Books

The Undefinable, Unholdable Home

I am the daughter of Indian immigrants, and ever since I was a child, I’ve always been hungry for stories written by and about people like me – people who felt a little bit like outsiders, who love who they are and where they come from, but don’t quite know where they belong.

So writes Dr.Mathangi Subramanian, educator and writer she is the  author of Dear Mrs. Naidu. Her words ring true for me, an overgrown child. Even as I visit my childhood home I remember a time where my home was a refuge. The place where I could be found, splayed on the floor, colouring or  reading Indrajal comics or sitting with my mother in the backyard step, sipping tea and greeting the sparrows who came home after a hard day of foraging.

A recent relocation to a city other than my own (what does that even mean?) and I am witness to my fifth-grade daughter lamenting the loss of her old home, her friends at school and the streets of the city she so loves. Carl Sagan would be amused, this hankering after of streets and landmarks on this tiny smote of dust that revolves around a star.

In this age where entire populations of countries are being forced to move with but a few belongings and so much uncertainty, the question of what home means comes to the mind often.

The Colour of Home by Mary Hoffman tracks the journey of Hassan from his old home, the war-torn Mogadishu to orderly England. In time, he finds colour in his new apartment and a house starts becoming a home.

Carson Ellis’s Home is a beautiful artistic testament what home means to different people around the world. A Japanese businessman has a home quite distinctive from that of a Norse God and a little girl sits thoughtfully at the window of her well-worn apartment building.

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Sarojini in Dear Mrs.Naidu who stays in a hut that has tarpaulin for a roof, which is in a plot squeezed between a mall and a hospital. She eloquently describes why she loves her home so when she says,

Like when we run out of cooking gas, and Mary aunty lends us some to get through the month. Or when Amina aunty house floods and Amma makes hot bhaji and invites her and her children to warm up. Or when Hema aunty’s husband disappears and everyone knows he’s going to come back with blurry eyes and hot, nasty breath, and Kamala aunty starts singing bhajans in her sweet, clear, mynah-bird voice to help us all think about something else.

A short story that encapsulates the feeling of being at home, coming home is beautifully captured in  Dr.Mathangi Subramanium’s  ‘Just Like Home‘ tells us how Priya finds her home as she draws a rangoli in her school pathway, just as she did in her old apartment with her mother.

When the recess bell rang, Priya sighed and slowly hung up her smock. At her old school, she spent recess climbing the monkey bars and sharing secrets with her friends. Now she sat in the corner of the field and watched the other kids play without her.

The only thing Priya liked about her new school was art. They hadn’t had art at her old school, but here art was a whole hour. The studio had the most wonderful things, like aluminum pie tins, plaster of Paris and India ink. During art, Priya forgot that she didn’t have any friends at her new school. All she thought about was whatever she was working on.

As she cleared her table, Priya noticed a box of sidewalk chalk sitting on the counter by the window. She grabbed and stuffed it in her pockets. Then she took her usual place at the end of the recess line.

While she and her classmates filed through the halls and out into the yard, Priya thought about how she and her mother used to draw chalk patterns on the long driveway leading up to their old apartment building. The patterns were called rangoli, and they looked like stars and roses. Priya’s mother said that the drawings were to welcome guests to their home. All the families in India, where Priya’s family was from, did rangoli every morning, just like Priya and her mother. Their new apartment had barely any sidewalk in front of it, and there was no room for rangoli. Priya missed the early mornings she and her mother would spend drawing feathery, colorful patterns on the cement.

Priya walked over to the basketball court and sat on the hot pavement. She was glad to have something to do besides sit in her corner. She pulled the box out of her pocket and took out a bright red piece of chalk and began drawing the rangoli patterns she loved best. She drew flowers with huge, swirling petals and stars with eight points. She colored them green, yellow and blue, all colors her mother had used. She liked the soft, solid feeling of the chalk in her hand, and the way that the dust left patterns on her fingers.

“That’s pretty,” a voice said.

She turned around and saw that Enrique, a boy in her class, was watching her.

“It’s called rangoli,” she said. “They do this in India, where my parents are from.”

“You know what that reminds me of?” he asked, kneeling down beside her. “The floor of my grandmother’s house in Mexico has tiles that have designs like that.”

“What do you mean?” Priya asked.

“Hand me a piece of chalk,” Enrique said. “I’ll show you.” Enrique sat down on the pavement and began to draw. He used green, orange, and yellow chalk to draw flowers that were more detailed than Priya’s, but still had huge, curvy petals. Then he drew circles inside circles, and surrounded them with1 “What are you guys doing?” a voice asked.

Priya and Enrique had been so absorbed in drawing that they hadn’t noticed that their classmate Farah had been watching them.

“Hey,” Farah said, sitting down beside them, “that looks like the rugs in my Uncle’s house in Iran. Except on the rugs, the shapes are bigger, and aren’t as curly.”

“Show us,” said Enrique, handing her a piece of chalk.

Farah took the chalk and began drawing. She drew shapes that were full of straight lines and bold colors. They were bigger than the shapes Priya and Enrique had drawn, and they overlapped each other in diagonals to form new shapes. She colored the drawings purple, dark blue, and white.

inmenlo“Wow!” Ms. Lopez, Priya’s teacher, said. “That’s beautiful!”

Priya, Enrique and Farah stood up and looked at what they had done. The pavement was covered in bright colors and shapes: triangles, circles, squares and diamonds, all mixed together. Their classmates began to drift over to see what was happening.

“It looks like a universe, with lots of planets and stars,” said Lily.

“It looks like a coral reef full of tropical fish,” said Jasper.

“What do you think it looks like Priya?” said Enrique.

Priya looked at Enrique and Farah. Their knees, elbows, and fingers were covered in red, yellow, green and blue chalk dust. Priya smiled and said, “It looks like home.”

We all yearn for that feeling of home as we cross seas and move localities while all the time we carry our homes in our hearts and minds.

Home: Reading level 4-8 years; Lexie Reading: AD50L

Home image credits: carsonellis.com

Rangoli image credit: inmenlo.com

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