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Jerry Pinto
Jerry Pinto

STRANGE ENCOUNTERS

Whose India is it?

That’s it,” said one of the academics at the table as the seminar at Wellesley College ended. “Time to head home.”

She lives a ten-minute car-ride away. I have a ten-minute walk back to the room I have rented for the period of my residency at Wellesley. I don’t call it home because it isn’t. I am here for a semester and then I will return to my city.

Only, it seems to be a place I can hardly recognise. Is this the same city in which I grew up? The riots in 1992 changed many things; we had to reinvent what we called being a Bombayite or a Mumbaikar. (I am not going to enter into that particular argument. I have nothing to say about names. They do not change realities.)

I can scarcely recognise my country either. This is now a place where the police rarely have the time to register an FIR if the complainant is poor or marginalised or low caste; but they have the time to seek out romeos. There is no sensitivity in the way they treat rape survivors but they can recognise the eyes of the wannabe lover. This is now a place where you can be beaten to death for taking a cow somewhere; and the chief minister of the state will reach out to the victims of a terrorist attack in Stockholm but will say nothing about what is happening in her own backyard. It is a country where cricketers can make fun of the daughters of army officers and MPs can beat airline officials with slippers and get away with it.

Is this my home? Whose home is this? Who could feel at home here?

In the 1960s, there was a saying, ‘Home is where you hang your hat’. In other words, you carried your home with you. “Try telling a refugee that,” you might say and you would be right. You have to be a white person to be able to hang your hat where you choose but I think I understand what the hippies were saying. You can’t invest too much in the where; you have to look at the how. You can’t think of a place as home because no place is home.

59whoseindiaisit Illustration: Bhaskaran

Because what I am looking forward to when I return to India is the people I know: my family, my friends, the writers, the artists, the journalists who make up my world. They constitute my sense of homecoming, of going to see the painter Mehlli Gobhai for a cup of coffee or to meet the novelist Shanta Gokhale for a cup of tea and some poha. It’s about picking up conversations which have been left off and looking at what needs to be done. It’s about preparing for another year of teaching at the social communications media department at the Sophia Polytechnic and about rooting about in the shelves of the People’s Free Reading Room & Library. It’s about reconnecting with MelJol and the village schools of India and meeting the magnificent ladies at SPARROW (the Sound and Picture Archive for Research on Women); I am looking forward to visiting the Nest at Dahisar. It’s about beginning the next translation and polishing the next novel.

In moments of despair—they come often these days when I read the newspapers—I think of these things as the band playing bravely as the Titanic sank. But then I say to myself: each act of civilisation, each book saved, each poem written, each play performance completed, each new space for conversation opened, each act of resistance, even those Facebook posts and those tweets, each of these is a very small ray of light in the encircling gloom. There is no use hoping for some miracle; we are going to have to make our own miracles by choosing compassion, empathy, kindness, the things that make us human.

If I cannot recognise my home, well then I must construct it again. I must start again at the beginning. I must rebuild my city, word by word, act by act, gesture by gesture. Anything less and I will be in a state of permanent exile.

A Mumbai-based writer, Pinto teaches at the social communications media department at the Sophia Polytechnic.

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