IT IS IN alien cities that I have felt my homelessness the most. In alien cities, the realisation that I have no home is set into motion by latent triggers of memory that I never knew even existed.
It was still raining when I got down from the train in Nuremberg. I carried an umbrella, and by the time I came out of the railway station, the feeling of homelessness had returned. I had hoped to leave this feeling behind in Delhi where I had now lived close to two decades. But I still could not call it home; and I knew I never would.
As I walked towards the Palace of Justice, I imagined a city bombed by the Allied forces; I imagined myself in a bus on a moonlit night, looking out from the window at the ruins of the city; I imagined that I had struck a conversation with its ghosts.
The front door of the Palace was heavy as if it still carried the collective guilt of Nazi war criminals put on trial here after the end of World War II. It was quiet inside. I collected an information booklet from the reception and climbed the stairs leading to the main courtroom where, on January 28th, 1946, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier became the first Holocaust survivor to testify against what she saw at Auschwitz—the incoming men, women and children welcomed between June-July 1944 by a band of young girl internees, dressed in white blouses and navy blue skirts, playing tunes such as The Merry Window, after which many of them were led to the gas chambers.
I came out with my heart embalmed in sadness. I wanted to have a drink to feel warm within. I walked a little, and, after a few minutes, on my left, I found a market place. The rain had now turned into a light drizzle. As I entered the market looking for a pub, I heard the faint notes of an accordion. I lit up a cigarette and walked towards the man playing it. He wore a jacket, and a hat, and a pair of shoes that had seen better days. A leather case lay open in front of him. There were very few people in the market, and most of them passed by without paying notice.
I stayed there for long; it had begun to get darker by the time the man stopped. I took out some money and put it in his leather case. He tipped his hat and said with a certain sadness: “Happy New Year!”
Where was he from, I wondered. What horrors had he witnessed? Did he have a place he could call home? Was he in exile, and, like me, did it bring to him what Edward Said called ‘insurmountable sadness’?
And why did he say “Happy New Year” on the second-last day of August?
Thirty years ago, in December 1986, I am at home in Kashmir. It is New Year’s Eve—the snow hasn’t abated; it falls incessantly, large flaky lozenges, one after another, and the white blanket on the ground becomes thicker and thicker. There is no electricity, but we are told it will return shortly. We are waiting for Father. When he returns, he will bring bread and a fresh pack of butter from the military dairy farm, and water chestnuts in a paper bag that Mother will shallow fry in a pan. I am ten, my sister is sixteen and, though we don’t realise it that time, Mother is only in her late thirties. She hums a song and her loosely tied hair touches the back of her knees. With a sophistication that surprises me, she is folding bedsheets and covers.
When Father arrives, we are very happy. I rush to examine what all he has brought. The warm smell of chestnuts fills the air. The butter is packed in classy paper with blue insignia. This is a yearly ritual with which we welcome the New Year: after early dinner, the family will sit together and watch the special programme on Doordarshan and later have tea and butter-toast. Mother has taken out the Eagle flask; I am allowed to have tea in its cap.
Father has also bought an audiocassette of Pyar Jhukta Nahi. In his heart he is a textile mill-worker romanticist. He hums a line from one of the songs that he really likes: Kahaan se mein launga resham ki sari, yeh bangla yeh motor nahi de sakunga. Mother, who is preparing dinner, laughs and says: “When did I ask you for a bangla or motor. Silk sari you already got me!”
Outside, there is stillness, only interrupted occasionally by a large mass of ice falling off the tin roof. Even in the darkness, the whiteness of the exterior sneaks in. I struggle to keep awake. The black-and-white Weston television takes a few minutes to come to life and we watch the special programme huddled in thick quilts. There is Gurdas Maan in his blindingly shiny attire, and Alisha Chinai, whose voice permeates my boyish heart like warm brandy.
We have no clue then that three years later, there will be no home; the Eagle flask will be gone, too. When we leave, those pictures clicked that night, and hundreds of others, are left behind as well
There are no cellphones or even a landline. This is a family’s private affair. Some of Father’s friends do go out with other families. But Father’s commitment to family is something that will almost scare me in my later years. As they throw paper shavings on TV to announce the New Year, Mother hugs me and says: “This year is going to be special.” Father takes out his Minolta camera and clicks pictures.
We have no clue then that three years later, there will be no home; there will be no television; the Eagle flask will be gone, too. When we leave, those pictures clicked that night, and hundreds of others, are left behind as well. So is Mother’s silk sari.
“I GOT MY GIRLFRIEND a silk sari from Varanasi,” Refik says. They are no longer together, but the memory of silk remains. Like me, Refik likes to come early to the café in New Haven when it is warm with its smell of freshly brewed coffee and tobacco. It is much better than the Starbucks where the young girl, whose only usage of a conjunction is the word ‘like’, always miswrites my name as ‘Robin’ on the paper cup.
At this time on the street, there are no sirens; the two women with glitter on their faces selling hashish by the public library have disappeared too. I suddenly remember the student in the room next to me whose cough has not gone for two months. And I remember Nessun Dorma. The café has tattered furniture, and red curtains, and the girl with sharp eyebrows and stocking worn at the knee, and mutilated nails, and boots with overpronating heels is already sitting there.
This time in the morning, Refik is capable of a joke even at the expense of searing his scars.
“Mr Karadžić, some coffee from Montenegro?” he smiles at the unsmiling cop, naming him after a man who destroyed his life in a village near Srebrenica. The cop, of course, does not get it. He is always more interested in caressing his firearm.
