'Where we're from, we're no one': Why I don't have a hometown

The Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (The world is one family) is not about booing and heckling our cricketing guests from a neighbouring nation. It would take several Chandrayans and World Cups to reach there


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Fri 20 Oct 2023, 5:41 PM

It was a convention of sorts by hundreds of zombies on the sandy courtyard of my ancestral home. Some squatted, some sunbathed, some lanky figures paused like a black stone Gandhi on a marketplace pedestal, and scores of them crammed together like the mysterious Terracotta Warriors of China.

The ones with blood on their faces, I remember, were childhood friends who were killed in political violence. Those with a vicious giggle retrofitted on their visages were neighbourhood grandmas who wilted away in the 70s. They dragged me into the crowd, hugged me with a craving that goes beyond the definition of carnal pleasures, and tossed me in the air as high as the palm trees that my great grandfather planted during the British Raj. From the highs, rising seas, parched paddy fields, shrinking rivers, denuded forests and littered beaches were visible through a diaphonic veil of smog.

“Welcome home,” they yelled as I came down and bounced on a trampoline of bony limbs. That’s when I howled through the thick of darkness and silence, and my partner jolted me out of the nightmare. Every time I planned a trip back home after a gap of many years, such nightmares would haunt me to a breakdown. But this time around, the same crowd of zombies who always chorused “Green, green grass of home”, crooned a different dirge:

“Where we’re from, there’s no sun

Our hometown’s in the dark.”

That spurred me into thinking about my hometown. Do I have one? The place that comes to mind is certainly not the village where I took birth and where the great grandpa’s palm trees sway majestically in the warm sea breeze. Having left the birthplace at the age of 21, I have lived elsewhere on the globe more than in India.

Nor is it Mumbai where I found my true calling and learned not only the anatomy of hard life but also the relevance of frugality. It’s a metropolis that once upon a time I fondly called my second home and hatched all my eggs. That’s not the case anymore. I believe Mumbai was just a rented womb, a surrogate mother with no emotional commitments.

Having awarded myself the sobriquet of a globalist, I easily bond with all nationalities. But I’m still at a loss to know the meaning of home or hometown. If the proverb “Home is where the heart is” holds even a drop of water, then I must admit my hometown is certainly not where I am from. If home is where safety is, if home is where peace is, if home is where tranquility is, if home is where harmony is and if home is where women can go for a midnight stroll, my home is elsewhere on the planet.

Being a globalist was not by happenstance. It was a choice which involved the rigour of transforming the mindset. It’s not about having hash browns for breakfast, wedges for lunch and mashed potato for dinner. It’s not about wearing shorts and tees or turtlenecks, it’s about being empathetic, being humane, being a giver, being caring, being tolerant, and being secular. It’s about bleeding your love for the hapless Gazans being bombed day in, day out.

The Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (The world is one family) is not about booing and heckling our cricketing guests from a neighbouring nation. It would take several Chandrayans and World Cups to reach there.

Having spent the better part of my lifetime in Dubai and the rest in Singapore, the pendulum swings between the two great places in the search for my hometown. More than the PR I held in the Southeast Asian republic or my Golden Visa in the UAE, it is emotion as well as the sense of belonging and security that connect me with these two places in equal intensity.

Serangoon, Pasir Ris, Orchard, Hougang — the places where I had lived in Singapore — and Al Gusais, Al Quoz, and Al Karama where my children were brought up in Dubai are more familiar and nostalgic than my birthplace in India. Besides my immediate family and some good old pals, I am a stranger in my birthplace. An unwelcome tourist or an alien who people stare at over their picket fences.

Thirteen years after we moved on from Singapore, my children still speak Singlish, a colloquial form of English. Dubai is like the maternal home for my son who lives in Germany. He has no childhood memories from India to brag about.

“Where we're from, we’re no one

Our hometown’s in the dark

Our hometown’s in the dark.”

The zombies warbled in the courtyard.


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