Homes – Ours and Theirs

Prema Jayakumar

Home is a place where, when you go there
They have to take you in.
I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.

That was Robert Frost. I had been thinking of what homes meant when I came across these lines. One of the by-products of the whole Coronavirus scare has been a sort of clarification of the term ‘home.’ Suddenly it became important that everyone should be able to reach their homes, however distant the homes were. We read stories of a mother who rode a scooter through the night to bring a son home, a daughter who pedalled more than a thousand kilometres to bring an ill father home. There were pictures of people setting out on journeys of thousands of kilometres, walking to reach their homes, carrying not just their belongings, but their small children and even elders who couldn’t walk. It was as though that word spelt safety in a dangerous world. The risk of being stranded in a strange place among strangers seemed a bigger danger than that of the long way home, or chance of infection on the way.

Mind you, a large number of these people were far away from home in the first place because their villages or towns could not give them a living. Be it the Malayali who worked in Dubai or Delhi or the Oriya who worked in Kochi, they were where they were because that place offered them a better living than their own homes. And yet, in spite of arrangements made for the basic needs, in spite of having access to medical care, everyone wanted to go ‘home’ as quickly as possible. They were willing to brave uncertainties, discomforts, quarantine when they reached their destinations – anything to be in their own place, in their own homes.

Did the safety come from being in familiar places, did it come from the presence of family members and neighbours who were bound to you by ties of blood or kinship or just by living together in the same place? One doesn’t know, but the instinct of anyone in unfamiliar places in times of danger was to ‘go home.’ As for severe illness, that was the only place you wanted to be in.

What do homes mean? They probably mean that you are among people who know you and accept you as you are. You don’t have to be pretend or strive to be anyone different from your natural self. Whether they like you or not, whether they approve of you or not, the people at home will still accept you, make a place for you. The food is familiar, the water is familiar, the air and the earth are familiar and they speak in a soothing cadence to you.

In normal times, other places, unfamiliar places, are good. They provide you with a living, they provide you with fun, they provide you with relaxation. However, in times of danger and uncertainty it is difficult to keep to ‘the habit of a foreign sky’ in Emily Dickinson’s telling phrase. Suddenly the alien space and the people around seem inimical, and they wanted to escape to the safety of the familiar. One had not realised just how ingrained this longing was, how much the safety of the home was missed until the long queue of people seeking tickets, passes, vehicles, formed before one’s eyes. From the safety of one’s own home, one looked out and saw how unsafe those away from home felt, even in places where they had felt as though they belonged all these months and years.

It was not just the migrant labourers, or guest labourers as they are now called, who clamoured for tickets and passes. People with cars were trying to enter Kerala without the proper papers, trying to reach that one day earlier, not willing to wait patiently for their proper turn. They were living in comfortable places, or could obviously, seek comfortable places to live in. And yet they risked being turned back in their hurry to be home.

And how do you know when you have reached home? You know for sure when you have reached home because once you are there, your body relaxes into a space that has stayed open for it, however long the absence.

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