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Issue II, Winter 2023

Home and the Hostel: Thoughts of a Homesick Student

Srijita Biswas

I have a habit of calling a place ‘bari’ (meaning ‘house’) when I start living there. It can be a stay, it can be a hostel or a place where I have lived since birth, even a rented place or anything. A friend corrected me that there’s a difference between ‘ghawr’ and ‘bari’, however, they lexically mean the same in Bangla. His point was that ' ghawr’ is more intangible like its affective  and sensory part of what we can call ‘home’. Bari is the physical structure of brick and mortar. Incorrigible as I am, I end up using them interchangeably. Every time there’s a change of location, like changing cities for work, a reminder comes from the phone. Google Maps, cab booking Apps, and Food Delivery apps pop up the option “Select Home”, which has an address that is not home anymore. This summer I grew tired of being on the road, packing and unpacking for some time and almost every day, the feeling of getting back home was uncontrollable to the point of being painful. So, when I returned to the institute hostel, I had a feeling I never had before. This place where the institute is located, in the middle of a highway and very much cut from the city always, felt inhospitable. For the first time it felt that my hostel room had grown on me I understood as I felt immense joy coming back. Since then I also tried to visit my own home in Krishnanagar, West Bengal. Having no leaves left for the academic year that didn’t happen. The joy of returning to the hostel slowly dies out and then daily life takes up the rhythm, and I can sense my homesickness snowballing. Crippling anxiety about work piles up and I lose track of time, my senses are overwhelmed. It feels stifling at every minute and I get triggered by a craving for fish or aloo posto, and this desire manifests itself in sleep only meant to be shattered in the waking world of the hostel of vertical heights covered with white yellow walls, smelling of laundry from the weekend laundering. Down with a fever I dream of home, I feel the bed with my fingers and almost mumble in sleep “I know this is just a dream”. “Sickness makes one delusional”, they say. 

The monsoons spent at home are remembered sitting in Boston in a workshop where they talk about how we relate smell and taste with our memory. Everyone recalls their childhood home where holidays were spent with the smell of apple pies, the smell of barbeque, smell of their father’s car. My turn comes to talk about my favourite smell:

“I miss the smell of fried ilish (hilsa) at home at this time of the year” 

and no one relates to among the audience. I meet people there who are now slowly becoming the South Asian diaspora, see them trying to fit in, trying to assimilate, in order to blend seamlessly into the crowd of the Western world. In the interiors of their migrated home, there are attempts to hold on to their roots in the form of rituals, the national flag or souvenirs. I resonate with the feeling of becoming probashi each day in a land across the Atlantic, as I strive to put myself together sitting here in Central India, also away from home. Living out of a suitcase at first, then putting bits and pieces around parcelled by maa, baba and friends. It's always making and remaking home out of things we hold on to and imagination is the spice of it. I hear Bangla on the campus of a distant land, in trains and subways and hide a smile almost everywhere. 

Random thoughts that sit well with my homesickness occur. I try remembering who said what about their belonging, who has written what about the idea of ‘home’. I remember how this year, the summer is gone taking away with it the abundance of mangoes. How often we heard the general perception that the produce of mangoes always altered from year to year. It's like water on the ghats of Banaras. Every alternative year has the ghats submerged, clogged with mud, making Gangamahal inaccessible from Assi, a 50m gap perhaps, easily strolled otherwise. Sitting here in an isolated academic bubble every place seems unreachable, only I visit them in memories, in photographs. The familiar faces look like the reflection of this place, they don't talk about the past or home or family often:  “we all have “work”. Last day a friend inquired if its normal to call parents every day. I said I think it is. She said how it was not relatable to many others here.  I cannot drive, hence I cannot escape, transport will put a hole in my pocket. I can only telephone. I am in a loop like the telephone wire of neverending room, mess, lab, teashop, nearby shacks, room, blah…! Once I shared with a friend about how the place feels like a house garden, you eat and go for a walk only you can never escape to the streets whenever you want to. All the motivations for escapades from here sound like big and not very economical projects of time, money, and distance, the places of escapade move further and vanish into a Sunday siesta after mess-chicken-rice, well it's the Sunday loop. All the motivations for the escapade sound like an impossible reality, like how I was born out of a flower in the nearby Brinjal plantation! My senses are duped into believing that “hold on! Few more days to go … Maa ashchhe.. Pujor chhuti” informed by the flurry of Durga pujo reels on Instagram. Well, it's funny how Instagram reels dominate life in a toilet in some building labelled: (Academic Building) AB1 AB2 AB3... But it's the best place to be after the hillside road here at the institute, you sit for hours “dream on, dream on, the dream is gone, the child is grown”. The more you run in the loop the deeper the longing grows for mother and you have memories from a regular evening with no special date of singing in the next room, and our house smelling of elaichi (cardamom), adrak (ginger) chai, khari. Well, evening at home. Mother sent a video of her annual rehearsal where she was singing “Jyotsna raate shobai geche bone” (On a moonlit night everyone went to visit the forest). I listen to the song in a loop in my sick bed, longing for her to put her hand on my forehead and cook me something very spicy so that I can taste something on my tongue which is now numb and bitter under fever, and a blocked nose for add on. Every time I cross the upper lake in Bhopal also called ‘the city of lakes’, I smell water: Will it be possible to go back to the river Jalangi for an evening swim? Just like September in 2019. All the waterbodies flowing and frothing have settled down miles away from where I am and became calm like the upper lake on an uneventful afternoon. “My rowdy friends have settled down” We have mastered indifference. 

