Where is Home? What a Pandemic and a Cyclone Taught Us

In his famous ‘Where is Home’ talk, Pico Iyer expresses the dilemma of every person who has not known home to be one that can be summarized in a single latitude-longitude.

Home, we have always been told, is a safe place. A place where you are comfortable, where you experience secure relationships, and most of all, it’s the place where you find yourself.

A pandemic, however, may have changed our definition of home. Home is not a memory or nostalgia or where we dream of living—home is a concrete, safe place. Let’s be real—home can be many things in our head, but without one that’s built with strong bricks, or one that’s not enough for twelve members in the family, or one where you feel threatened—is it really a safe place?

When Covid-19 proved that it’s a real threat and we were instructed to flatten the curve by staying at home, the first question that came to mind for many was, ‘But where is home?’ For the construction workers who had set up makeshift homes around the broken bricks and cement that they used to build homes, home was far away.

And there was no way to go back.

So, they started walking back home. For the students who were stuck miles away from home, perhaps hoping to build a home there, home was the place where their families were waiting for them. For the ones who moved away from their small-town home to work in a metropolitan, home may have been difficult to choose: Should I go back to my aged parents risking my health and theirs or should I live alone risking my mental health, living with loneliness and the bursts of anxiety worried sick about my parents? Many packed their bags; many of them stayed, hoping they will find home-- in cooking the food their mothers make the best, binging on shows, and video-calling their friends. For many though, home wasn’t even a choice. They had to stay where they were. The women who face violence at home by their husbands, or other family members had to live with their monsters. The children who live in a violent home, often beaten up by the abusive parents, had to be home, 24X7. Perhaps the school campus, the football ground, or the music class was more of a home for them. The ones, who live alone, often fighting with the monsters they have built in their heads, turned their four walls into their home. Perhaps, to them, travelling felt more like being at home.

Maya Angelou, in her book ‘All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes’, wrote, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” How many of us can claim that’s exactly the place where we are at right now?

The day after the lockdown was announced, many went in search of home, walking thousand of kilometres, risking their lives. Two months later, even as the weather changed, the search for home went on. Migrant labourers kept walking in scorching heat. Many of them didn’t reach home. An analysis of news reports in national media shows that more than 100 migrant workers were killed in accidents since March 24, while hundreds of others sustained injuries. Many of the injured in such accidents were reported to have suffered critical injuries-- the death toll is possibly much higher.

The migrants who went back home were asked to stay away from their families—in quarantine. How does one stay in ‘quarantine’ when you have a room for a home? How do you ensure your family maintains social distance when there is one bathroom for the entire village?

Kamlesh Meena, a 24-year-old migrant labourer, walked 160km from Ajmer’s Kishangarh to his native village in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan after the extension of lockdown last month only to be stopped by the villagers. After much deliberation and after a medical team was called from the Community Health Centre to collect his samples, it was decided that Kamlesh will quarantine on a tree. For 14 days, Kamlesh lived on a makeshift platform built on a tree in the agricultural field outside the village. (https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/coronavirus-migrant-labourer-completes-quarantine-on-a-tree/article31504597.ece

Seven labourers who returned to West Bengal’s Purulia district spent days on a tree after they were advised to stay in isolation over fears they could be infected with coronavirus when they returned from Chennai. They didn’t have separate rooms in their homes. “Our homes are small, we cannot afford to spare a room for just one person,” one of them told Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/coronavirus-update-bengal-men-self-quarantine-on-tree-to-keep-others-safe/story-K0aq4BMNQ2TyuvnBBIYoXN.html

Three days ago Amphan, the most powerful cyclone to strike eastern India and Bangladesh in 20 years killed 88 and devastated coastal villages, tore down power lines, flooded over large tracts of land and destroyed thousands of homes. Three million people were forced out of their homes. The next day, The Telegraph’s headline read, ‘Storm rips what lockdown didn’t’.

It read, “As though the last two months of lockdown had not served up enough life lessons, Cyclone Amphan on Thursday played harsh teacher to millions of Calcutta households. Large swathes of the city were without electricity, and the backup power gave up after a few hours. The power utilities said it could take days to restore supply to some areas. Many families had no water in their taps because the pumps would not work.”

Home wasn’t liveable anymore.

The mangroves of Sunderbans, however, bore the brunt of the super cyclone. A social worker in Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas, told HuffPost India, “At least 7,000-8,000 huts, maybe even 10,000 huts, have been completely razed to the ground. You cannot tell the walls from the roof, that’s how mangled the remains are.”

Subhasish Mondal said that as far as his eye could see, everything was inundated with salt water and destroyed.

Homes, that scientists, researchers, doctors, schools, workplaces and the government asked us to stay in to save ourselves from a virus, was taken away by a cyclone.

The idea of home, for many of us, has been created by inspirational quotes and messages on those greeting cards: ‘Home is where the heart is’. ‘Home is not a place…it’s a feeling’, ‘A house is made of bricks and beams. A home is made of hopes and dreams’, but try telling that to the people who couldn’t return to their homes and the ones who just lost them?