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  Opinion   Columnists  22 Apr 2023  Shreya Sen-Handley | What does home mean to you?

Shreya Sen-Handley | What does home mean to you?

Shreya Sen-Handley is the author of the award-winning 'Memoirs of My Body', short story collection 'Strange', and new travelogue 'Handle With Care', and a columnist and playwright. Her Twitter and Insta handle is @shreyasenhan.
Published : Apr 23, 2023, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2023, 3:56 pm IST

Think about what you’d rescue in a residential fire and you’ll know what home is

To some, including author James Baldwin, home doesn’t require external trapping.
 To some, including author James Baldwin, home doesn’t require external trapping.

Little House on The Prairie’s Laura Ingalls Wilder had pronounced ‘home’ to be “the nicest word there is”, and the Sanskrit-sounding restorative calm of its single syllable certainly makes it weighty. Or perhaps weighted — with abundant meaning.

Does ‘home’ mean your country/state/city? Or the bricks and mortar edifice within which you live? If the outside world is proving inhospitable, is it your inner space that provides sanctuary? Or, is it being with the people who make you happy?

Why am I even thinking about it this gloomy British morning? Murky weather can make me yearn for Indian sunshine, but not this time. Instead, it’s the realisation that I’ve now lived longer in my Sherwood Forest home than anywhere else, including my childhood abode of Kolkata.

This can’t be true, I say to my husband with genuine disbelief, because my years in Kolkata felt like forever, in ways both good and bad. The ties with friends and family there stretched back to infancy, and the days felt long and lazy (even when they weren’t — I worked pretty hard as a TV journalist). There was a sense of mooring as well as stasis about my birth city.

In comparison, stints in Manila, Delhi, and Sheffield, had the impermanence of swiftly fading Polaroid snapshots. But of these, the Filipino capital at least left an indelible stamp on my personality.

Having put down roots finally in middle England, I’ve built a home (metaphorically as well as literally, considering our many renovations to it) and raised children who are now in their teens. Our red brick house on a green patch has been protective cocoon, life-giving nest and luck-bringing talisman. Most of all, it’s the receptacle for all that’s right in my life, inside which I’ve had the good fortune to watch my little tribe thrive.

Not miles from Pliny the Elder or Emily Dickinson’s definition of home as the dwelling place of the heart (aka. of significant others), yet in an increasingly solitary world, it cannot only be that. Home, home, to paraphrase the country-western song, is a range (of different things to different people).

Home as a showcase, status symbol, or ‘des res’ within which one accumulates aspirational objets, is the Instagrammable alternative, and as vacuous and debt-inducing as all such purely material aims. But it is less dangerous than letting religion or politics dictate where we take root, or what we possessively ringfence: mere clods of earth that so often were snatched from somebody else, with all the blinkered thought and misplaced hate that comes with it.

What’s home to refugees braving the high seas to find a footing? Not the forced embrace of war-torn Rwanda as British home secretary Suella Braverman would have you believe. Nor do ‘boat people’ belong on boats, as the UK government seems to think, and packing them away like sardines on discarded old ships isn’t the answer to their quandary.

To some, including author James Baldwin, home doesn’t require external trappings. The ever-shifting mark singer Paul Young sought to lay his hat on in the eighties, or BBC’s Sherlock’s mind-palace, where the sleuthing genius felt more at ease than at 221B Baker Street, are homes as good as any.

Think about what you’d rescue in a residential fire and you’ll know what home is. For me, it would be family first, and then perhaps, if there was time to make one last dash into the bonfire, I’d save phones or laptops. Not because I’m enamoured of technology (far from it), or that they’re worth a few quid, but because these gizmos nowadays contain entire histories — our photographs, writings, recipes, you name it.

Everything else — calming orange armchair, beloved Kashmiri sidetable, or quirky Victorian cricketing print, for example — though valued for how well they fit our eclectic existence, and not for what they cost (not much), I’d survive without if I had to.

I’ve moved so often that nothing insensate could ever be the essence of home for me. That may be why, despite my love for our forest house, my subconscious whispers to me every now and then that it’s time to relocate.

Enchanting Corfu’s siren song tugs at the heart strings, even as majestic Berlin makes a solid appeal. Having nursed the vision of a stylish stretch in elegant ‘Paree’ with the family for an eternity, it has the je-ne-sais-quoi to become a reality. And, which dyed-in-the-’ool  Calcuttan hasn’t considered a return to their old city (as a second home, if not one’s main digs)?

Sometimes, the urge to nurture yet another patch to life is a strident calling, such as the one that moved me on our jaunt into my adopted home of Nottingham’s heart this week, to find the pandemic had left it leached of its legendary vim.

This post-pandemic downturn has been endemic, of course. Historic Durham, another fondly remembered stomping ground, had the same down-at-heel look on our recent return. In Kolkata two months ago, I noticed further post-pandemic decline and chicanery (so at odds with my large-hearted birth city): dug-up pavements, filthier streets, disrespect towards women escalating, whilst hospitals ripped vulnerable patients off with unconscionable impunity. Even as mass murder becomes as American as Disney, ma cherie ‘Paree’ too is burning!

But I have the refuge of my family; their smiles, hugs, wit, and superb cooking (to name only some of what they do for me), and the world outside falls away as a result.

What does home mean to you, mon ami?

Tags: sanskrit, kolkata, manila, england, little house