Longing for home

Longing for home

Well, here we are. We’ve got our life set up. After struggling for years with college, then entry level jobs, then with the initial pangs of marriage and homesteading, we’re finally all set for life.

We’re here in the big city — Bangalore or Mumbai or Delhi or Chennai, with good job prospects, and the course of our life well mapped. Even if all of it is not quite there yet, our course is clear, and this is what we’re aiming for through the long days and nights of preparation and struggle.

The routine is all set, too. A steady balance of job and family through the work week. Weekends buying groceries or jostling through crowded malls. Having fun buying things at sales, or chilling out at a pub or a lounge. The annual trip to Europe or the Himalayas. Saving up for the next big goal. Waiting (and dreading) the annual performance review that might get us a raise. The inevitable change of jobs every few years.

It’s not as if we’re the only ones who have made it. Most of our colleagues, many of the other people we interact with through the day — drivers, shopkeepers, small businessmen, vendors — have created their space in the city in their own way. They too came here with dreams and are busy achieving them. Being here in the city and belonging here gives you a sense of achievement, too, to have reached this far in life.

But all’s not quite rosy. Sometimes in these gaps between the hustle and bustle, something feels hollow, as if you’re not quite sure why you’re doing all this. Do we really need to struggle so much? Are we becoming better people for this? But these times are infrequent and they get less as the years go by. Everyone around us is doing the same thing, and that is proof enough that we’re on the right track.

Then some day, a stray sound or image flickers by: the sound of an ice cream man’s bell, or a certain angle of sunlight on an empty road. Maybe a phone call or a Facebook contact request from a name you haven’t thought of in years. And just like that, you’re back to a time when the big city was just a dream. When you were growing up, without a care in the world, and you lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone. Where there weren’t any malls to go to, but the bazaar near your home had wonders you would drool over — samosas and fruit juice and bhel and ice cream. And then you remember the several important institutions that had your regular patronage: the comics shop, the neighbourhood barber, the cycle puncture repair shop. If you were lucky, the library or the cinema house nearby.

And suddenly, you’re comparing all that you’ve achieved in the city, and it seems hollow compared to the happiness you knew in your town — the happiness of belonging.

Almost all of us have grown up in a smaller town than the one we came to for our jobs or college. During those growing up years, moving out seemed like the best way forward in life — to escape and come to the city, make our mark there. Now that we’re here, though, we’re wondering whether we really belong here. We’re not alone in this thought process. The vast majority of city dwellers today are first-generation — as in, they grew up elsewhere and migrated to the city.

This inflow is what is responsible for the explosive growth of cities today. But people still identify themselves as primarily belonging to the town they came from. Consider the standard first question that people ask each other in India: “What is your native place?”

The regional identification is so strong that it remains all our life. We tend to adhere to the culture and customs that we grew up with in our home town. This is most apparent in the festivals that we hold close to our heart. Because we are away from people who celebrate with us, we use whatever means is at hand — phones, the net, get-togethers — to mark the occasion. Remember that Ganesh Chaturthi greeting you got on Facebook? Or that SMS commemorating Ram Navami?

Concept of multiculturalism

But a custom is only as strong as the community that follows it. And they are propagated by the elders in the community passing them on to the younger people. When we’re in the city, our understanding of our heritage becomes limited by what we learnt in our younger days — a fading, malnourished reminder. In the city, everyone’s come from a different place, and has a slightly different understanding of customs. And sometimes these are contrary to each other. When we moved into our first house in Bangalore, for example, a neighbour told us it was a good omen to boil milk on the stove and let it spill over, as a good omen. My mother was horrified when she heard of this (over the phone) — in her place, it was considered a very bad sign to let milk overflow like that. This continues to all the festivals. How does one celebrate Holi, for example, if everyone around you has a different view of how it’s done in their home town? How does one perform a housewarming, a dance recital, a baby shower, if the guests are not sure what they’re expected to do? What if we do something and it offends someone? Where do we get those special sweets or pooja items here, anyhow?

And so the city becomes a place where only the minimum common rituals and festivals are observed — maybe there’s a Diwali, a Christmas, perhaps Holi at most. Where we had a celebration, an event every week, we now have just a couple of occasions a year. And, because people need to have festivals and occasions to mark their days, commercial enterprises move in with their own festivals: sales, and mall events, and occasions for buying cards, and movie publicity stunts. Desperate for a sense of belonging, we join in these and find a spurious bonding with our neighbours.

