FLIGHTPATHS: HOMESICK

by Devi S. Laskar 

(Published in Papercuts Magazine)

‘Nostalgia is a dangerous trap that bends the shape of memory.’ And yet it is this trap that constructs the meaning of home.

In this series, titled Flight Paths, three women writers of South Asian origin invoke ‘home’ as the immigrant experience, sharing the real and metaphorical journeys they have made, in the shift from Asia to America.

Devi Laskar faces disruption in her quest for the yellow brick road in Homesick. In Je me Souviens, a road trip to Montreal urges Shahbano Bilgrami to remember – rather, to never forget. Even as Himali Kapil realizes that the true meaning of being uprooted is reflected in a new-born baby’s eyes, in a cup of ginger cardamom chai, in Homecoming.

“There’s no place like home.”

—   Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale of Kansas, from the film The Wizard of Oz.

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.”

—   Thomas Wolfe, from You Can’t Go Home Again.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I was going to write something that referenced my favorite childhood film, The Wizard of Oz, in which Dorothy bravely embarked on a quest through poppy fields and strange lands, overcoming fear of wicked witches and finding faith on a yellow brick road — all to go home.

I was going to mention chickens coming home to roost and cows in India knowing their way home, even after a long day of wandering the streets unimpeded and unsupervised. Then I was going to describe the contradictions of “home”: When there is little out of the ordinary going on, it is “nothing to write home about,” and yet, when something is written or said that is precise and hurtful, the author or antagonist has “hit” or “struck” home. I was going to point out how “home” is really not a location but an idea, where the people you consider family reside.

We all shared a yellow brick road of opportunity to learn and grow and make a good life. To be sure it was no utopia.

I was going to discuss growing up in a small college town in the U.S., as part of a small, tightly knit, Indian community heavily outnumbered by white people. Nothing ever happened in Chapel Hill, N.C. when I was a child, except during March Madness, when college basketball rivalries on Tobacco Road were the subject of many a shrill argument. There was comfort in my hometown’s predictability. Whatever was going on in the rest of the state or in the nation, Chapel Hill remained trapped in a bubble of timelessness.

I was going to describe how, as a child, I marveled at the ethnic make up of my hometown. How, in a state that was represented by the iconic bigotry of the late Sen. Jesse Helms, my classmates and teachers represented the entire planet: men and women and children of different skin color, different native languages, different faiths. We all shared a yellow brick road of opportunity to learn and grow and make a good life. To be sure it was no utopia. Segregation had ended, but few believed me when I said I was a North Carolina native, and many thought my Southern accent was an attempt to mock them. There were those who told me to “go on back home to where you came from”, and there were those who welcomed me to the United States and complimented me on my flawless English, and how well I spoke for a foreigner. Still, there was hope that one day people could be convinced that I belonged as much as they did; that home was in Chapel Hill and in NC, and in the big USA.

I was preparing to mention all of these things until I learned about the murder of three Muslim students close to the UNC campus.

Nearly five years ago, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation showed up in bulletproof vests and raided my suburban house at gunpoint.

I was born at the campus hospital, a few miles from where Deah Barakat and his wife Yusor were to live — and to die — forty-eight years later. A large graduate student population resides at the condominium complex in the quiet neighborhood where Deah, Yusor, and Yusor’s sister, Razan, were shot in the head, execution style, purportedly over a parking dispute. As a former crime reporter, I have witnessed senseless tragedies and incidents where lives have been lost because of misunderstandings and anger. But the deaths of these three strangers make me feel as if I have lost my innocence, and the comfort it brought me through other dark times, when the sanctity of my own household was violated.

Chapel Hill is not the only home I have lost in America. After graduating from UNC nearly 27 years ago, with degrees in English and journalism, I moved away, sad to leave the familiar but also excited to see the world. Before and after graduate schools, I worked as a newspaper reporter for several years, in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii and Illinois. When I eventually left the newsroom to start a family, that family laid its roots in Atlanta. We enjoyed the community we built around our longtime and new friends who had settled near us, raised our children together, carpooled to soccer tournaments and pitched in at volunteer activities—made a full life.

And then, five years ago, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation showed up in bulletproof vests and raided my suburban house at gunpoint. They seized our passports, our computers, and in the course of confiscating other items, broke my daughter’s art project for school. For the first time in my life I was afraid to be at home alone. My husband’s former employer used the state attorney general’s office to criminalize office politics and accused my husband of malfeasance. A chain of poor behavior on the university’s part led to my husband’s arrest and dismissal from his job as a college professor and eventually, one week before the statute of limitations was set to expire, criminal indictment.

Our losses are intangible: our hopes, our wishes, our desire to belong.

Our attorneys were told that if we did not cooperate, our house would be seized and our assets frozen. We no longer felt safe. We no longer felt welcomed or accepted at our second home, and made the difficult decision to leave Atlanta, our city then of nearly 17 years, leaving behind our family and friends who had stood by us.

Whatever the outcome of our legal struggles, our family knows that we will never again be able to “go home.” Our losses are more than the materials used to construct our house. Our losses are intangible: our hopes, our wishes, our desire to belong. Our bubble was burst for us; our children’s childhoods were cut short by years. In effect, it is not so different from what was lost recently in Chapel Hill. The Chapel Hill of my youth is gone, as is the Atlanta of my children’s memories. Our homes are lost to us.

I write today not as a reporter, but as a poet, a photographer, an artist, a writer of fiction and creative nonfiction. I write as my family’s chief chef, cheerleader and chauffeur. I write today as a person in exile in my own country. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there is no yellow brick road showing me the way back home.

Home is a memory; a feeling of belonging that eludes my family. Home is a rerun of a film that no longer provides comfort — just a reminder that unlike movies, the yellow brick road doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.

I’m grateful, in a way, because I’ve learned to live in the present. I’ve learned to appreciate the friends and family who have rallied by me, to speak out for the injustices that I see, not just in my husband’s case, but for others—for strangers. And so, the journey continues. But this time, there is no Kansas to go back to.