Mistaken Longings: When I Write of Calcutta, I Don’t Write of “Home”

Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, India. Dec 25 2011.

 

“I have a question,” a middle aged man says, his bald pate shiny against the afternoon light filtering into the Lakeside Terrace room at Harbourfront Center. We are at “Safar: Journeys to South Asia” panel of Toronto International Festival of Authors. He addresses the authors, “Do you think that in your books, there is a sense of longing for home?”

*

I left my birth city, Calcutta, at the age of nine. Each time I visit, the city changes just a little, crumbles just a bit more under the weight of time. Nostalgia is a wasted endeavour, so I don’t engage in it. I accept the city in its griminess, complete in its mad chaos. It thrives in my absence. It asserts, in my presence.

It exists, with or without me.

When I was a teenager growing up in Dubai, I would visit Calcutta every summer for the months of July and August. It was always monsoon season, my memory of Calcutta dripping with the rains. If I were to indulge in nostalgia, that is how I would think of Calcutta. Dark. Foreboding. Always on the brink of storm.

*

Back in the room at Harbourfront, there is an audible silence. Bated breaths await.

Amulya Malladi responds with a laugh before going onto say that she does not long for any “home;” here, home a reference to the country of origin. Other authors echo Malladi, poised in their answers. The question is problematic in this setting, made even more so by the one asking, a man of colour.

The audience too, laughs. Exhales. It was a reductive question. It is good to be acknowledged as such.

*

It is so easy to be mistaken to be belonging elsewhere, the darkness of my skin marking me as other even after fifteen years in Canada. “Where are you from?” has become a stale – but not rare – refrain. Questions have evolved as well. The same question has been repackaged into a new definition of “home,” a place elsewhere, not here. Never here.

As someone who also writes fiction, and one who often writes of Calcutta, there is no nostalgia there. Ask my characters why they drag me to Calcutta. The Calcutta they take me to is a recreated Calcutta, a Calcutta of my characters. Some would argue it’s not even Calcutta anymore, changed to Kolkata in 2001. Here, I am creating an alternate space, an imaginative space pieced together from memory and imagination.

So, yes. There is a longing. A longing to tell a story.

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