I haven't lived long enough anywhere for my roots to go deep in and intertwine around the little things that make a place home. Home for me has been a concept that constitutes people rather than houses or places. With my mom, dad, and brothers, I've called places from the east to the west my home.
My Husband, on the other hand, has spent two decades of his life in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh raised him. When out for drives and shopping trips he likes taking me by playgrounds him and his brother played football in. One day we passed by a wall and he told me of the time he, with a bunch of friends, scratched their names into the wall. The names of these Indian kids who are all grown up now still stand, etched into the landscape of a city where much else has changed. He shows me his previous houses as we go through the streets he smuggled his dad's car to learn driving in.
I am fascinated when he points to random people in stores and tells me he has grown up seeing them there for more than a decade. Like the old Bangladeshi man at the nearby Gas station or a malayali attendant in a Bakala (convenience store). I am jealous when he tells me some of the people in our weekly Qur'an class have seen him since a toddler, and he, in turn, has seen others evolve from babies to teenagers. My mother-in-law has taught little girls who then became her co-workers after 15 years.
Is this what home feels like? When you live so long in a place that you have parts of you scattered across the city. Sometimes even literally etched into old walls. Is home when you have seen the changing anatomy of a place as it builds on its skeletal remains to make a swanky capital with malls and metros on every street?
I don't know what that feels like, because I've never lived in one place for more than three years. Most of these places I haven't visited again. Three years is long enough to feel comfortable somewhere, but not long enough to claim it for yourself. I remember outlines of these places. I remember the spot I fell from my cycle and broke my tooth. I remember weekend bus trips with my mother and brother to a badminton coaching camp at the other end of the city. But as much as I try, I can't remember street names or people in stores or kids I played with in parks.
Apart from family and cousins, I haven't spent time with anyone long enough to see them grow out of their baby faces into angsty teens and then mature into adults. In my memory that predates Facebook, my friends remain frozen instead in different degrees of growth, for I haven't seen most of them outside these three year brackets.
Nostalgia is kind though,when I remember these places what stands out are the little things about them that gave me joy in the time I was there. The little bubbles that carried you as you waded precariously through new territories.
I have come to terms with not having emotional ties with any geographical place. As cliched as it sounds, I'm happy to be any corner of the world as long as I am with people I love and who love me back. In fact, when I think of the predicament of the expatriate community who spend a major chunk of their lives in the Gulf, I think I am better off than them.
As a gulf expat you spend years doing back breaking work while yearning for home. You wistfully dream of the smell of your soil after rain and greenery that cool the eyes as you labour on in this barren land. You make homes out of these inhospitable places, start families, watch your children grow up in a landscape different from your own childhood, make little corners for yourself where friends fill the void of the family you left behind. And before you know half your life has passed and all you have are savings to show. There is no citizenship, no retirement residence here. You are just as good as your ability to work. So it doesn't matter that the prime of your life passed here. You pack your bags when you are asked to and go back. You leave everything you were forced to make familiar to return to an unfamiliar motherland. But 'back home' is now no longer the home you yearned for. Yes, it's still green and it still rains and the people are the same. However, they have moved on with time and you are left wondering why this place no longer feels like the home nostalgia had framed for you.
And if you are one of the many 'economic migrants' who left their country in search of better lives for families left behind, your return is more devastating. You come back to find the dream bungalow built with your blood, tears and sweat, but inside are tenants you don't recognise. Your family you saw only once in a couple of years treat you like a distant relative. You realise that along with the first steps of your little one, you had missed an entire childhood. You missed decades of togetherness with your wife who guarded your children and property while you were away. You missed all the inside jokes, the birthdays, the fights, the laughter, and the tears. It hits you that your family was closer to your voice on the weekend phone calls from across the seas than they are to your physical self now that you are here. You are left instead with a namesake family living in a big house that is the talk of the town. It is then, as a last strike, that you realise that your entire life you have been, and will continue to be, homeless.
What is home then?
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