes
my eyes tear. I want to go home. My kitchen, with its Indian food
and American snacks. All ingredients made known to me on the container.
here before you? And before them? And before them? And before that?
Was there a home here? What grew here? What slept here? Where were
I don’t know who lived here before me. Or before them. Or before
them. And before that.
Where was I? I could answer that if I knew who I was. Or for that
matter, who am I?
I am. I
can list many qualifiers and attributes for myself. And many places.
To one Sri Lankan friend, I am the girl from Bambalapitiya. To one
American friend, I am a true Midwesterner. To the girls I grew up
with, I am a Bombayite from Cuffe.
With the heart of a homesteader, I have lived like a gypsy in my
adult years. A friend once wrote to me, “A free spirit knows
no home.” My spirit cannot wander unanchored.
They also say, a rolling stone gathers no moss. It does, it does,
I tell them. Friends at every turn, memories of every patch, pain
from all the rolling and pleasure from the ever-changing vistas.
I have built my permanent address in my heart. The foundation is
experience. The roof and walls are provided by acquaintances. The
pegs, anchors, cement are close friends. The accents on my walls
are the people I have met once and never come across again. I carry
this home with me from place to place. In spite of that, in each
place, I need new pegs and anchors, like you need new curtains or
dustbins for a new flat.
It takes an itinerant to befriend an itinerant, and an exile to
understand the isolation of an exile. To know that the feeling of
being settled or permanently belonging, is a simple illusion. We
are all displaced persons.
Yes, all my
peregrinations have resulted from choices I have made. But something
in my heart recognizes that lost expression on the face of the girl
in the relief camp. I have never known the misery she knows today.
Without however exaggerating the small dramas of my life or belittling
the genuine tragedy in hers, it is a difference of degree or intensity
that separates our shared experience of life-changed-in-one-minute,
of not having a clue as to what tomorrow brings, of suddenly finding
yourself in a new place surrounded by strangers. But at bottom, somewhere,
it is the same experience.
In her eyes, I see the replay of moments from my past. In that reflection,
the tsunami sweeps through my life as well.
from experience to experience. From place to place. From life to
life. From body to body.
Memories travel with us; some vivid and immediate, some faint and
lingering. So do lessons. We identify ourselves by the people we
have been and been with, the places we have lived, the way things
have been in our lives. And leave all that aside, we are where we
Displaced from minute to minute by time that never stops and change
that never ceases.
Like children playing house, we make ourselves secure and think
ourselves settled, but in our minds, our bags are always packed.
And when the earth shakes, we are ready to pick up and move. To
that next patch of stable ground.
Secure in this moment. Insecure in the movement between moments.
Leaving pieces of our hearts and lives everywhere. Displaced, misplaced.
But busy bungling along.
January 2, 2005