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Home is Mine: Manju Chellani

I must warn the reader right in the beginning that this piece is a collection of my whimsical musings about what we call home. If I seem to go off on tangents, please bear with me. I promise not to wander too far from home, unlike Peter Pan. I also promise that I will try to weave as interesting a tapestry as possible – by interspersing motifs of books, movies, and songs beloved and familiar to most of us. Just like home!

I have always felt that homes are imbued with lives of their own. Quite distinct from the lives of those dwelling inside them for short or long periods. Rather like the wands in the Harry Potter saga, homes choose whom they belong to; not the other way round. Humans can exist in homes without being chosen, but not actually live there. At times, the personalities of the homes can even tower over us and make us feel that we humans are only cogs in the well-oiled machinery which the home runs itself with. For instance, I would certainly feel very diffident to just go to Manderley of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) to admire its famed beauty. Who knows when the mansion may send Mrs. Danvers with pursed-up lips and a disdainful look on her face, telling me to shoo off because of my dirty shoes and a low-brow interest in and knowledge of the stately home? Shudder! In the same way, we fondly do up our homes and re-organize them. But they will not take on a look which is alien to their intrinsic nature. It would be obvious that they are displeased, and won’t tamely follow suit just because we have just made a large hole in our pockets. They would look so odd that we would have to fall in line and match the décor style to their inherent character and period. And who among us has not experienced that moving away from or coming to a new home has a marked influence on our moods and fortunes? Such moves generally make for a karmic cocktail of two heady spirits: human and home.

In the same vein, we may live within the walls of a home but a real relationship with it comes about only with mutual synergy. If it exists, then we can talk to them, remember them, belong to them and miss them, quite like other relationships in our lives. This is why we call out to them at points in life when we just want to sleep in a loving lap who would caress our phantoms away. Parents and home seem interchangeable at these times (and after all, our parents also have had individual relationships with the home they made for us). Doesn’t the song so soulfully sung by John Denver: Country Roads Take Me Home….West Virginia, mountain mamma… tug at the heart of each of us? But are our eyes turning moist for the place we call home or the person we call mother? Difficult to say. Ditto with Scarlett O’Hara when she came home to Tara in Gone with the Wind (1936) to just drop in her mother Ellen’s arms after her life had turned topsy-turvy. And she discovered that Ellen was no longer alive and her father passed away soon after. Eventually, we see in this classic book that Tara takes over as the go-to place in Scarlett’s chequered life. And I am sure that we all remember that heart-rending old song from the Hindi movie Kabuliwaala (1961) sung by Manna Dey: Ai Mere Pyaare Watan / Ai Mere Bichhde Chaman / Tujh Pe Dil Qurbaan. It could be an ode to a dearly beloved home, mother, father, or country.

Of course, this would happen if we were fortunate enough to grow up in loving homes. Even more so if the homes were secure. Then the memories would be happy and we would pine to rush to that home, that family, that room, that garden. To snuggle there and shut out the rest of the world for some time. I am sure that most of us have felt that there is an automatic connection between our souls and the place which we call our home. To be in that home physically spirals the communion with our inner selves and soul. Each stain on the window-sill, each tree in the garden and each broken chair in the study – the intimacy is intense. As Henry Longfellow has said in his poem Haunted Houses: “All the houses wherein men have lived and died / Are haunted houses. Through the open doors / The harmless phantoms on their errands glide, / With feet that make no sound upon the floors /” We have all felt it at times, I am positive. We all have heard the shuffling of the feet of people gone by; birds hopping in our lawns whose expressions try to tell us something past; voices which echo in the silence of old rooms. And such things can happen only in houses with hoary associations. But of course, it is not each house that pulls at us with the same intensity. Sometimes the prevailing feeling is one of just warmth and familiarity, just like a well-made cup of tea. And conversely, not each of us pulls at the same house with the same intensity either!

But not all of us have been fortunate enough to live or grow up in joyful homes. It does not follow that unhappy associations do not make a home out of a house. They may not be happy or peaceful, but they may be intense. And intensity is another cup of tea. Or brew. A house may be home, but very unhappily so. Or may eventually become miserable. Both homes and families have long-lasting influences which leave dark marks on the soul; because they are so fundamental to our psyches. Or the dark marks may have already coloured the psyche. The home and the environment tinge them even further. Just like for the protagonist of one of my favourite books by Agatha Christie. I have always admired her knack both for building mysteries and characters. But the chilling suspense and build-up of Endless Night (1967) were at another level altogether. How the would-be murderer falls in love is poignant; first with a woman and then with a house. His love-story (ies) are frightening, to say the least. But he can’t remain happy in the house he has not grown up in but has come to own because of his marriage and a lot of scheming ruthlessness. Very soon, the serpent rears its (in this case, callow and manipulative) head in the Eden, the murderer thought he had built around him. The reader righteously feels that the house turns upon him pronto and punishes him for being so greedy and selfish. The crime becomes the punishment. Scores have been settled. The intensity of suffering has been repaid by the intensity of reparation.

But what happens when it is the home which suffers? It has thrived with, loved, and nurtured its occupants. It has been at one with them through thick and thin. They have laughed and cried together. And then the occupants leave one by one. They go out in the world and eventually build other homes. They remember the old home with indulgence and only perfunctorily. Not as their sanctuary but as their launching pad. This comes as a shock to the home but it waits; and feels that one day, they all will return to the fold and toasts will be raised. But how long can it wait in vain? The reality does settle in slowly and hope withers away. Philip Larkins’ poem: Home is so Sad hits the nail on the head when it tells us: “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left, / Shaped to the comfort of the last to go / As if to win them back. Instead, bereft / Of anyone to please, it withers so, / Having no heart to put aside the theft/… But hark! Is Larkins talking about the home or an old parent? Beloved but redundant. Who is unable to protest against being patronized well-meaningly? But even if silent, if their words splutter away, it may be our past which has snuffed away forever. And if in the thunders and lightning of our lives we run towards them as the forever-beacons (or so we think), we may well wonder with Emily Dickinson’s I Years Had Been From Home, “I years had been from home / And now before the door, / I dared not open, lest a face / I never saw before /… but a Life I left, / Was such remaining there? / It may be too late then to light the candles; to reclaim this life. And this home.

Home is one of the most personal and sacred things in life. It is the sanctuary of the body, repose of the heart and contentment of the soul. It may be where we have grown up; where our parents are, presently; where we got married; where we raised our children; where we would like to die or somewhere entirely different. Maybe someplace we are still searching for. Maybe an image in the mind. But one thing is certain. Home is the vision we see, whether awake or asleep – of where the heart rushes to, whether in happiness or tragedy. In this piece I have, as I said in the beginning, whimsically brought in several references to books, movies, and poems of the past so many years. This is because they have the mellowness and tenderness of having been around for a long time. And they exude the security of being around for as many years in the future, too. This is what home feels like too, no matter how many chronological years we have known it for. And this is why some abodes are houses and some are homes.


Dr Manju Chellani is an independent writer, based in New Delhi. Her areas of research and writing include environmental law, rights of animals, cultural heritage, Odissi dance, and sustainable development. Many of her writings can be viewed online.

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