In a rapidly globalizing world, we are all moving away from our ancestral homelands. As an American, I have too many ancestral homelands to even choose between them, which I think means I cannon truly understand what a homeland is. Bharati Mukherjee captures beautifully the feeling of displacement in her story collection, Darkness.
For at least the last century it has been possible and not uncommon to uproot oneself and seek a better fortune and life elsewhere on the globe. People from different cultures have migrated at different times and for different reasons. Sometimes they take their family or neighbors with them and parts of their ancestral culture as well. Sometimes they are forced to give it up in the name of assimilation.
Mukherjee’s characters hail from what used to be the British colony of India—from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. They are Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh. What they have in common is that they are far from home. This is never more evident than in “The World According to Hsü.”
In the story, a half-Indian, half-Czech Canadian woman (Ratna) and her Canadian husband vacation on an island off of Africa that finds itself in the midst of a civil war. In that chaos and among people of many nationalities, Ratna is for the first time at ease.
“She poured herself another glass, feeling for the moment at home in that collection of Indians and Europeans babbling in English and remembered dialects. No matter where she lived, she would never feel so at home again.” –Bharati Mukherjee, “The World According to Hsü”
When I reviewed The White Mary, I wrote about how I was once a traveler. Having lived on three continents, I wonder sometimes where home is and what it means.
“The traveler feels at home everywhere, because she is never at home anywhere.” –Bharati Mukherjee, “The Lady from Lucknow”
It was very important to me to make a home in Seattle with the man who became my husband. I wonder sometimes if we would have been freer to make adventures and live life if I had a stronger sense of a homeland—someplace I could have returned to. Like Ratna, I have more trust in the chaos of the world than in a homeland that has shifted beneath me. And I am finding that home is what I make of it rather than something I can rely on.
As people travel farther and more frequently away from their ancestral homelands, I wonder what is lost. I am not sorry for the many experiences abroad that have made me who I am. There are parts of my soul that are deeply Chilean and Polish—even though those countries as I knew them no longer exist. But I do sometimes wish there was one place on the globe that I could always return to. Someplace I could call home.
Perhaps that is why I have always found comfort in this quote:
“One never reaches home….But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, the whole world looks like home, for a time.” –Hermann Hesse, Demian
If this review made you want to read the book, pick up a copy of Darkness from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.