Winter is coming and I am not fond of the cold but a dream of eating oranges while basking in sunshine colours my idyllic fantasy. The plan is always deferred. This time home smelled of sun-soaked quilts and the entire orange-eating fare was done after lunch with some books, mostly stories or novels. Only Christmas vacation would have books from the syllabus as it was long and followed by exams. The thoughts are muggy and a haze of cluelessness pervades. Lost in the terms and conditions of doing life and times of a generation who perhaps are losing reflections in the loop of productivity, losing senses of smell and taste like post-covid symptoms and constant yearning for a touch of brick and mortar structures of the home, of bed linen of one’s room left years back, the smell of sun-dried clothes, familiar voices, mother tongues, a whole neighbourhood speaking it with dialect, without accents taken up in different geographical-cultural locations. I lose myself midst the changing faces of home, I hear a niece being born and how pretty a child she is! I hear a grandmother dead and remember my childhood days at her place with boiled taro and fried fish for lunch, I believe I am becoming a name, a spectre with fleeting references here and there, just not very much there. 

Life has taken up the theme of ‘nostos’ which is usually the theme in Greek literary tradition where the seafaring hero returns home after a whole deal of adventures. ‘Heroine’ would have been apt in this case but heroines are supposed to be at home to make home comfortable for those who return. Well, in the 21st century epic, let's talk about heroines. However, for the homesick heroine, the greatness of the heroic deeds is sometimes just surviving homesickness. Under the delirium of this disease, I have begun to believe with days and times passing that I won't be able to be home and I am not being able to belong where I should. It's like a latent feeling which I think if I dig up would become either a tirade against everything around me or augment the spilling pool of tears and one might end up feeling like an impulsive fool looking for the blanket as a last resort. My illogical ramblings within resist logic, logic gates are closed by floods of emotions. I extend a fellow feeling to my grandfather or a friend's grandmother I was interviewing who thought they’d be back home when they left their homes in Bangladesh during the Partition. They never did. Migrants who died on rail tracks during the long march of COVID waves never did. I believe I never will in the complete sense of it, but that is a choice and not a compulsion. So, I feel slightly guilty about the comparison I drew just now but emotions sometimes cannot keep analogies sorted in type and degree.

On days when sleep doesn't come naturally, the restless mind hovers around the nooks and alleys of myself. One subconscious breach, and the longing for home tingles in sleep. The coarse gravy of chicken feels grainy on my fingers as I mix it with rice and already I can anticipate the coarse cumin in the gravy that I am to experience even before I put it in my mouth. Mother is somewhere on her errands between cooking and putting it on the table before lunch. I long to recreate that in some unfixed kitchen of a senior or a friend or in the home-like restaurant opposite the institute. I wake up and give up the thought, get back to completing pending assignments: “Hello Backlogs, my old friend”. Somedays when we manage to cook, we have disputes over the process or ingredients which goes like “At my home its cooked as such” or “My mother used to do this” and the banter goes on till the dish comes round. I think we constantly try to recreate the presence of mothers and home felt around us and that never happens as it becomes a hybrid of all the recipes and processes. On the retrospect its away to give turn to everyone to remember their mother through the process where one becomes the replacement of the other. For those like us, constantly living between acts of ‘hello’ and ‘goodbyes’, the in-betweenness of our split identity is permanent. I think of split subjectivity in theory classes, think of liminal spaces, think of being bangal (East Bengali Migrant) by birth and not by any memory or experience whatsoever. Trying to do acts of belonging in new cities, along with new waterbodies, and unfamiliar yet beautiful skylines the changing faces of home is a constant now and home in its absolute signification would be a distant reality. The sense of home would linger and be felt with events just like how we know Pujo holidays got over and people came back. The campus traffic was at its peak in the evening, and we knew trains had arrived and that meant bijoya treats too and like this making sense of a home remains a work in progress.

Srijita Biswas is a PhD Scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal (IISER Bhopal). She is working on the gastronomic evolution of Calcutta for her doctoral project. She is interested in city literature, urban studies and food studies. She co-authored a book chapter titled "Listening to the Hustle and the Hush: Sound, City, and the Pandemic" in the edited volume "Sounds of the Pandemic" (2022) by Routledge and a paper in the Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics (JCLA) titled “Binge Watching, Binge Eating: Popularity of K-Dramas and the Emergent Korean Cuisine in India”. She has presented at prestigious conferences like the ASFS (Association for the Study of Food and Society) annual meeting, and the Indian Famine Network sponsored by the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Apart from these, she enjoys documenting food-related practices and interviewing people. Recently, she edited a feature essay series on children’s food culture for the Critical Childhood and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC).