What do you do when you can never go back home?
Whenever I drive down the Moolchand flyover in Delhi, I find myself looking out for a red-tiled roof on my left. It is another matter that the humble barsati that was my first home in Delhi is long gone. In its place stands a ritzy three-storey building which houses an international bank and sundry designer stores.
But even though my eyes can’t deceive me, my mind always goes back to what was: my first visit to an old-style bungalow in Defence Colony; endless negotiations to get the rent down; trips to Fab India for furnishings; the many moon-lit parties I hosted on the terrace; lazy Sundays spent in the winter sun; the searing heat that no air-conditioner could banish; the whistling cold wind of winter that got into my very bones; and most of all, the ineffable feeling of freedom I felt in the first home that was truly my own.
All of this, however, exists in my mind alone; the place that created these feelings and memories has long since vanished, a casualty to the endless development and re-development that characterizes the city. (The Khan Market of my youth, for instance, now exists only in the imagination of my generation.)
I am not new to this sense of lost worlds, though. In a way, it seems like a natural progression of my family’s own personal history of loss and remembrance. As a child, I grew up on tales of the Partition and the homes that we had left behind. My grandmother would regale me with stories of her village in the North-Western Frontier which produced so many brave soldiers that the British agreed to grant them any wish. But instead of asking for running water for the village, my grandfather would interject scornfully at this point, they asked for a cannon to be installed at the village gates!
My parents would remember fondly the large, sprawling houses they grew up in, with their endless acres of garden fragrant with the smell of mango-laden trees and flowering jasmine. Was it my imagination or did the homes get more and more palatial with each re-telling? And was it simply nostalgia, rather than blatant lying, at work? I really don’t know, though I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
But such was the magical world they created in their re-telling, that I couldn’t really bear to see if it would ever measure up to reality. Which is why on my solitary visit to Pakistan, I did not make the slightest attempt to get to the village in Jhelum in which an entire mohalla had been named after my family (or so they claimed, at any rate!).
The lesson I learnt at my grandmother’s knee was that you can never really go back home; because that home could well have changed beyond all recognition. Far better to see it for what it was in your mind’s eye, than risk besmirching your memories with the stain of reality. Which perhaps explains why I am so loath to ever go back: to my childhood home; my school; my college. I would much rather remember them the way they were, than have my memories diluted by how they are now.
A friend of mine learnt this lesson the hard way. A Kashmiri Pandit, he was exiled from the Valley along with his family, while still a child. Ever since, he would have a recurring dream of his childhood home, of the garden he played in, of the school he attended. In his dreams he would roam the streets of his lost city, visit old haunts, enjoy that once-familiar view.
And then, one day, he finally made his way back home. Only it wasn’t home any longer. There were strangers living in the house that was once his, the streets looked completely different, and the Arab-style hijab had taken over from the Kashmiri kalle dajj. He took the next flight out. And since then, he says, he has never dreamt of Srinagar again.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I would rather have my dreams than a bitter dose of reality. I would rather remember my college library the way it was – with me perched on my favourite window seat, with the sloping table piled up with endless reference books, while I lost myself in a short story by Katherine Mansfield – than go back and be confronted with a modern monstrosity (which I am sure it isn’t; but I’d rather not find out).
Sometimes, of course, I have no choice in the matter. No matter how much I long to go back to my first office, in the slightly dilapidated building that then housed the ABP headquarters, there is no way that I can. That place, the repository of so many memories, burnt down to the ground, even as I watched, horrified. No, I am not kidding. A blaze that started in the early hours of the morning gutted the entire building, taking with it an entire chunk of my life.
So, what do you do when you can’t go back home (or indeed, to the office)? Well, as I have discovered, the best thing to do is just re-create it in your imagination, populate it with your memories, and make it the stuff of your dreams. There really is no better way to triumph over reality.