Home means different things to different people. Sometimes it defies its ‘usual’ parameters to encompass other realities. At other times, it contains within its syllables a comfortable and soothing environment which we generally associate with its meaning. But home can also be flipped on its head to hold terrors that shake our very foundations.
Though I was aware of these thoughts in a loosely-formed manner, recently they were ‘brought home’ to me even more strongly. I became cognizant of its multi-facetedness, looking through eyes other than my own. Like the best lessons, I learned experientially how home continues to be defined and re-defined, how it shifts and moves its boundaries, shining a light into some unexplored corners.
A bit of background first – my husband and I decided to raise our family in Canada, immigrating in 1999. Once we were settled, we spoke to my parents and filed permanent resident papers for them. They received their status five years ago. Since then, they have visited us for months at a time. Last year, they stayed with us for over 10 months at a stretch.
Now, their PR card has expired and the time has come for renewal. And “Therein lies the rub”. When they were here, they pined deeply for their ‘home’. Since they returned to Kolkata, India, they have not been keen to return. Though they had tried to set their minds and hearts to staying permanently in Canada, they have since been unable to adjust.
They returned to Kolkata in February this year. Though Ma was in perfect health when she was here, she has been suffering ill-health since the time she returned. Both my parents are COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) patients. This condition has worsened in India, for my mother. Barely a day goes by without her feeling short of breath, weak and unwell.
In early June she was hospitalized with COPD complications and I rushed back to India to be with them. Supporting one’s aging parents, watching the physical decline, is a difficult thing. I can hardly bear to think of my super-efficient Ma now growing slower and slower, fumbling with a boat-load of medication, not willing to venture out of her home.
Now, you may think it was a mistake for them to return to India, with its high levels of pollution. Logic alone shows that they were in better shape in Canada, within a temperature- controlled environment. I’ve been agonizing over this. But it all became clear to me when I asked them, “Do you regret returning?”
Astonishingly, they were unanimous in their opinion, “No, this is home!”
A typical Kolkata day
I pondered long and deep about this quandary. What did they mean about ‘home’? Waking in the early Kolkata mornings, I would stand on the balcony of my parents’ apartment. All around me grew a chorus of birdcall, the urgent business of the nightingales and crows in the pre-dawn, the whispering of the wind in the mango trees. There was also the abundance of frangipani blossoms by the gate, the pond where the palm trees looked into the water, and the landscape of roofs and terraces.
And slowly, the day began with the paper boy cycling by with his stack, aiming accurately and launching the folded newspaper across balconies. The radio played a Tagore song, accompanying steaming cups of tea brought in by my father. We sat at the small table and sipped strong tea and nibbled on our ‘Marie’ biscuits. Discussing the day’s headlines came a bit later during breakfast. An aunt called to inquire about their health. My mother and her sister bemoaned their circumstances, then moved on to the upcoming program at the granddaughter’s school function.
Then the cook sails in importantly and is a picture of calm as she plans the lunch menu. Is my mother sure carp is a good fish for lunch? She cooked carp just yesterday, surely the daughter-who-has-come-from-far should be treated to some other fish? Perhaps ‘hilsa’? No, just one kind of vegetable is simply not done. Gentle domestic discussions continue with much enthusiasm before the menu for the day is settled to everyone’s satisfaction.
Meanwhile, the day progresses leisurely with minor crises which seem inevitable. Oh god, no, the water supply has been shut off. Why has the watchman not started the pump as yet? How are we to have our baths? The neighbouring lady yells out of the window, “Ram Singh, why haven’t you started the pump? Are you sleeping? Half the day is done, what a calamity!”
By afternoon, there creeps a general somnolence in the air. We doze with books beside us, the heat thick behind the curtained windows. But the fans are spinning at top speeds and it’s not so bad indoors. In the evening, a phone call from a cousin who’s bringing his wife and toddler to see us. We spend a pleasurable time with young Tintin and his parents. There’s tea and eggplant fritters! And when they leave, it’s time for the daily soaps my parents watch regularly.
Dinner is subdued and quick. Medicines must be taken correctly, as the day comes to an end. This is their routine. Tomorrow is another day, with phone calls from relatives, more problems to be solved, and new spouses and babies to be met.
Independence to live their lives the way they want, is a gift we must offer our parents, common sense be damned!