At night, though, Refik becomes quiet. It is also the time when on the roads outside, Black men shout too much, as if venting out their anger at those who strung up their forefathers by the neck in the South. It is the time when you can read the entire history of the Balkans in Refik’s eyes. After he is done with whatever he does, Refik pours himself two fingers of whisky and sings songs from back home. He harbours an ambition of writing poetry and one of his friends introduced him to Reznikoff, whose lines he has written on the back of a photograph of his family which he carries in his wallet:
I like the sound of the street
But I, apart and alone,
Beside an open window
And behind a closed door
I look at the photograph of Refik’s family and his grandmother’s grin and her scarf, and the feeling of homelessness returns. I think of some of the pictures we left behind that I remember: the one clicked on that New Year in which the melted butter is running down my chin. Or the one in which Mother wears her favourite long coat and Ballerina flats and smiles at the camera. Or the one with me and my sister on the horse in Gulmarg in whose ears its handler asked me to whisper. Or the one from the family picnic at the Manasbal Lake. Or the one at home in which my sister has climbed an apple tree with her homework. Or the one in which Father stands next to Mother with his Gregory Peck-slicked hair, facing camera, while Mother looks tenderly at him. I also remember the first time I realised many years after the exodus from Kashmir that all these pictures had been left behind. It induced in me a void that the German mystic Jacob Boehme called an ‘Ungrund’—ground without a ground.
Remembering things from back home became a performance art. I began to create my own Pinsk of Kashmir through other photographs and newspapers and memory
In the absence of those pictures, every memory became a picture. Remembering things from back home became a performance art as falling from his imaginary World Trade Center became for Don Delillo’s Falling Man, in imitation of the falling man’s picture shot on 9/11 by the photographer Richard Drew. Like Ryszard Kapuściński, I began to create my own Pinsk of Kashmir through other photographs and newspapers and memory.
It is strange now that I look at it how I filled in those gaps.
In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion asks her building manager, eight months after December 30th, 2003, if he had kept a log of that day. That evening she has returned home with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. Shortly afterwards, John slumps in the chair suddenly and dies. In her grief, Didion wants to remember him by every article or act she can think of. John has a routine with one of the doormen, Vasile Ionescu, to play a little game in the elevator. Every time John enters the elevator, Vasile asks: So where is bin Laden? And they discuss him. “Could bin Laden be in the penthouse?” “In the maisonette?” “In the fitness room?”
Eight months later when Didion sees Vasile’s name on the log, she cannot remember if they had initiated this game on the morning of December 30th when they took the elevator together.
‘The A-B elevator was our elevator, the elevator on which the paramedics came up at 9:20 pm; the elevator on which they took John (and me) downstairs to the ambulance at 10:05 pm, the elevator on which I returned alone to our apartment at a time not noted. I had not noticed a lightbulb being out on the elevator…’
In response to my Ungrund, I worked hard on remembering whatever I could lay my hands on. After the exodus, the refugees in the camp in Jammu would sometimes tie a cloth tightly around their wrists to support them as they carried buckets of water from long distances. There was no log to be kept, but I somehow wanted to retain that memory in my own wrists. A few years ago, someone put on YouTube a 1969 video of the Kashmiri Shaivite scholar Swami Laxman Joo with Mahesh Yogi in his ashram in the Valley. Among the devotees, I tried looking for familiar faces. When I couldn’t find one, I imagined that I knew some of them and they had so many things to tell me of that day. In 1956, the American actress Barbara Mullen came to Kashmir and was shot by the celebrated fashion photographer Norman Parkinson in the waters of the Dal Lake that appeared in British Vogue. In 1957, the New Zealand photographer Brian Brake shot pictures in a famous Goddess temple in my grandfather’s village. All these became references to the land I had been exiled from—the land where my home was and where my people came from and where I came from. Towards the end of Sebald’s The Emigrants, the narrator visits an exhibition of photographs from the Lodz Ghetto. When the book critic Ruth Franklin saw one of the pictures of three women, she thought that the young woman in the middle could be her grandmother. She writes: ‘My imagination of her behind Sebald’s loom… merely substitutes an artistic image for a blank space. The blankness however is close to the truth.’
Have I been able to circumvent that blankness? I do not know.
In an interview, the South African writer JM Coetzee says: “I do believe that people can only be in love with one landscape in their lifetime. One can appreciate and enjoy many geographies, but there is only one that one feels in one’s bones.” I have spent several New Year’s eves in geographies that I both appreciate and abhor. Sometimes in a city like Delhi, one comes across so many drink- induced friendships and exchanging of personal numbers and vows of meeting sooner than later. It is like so many other epidemics in the city: unnecessary honking, brutal rapes, moral sanctification, overpriced bars, solipsism, fertility clinics, iPhone photography, pseudo-secularism, eating greasy food at a joint near Jama Masjid, heart-rate monitors. I have spent those few hours with friends and friends of friends and sometimes even with complete strangers. But home remains a piece of music that, as Carson McCullers puts it, remains too private to be sung in a house cram full of people.
Perhaps, one day, I will return to my landscape that I feel in my bones and like Anthony Shadid start rebuilding the house we left behind—one which is occupied by people who have no claim to the pictures or the Eagle flask of my family. Perhaps, like Refik, I will crack a joke with the occupant.
“Mr Karadžić, some coffee from Montenegro?”