Where is home? Shaky Shergill writes on the place he’d always dreamed about and the home he’s already found.
Even though I’ve lived most of my life in London, England and appreciate how diverse living here can be, it was still a novelty to see the posters with pictures of a Sirdar (Sikh man wearing a turban and a beard) taxi driver asking me what I was waiting for and by implication when I would ‘return home’ to buy a house in India? At first it was amusing to respond to the poster mentally and say that I’d just come from home, in South East London.
However, after a while the poster and the Sirdar got me thinking and asking questions which I think are familiar to many immigrants, especially first generation ones. Where is home, where do I belong, what link do I have with the country of my birth and where will it all end?
In case you are wondering I am a man in my mid-forties living in South East London and working in Canary Wharf (East London). However, I was born in a little village in Punjab, North West India. I’ve been in the UK since I was about a year old and apart from a period of around four years in Manchester (north west England) where I went to university, I’ve lived and sometimes worked in the same area of South East London.
Most, if not all of my immediate family (parents, siblings and cousins) live within a 20 mile radius. I live with my wife and son and I’m not even sure if my mother tongue is my first language anymore. So where were these questions of returning home coming from and which home—the one that I visit for two or three weeks every couple of years?
For most of my formative years one of the messages I was given repeatedly by my parents, host generation immigrants from Punjab, is that England wasn’t our home; they were here to earn money and one day we would all return home to the bosom of Mother India to live happily ever after. In hindsight, clarification was never offered regarding the two important parts of this message. How much money would need to be earned before we could return and how long did we have?
What it did do was to make me doubt my place in England and my reason for being here. While everyone else seemed to belong I felt like a transient. Maybe that was something common to many people of South Asian origin especially after Idi Amin expelled people of Indian and Pakistani origin from Uganda. Perhaps my parent’s message was a way of protecting us.
Accepting as children are, I don’t think I even thought about these two questions, the reasons behind them or the dichotomy of ‘returning home’ and that our life in the UK was becoming more and more settled. My father and grandfather had moved to a nicer part of town and were doing, what in retrospect, I can only describe as putting down roots. This move from a house and area where I’d spent up until then most of my life made me feel even more unsettled and the possibility of a homeland where my family had lived for generations, somewhere I would feel safe, accepted and not discriminated against even more comforting.
I was in my mid-teens at the time and would have to get married, have a son and buy my own second house before I started to question this concept of going home.
I assumed up until about seven years ago that it would all go as per my parent’s rather vague plan of ‘returning home’. My links to England had strengthened over the years, however I assumed that there would be a part of me (like in a Bollywood movie) that would recognise and acknowledge the link with the land where I had been born.
That was my third trip back to the homeland, Punjab, as an adult (the first had been to get married and the second to celebrate the birth of my son, so I’d been a little distracted each time) and this was the one where I decided to consciously look at this idea of ‘returning home’, what it would mean for me and could I live in the land of my forefathers?
The two week holiday started well, the weather was great and I was becoming aware of how quickly the little village that I would call home had changed. My major concerns were around: Internet access, the possibility of online shopping and where I’d buy ‘Imported liquor’. It was standing behind a cousin’s house having a sneaky smoke on a Friday evening while hoping that I didn’t see or get bitten by a snake (I have a phobia of snakes and that had always been one of my reasons for not wanting to go back) that I realised what the problem was and the challenge would be. India would never be home for me as I had so much invested emotionally in England. Along with my family I had some very good friends there, men and women, who I had grown up with, people who I love, who love me and most importantly people with whom I had shared memories and history with.
It was this realisation more than concerns that I’d run out of gin/ chocolate/ scented candles or the chances of Amazon delivering to my village that made become aware that for me at least, home had changed and it was no longer a village in Punjab, close to the border of India and Pakistan, but a three bedroom semi-detached house in South East London. More than that it’s those people regardless of their skin colour who make me feel ‘at home’ and maybe even the British weather (or talking about it).
So, going back to the Sirdar at the beginning of this piece, what I’m waiting for is the feeling I’ve let someone down to go away as, for the time being, home is here in South East London and my parents are just down the road (less than five minutes by car apart from when they go off to India for a couple of months). Maybe the person I’ve let down more than my parents who are enjoying being grandparents and being with family and friends is myself, or that part of me who believed that he would board that plane like a dutiful son when we had earned enough money to return home.
Photo credit: Alan P. in Hong Kong/Flickr