Home and country

I lived in five Indian towns before I was fifteen. One of them was the capital, but Delhi in the early 1990s still felt like a town, my mother tells me, so we’ll call it that. I grew up speaking Hindi at school and Tamil at home. I picked up some Gujarati in Jamnagar and some basic Khasi in Shillong, both of which I’ve forgotten. 

At that time if you’d asked me where home was, I would have showed you a drab ground floor flat on a rained-out, beautiful hill. I had claimed that hill as only children of a certain age can: I knew almost every corner of it, where mushrooms grew, which berries were the sweetest, and which after-rain puddle was deep. It was mine.

Only when we moved back south in the early 2000s did I get that somehow innate sense of Tamil-ness back. 

To grow up around your own people, speaking your own language, in the town where your father was born, where your grandfather asked your grandmother’s hand in marriage, not far from where your ancestors bred cattle and goats and worked the land for rice and where the sweat fell from their brows: is a privilege. It’s not something I take lightly. This soil bears the weight of my people’s history. It is mine. 

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed you my gorgeous little seaside town.

When I moved to Pune, I rented a flat with French windows that caught the waning afternoon sun. I filled that hall with books, and watched cricket with my friends on weekends. Once when I was returning to it after 3 weeks or so abroad, I remember feeling overwhelmed at how it felt, with my books, my vase full of dried flowers, and the comfort it seemed to give me. This was the first time I lived alone, and had made a home. It was mine.

If at this time, you’d asked me where home was, I’d have showed the corner beneath the window, where I read, and I would have made you a cup of ginger tea.

I started to understand how home can be something you are born into, and also be something you make, or choose.

I’d never thought about home in this way before. The first time I started to do so was when the Citizenship Amendment Act or the CAA, was passed into law by the Indian parliament at the end of 2019, and protests broke out almost immediately. I also understood its relationship to the National Register of Citizens or the NRC, and how a combination of the two could be devastating for the secular, equal polity that India aims to be.

I was alarmed.

I had believed for a long time that the wonder that is our country is open to everyone. That this huge, vast, unknowable land is mine, of course, as it is also everyone else’s around me.

Of course I was wrong. As I grew up, I realised that India has worlds within worlds, I learnt about caste, about patriarchy, and had experiences of casteism and classism. I tried to educate myself about all of this; I'm still learning. But I had been corrected and jarred to come to terms with the realities of a national history which is by no means simple.

But I can’t turn away from it, from my nation’s incredible contradictions, and from my duty to its ideals, just because there are no easy answers. India is home. It is mine, its is yours, it is ours. It is, and I have believed this with all my heart, saare jahan se accha. I have to do what I can to make it a better place.

And if someone challenges its very founding ideals, I have to defend it too. I owe it to the freedom generation, I owe it to the joy and happiness and privilege of growing up where you belong, I owe it to my father who spent all his life in uniform. But most of all, I owe it to my people, our people.

If someone, in all these years, had dared to ask me to prove that I am who I am, I would have no understanding of how to answer. I probably would not have understood. I am Indian, that’s who I am. I have no notion of how to be something else, someone else.

To challenge someone’s idea of home is to strike at the core of a person’s identity, to strike at their sense of who they are. It's cruel, violent, callous. Which is why it was the first time I too felt compelled to get on the streets.

Because I know and understand what home is, and I cannot imagine what it would feel like to lose it.

A version of this was written in January 2020.