#5. Home, Language, and Sharukh Khan

Going Back Home

Dear Reader,

It's July and I've officially stopped listening to the PM's addresses in full length. Post speech funny content + some smart people on Twitter making to the point summaries of his speechy lies are more my thing. 

In other (better) news, Patrick Dempsey did a small throwback to his Grey's Anatomy character in this Instagram post. He quoted his most famous dialogue as Dr. Derek Shepherd in the caption. On any given day Grey's Anatomy is just a reminder that I have fully functional tear ducts.

Anywho, I won't dilly dally too much. This month I finally read Annie Zaidi's work. 

I say finally because I have an interesting Annie Zaidi story. It was summer two years ago (2018), I was bored and restless in Mumbai. There was more than a month left for college to re-open. High on impulse, I registered for an event by Agents of Ishq — it was a conversation on love with Annie Zaidi. I hadn't read any of her works. I went into the talk fully without context. 

Ordinarily, I would have pestered someone to come along with me but in a somewhat spontaneous moment, I decided to go it alone. That was a summer I ended up doing a lot of low-key new things. First time I went to a bookstore cafe all by myself (Title Waves, Bandra), first time I drew myself, first time I actually paid attention to how the jackfruit in my grandmother's garden sprouted over time. (I practically grew up around those jackfruit trees, it's wild that I didn't observe much earlier)

All of this, as usual, came with the company of great writers. Alone at a book cafe happened with Jeet Thayil and Narcopolis. I ordered hot chocolate like a child and pretended to drink it slowly like black coffee. Even dropped some of it on the book I had purchased.

Annie Zaidi became part of one of those memories. It rained heavily on the day of the event. My slipper broke, I didn't find an auto, the trains were running late. All of it for some humble attempt at being a sub-standard person projecting a tough exterior. 

In reality, I'm a flimsy ball— who in that same year couldn’t even get a new SIM card without feeling existential. (Seriously though, how was I supposed to explain to the Vodafone guy that I left my phone on a cab and didn't realise until an hour after getting out. That too because I first discovered that my earphones were missing and then remembered they were connected to the phone.)

But, never-mind, back to Annie Zaidi. This month I finally read her work. I dived into her memoir on belonging and dislocation titled Bread, Cement, Cactus. She writes about the places she's felt at home, the places she's lived in without much zest or feel, the places that were unwelcoming, and of course, the country that is now on the verge of being unwelcoming to her mixed-blood and faith. It's all there.

She articulates home as a feeling more than physical space. The surge of nostalgia it fills up, a certainty of wanting to be known within a particular space. The urge to put a name on mud and how awfully difficult that is when you don't identify with one particular place or language. 

My home, currently

I loved her exploration of home. Was home a culture? Or was it in fact the loss of culture? I related to the dilemma. Most of us will. The place I usually describe as home — Mumbai, actually represents the language I lost: Malayalam. I'm not crippled by it, but it is still a loss. I can string words together and speak in Malayalam fairly well, but I can't write. 

As it is true for many Indians — home is not one place. My ancestral land is Kerala, but I grew up elsewhere. I can roughly speak in four languages and I'm still petrified of putting any of them on my resume. People who put language skills on their resume are at a level of cultural confidence that I can only aspire for.

I was particularly struck by Zaidi's observation of her grandmother. Her grandmother was never able to speak to anyone outside of home because no one understood or spoke Urdu. This, I realised was true for my grandmother too. It’s quite embarrassing honestly, that it took me so long to figure out. Language is power. The signs are everywhere. Hindi imposition, the unnecessary value placed on English, attempts to put down any language that a majority doesn't understand. It was all there, I just never saw it all in the context of myself.

It’s not just language, towards the end, Zaidi writes about death and home. How many people are born and cremated in the same place? Such a loaded sentence. But I know at least two people in my life who didn't die in the place they were born. She probes further into graveyards, cemeteries — and how casteism and religious bigotry doesn't stop even after someone dies. Crematoriums are spaces of segregation. People of different castes are not laid down next to each other. No one dares to attempt equality even in death. 

* * * *

I always thought home meant people. But it's more. It's a headache to define. Especially now, since half the things I own and treasure (including some very valuable documents) are locked away in a PG room that is technically no longer mine. If I ever go back there it's going to be to pack away my belongings and say goodbyes. 

Zaidi offers comfort food. Home, she says, is always connected to sorrow. It's the loss of something, it's the memory of a place. I personally haven’t thought much about homes, but I'm rooting for her words to be right. 

Home is your dog chewing leaves. It's familiar. It's the wall where your height was marked growing up, it's underlined passages in a book, words written on "notes app" months ago after a long walk, parties that ended with friends giving drunk speeches on destroying capitalism. I find it quite a heartening to think of home like this.

* * * *

Interestingly, after I finished reading Bread Cement Cactus, I rewatched a 4-year old interview of Sharukh Khan with Barkha Dutt. Considering I grew up loving both these people to no end, it feels like the perfect way to end.

Thank you for reading.

Sharukh Khan in the 1998 movie Dil Se — directed by Mani Ratnam.

(PS: I also rewatched Dil Se earlier this year. I have mixed feelings about the film, but I’m 100% convinced that if they tried releasing it today it would be banned or at the very least heavily censored)