All the while, though, as these happen, we hark back to the days when the social structure was composed of ‘our own people’ and the simpler ways of our home towns. And with time, the inevitable dream begins to take shape in our minds: to accumulate enough savings to leave the rat race of the city, to go back to where we grew up, ‘among our own people’, and build a house there. Thus equipped, we can spend our remaining days in peace.

It’s surprising how pervasive this dream is: from cab drivers to software engineers to writers to senior managers, I’ve found all sorts of people preparing to go back home once they have saved enough. If the American Dream was to make a mark in the Big City, the Indian Dream is to retire from the race and go back to one’s native place.

The dream is even shared by folks who have grown up in a city, or in a place far away from their native land. It’s really a vision of being in an utterly familiar place, where we feel we really belong.

A lot of times, this dream was given to us by our parents and older relatives, back in our town. A generation ago, a job was something you took purely to earn money — passion or interest rarely came into it. It was something temporary (where temporary was defined as most of your adulthood).

Remember the vast army of degree holders in arts, commerce and science who went to join banks and government offices — the steady job was more important than prior qualification or any sort of interest. It was possible to go through one’s own career without developing much of an affection for it. I remember an uncle of mine who worked in a bank until retirement age, taking a month off every monsoon to go back to his village and help with planting the crops on his land, along with his brothers and nephews. When he finally retired, he used the pension money to build a house back in his village. Through it all, the job was just something tedious to be borne, in order to earn a salary. And the job was the only reason to be in the city.

Funnily, it’s rare to find this attitude today, especially in the jobs that earn well. We seek to make our jobs our life today. We shift from job to job because we’re looking for job satisfaction, and also more money. We bask in the glory that the job brings us. More importantly, we mould our lives and assets around our jobs. We buy houses now that make going to the office easier. Unbidden, the thought comes to our minds: we might be here for the long run, perhaps all our lives, so we might as well make the best of it. Life in the city is also a dream we’ve had, a dream we’re living now. Do we want to leave this dream, just because it isn’t giving us the happiness we hoped it would?

Melting pot

The city has become easier to live in, too, since our parents’ days. It subtly encourages mixing in, melting into a common (if superficial) culture. While our parents lived in independent houses, in lanes that housed people from the same background — the same region, the same language, similar social strata — we now live in gated communities that have all types of people. Our children speak an argot of half a dozen languages, gleaned from the playground. Where the socialisation hot spots earlier were centered around the community — temples, neighbourhood houses, marriages, now they are egalitarian malls, restaurants, office parties. Thus our groups are more built on shared interests and similar careers, no matter where we came from. A colleague coming from a different state is not a reason to shun him/her now — it is merely a curiosity and a topic for conversation.

We also invest more in learning about the city and the culture we find ourselves in. We sample the local food. We learn enough of the language to talk through the daily interactions with city folk. We find the bulk market areas to buy things on the cheap. And finally, the ultimate melting in: we buy a home in the city, partly as an investment and partly to set up long-term living here.

This mindset, slowly but surely, turns us into ‘proper’ city dwellers. We become fine-tuned to the daily patterns here, and take our joys and sorrows from what the city offers us. We find that on the increasingly rare trips back home, we long for the fast pace and various joys of the city — the fine dining, the well-stocked grocery store nearby, the theatre or mall. The world which seemed to us to be all-encompassing in our childhood now seems claustrophobic, empty. We all know the relative or friend who shifted enthusiastically to the town, but couldn’t stand the pace, and finally went back to his tiny house in the city. If we go back, we think, will we be able to adjust to the slower pace, the lack of entertainment options, the sense of moving forward? Will we have to survive on nostalgia alone?

And so we’re torn between wholehearted belonging to the city, and continuing with the life we left back home. Where do we aim our life?

If it’s any consolation, there is a change brewing that may make life easier: the sudden growth of small towns. After decades of focusing on metro cities, retailers, industries and entertainment companies are all realising that the path to expansion lies through the smaller towns in India. Everyone from luxury car makers to multiplex chains are rushing to open their shops there. The rise of wealth in these towns is forcing government agencies and entrepreneurs to upgrade the infrastructure in these towns as well.

Popular culture, once occupied with the glamorous big cities and the migration to the west, is now focusing on life in small towns. One achiever after another, from cricketers to film stars to industrialists, proudly talk of their small-town roots, and motivate others to follow their paths. It is becoming fashionable to now have a foot in both boats — to not pretend to be a pure city guy or gal.

Soon we may come full circle to our parents’ times again — when the city was where the head was, but the town or village held sway over your heart. After all, the city is only a mistress — interested in you as long as you have money, or are willing to donate your life’s blood and effort to it. When you’re down and out, it is your town that welcomes you with open arms, wipes away your tears, and invites you to the joy of belonging.

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