A close friend asked me recently what ‘home’ meant to me. It’s not that we often delve into the philosophical during our frequent conversations together; she needed some information for a project she was working on and was interested in getting the perspectives of her friends and family. I was flipping through the answers she got from various other people and, in comparison to their one-liners, my own responses were rather long-winded. While this is laughingly typical of me (I have never quite mastered the art of being concise), I have a vague feeling that my answers to her questions were rather confused and convoluted. Weeks later, I still keep coming back to that question of what ‘home’ is and what it means to me – especially from my changed perspective as a fly-by visitor to the country I grew up in – a country I’m not sure I’ll ever truly return to again, except for periodic visits like this one.
It could have been because I lived a few of my formative years in Sydney that my bonds to Sri Lanka never felt terribly strong or permanent. I don’t remember much of my time here pre-Sydney. I was under 5 and have vague but happy memories of going to nursery and playing in my grandmother’s vast home and garden. Memories that old (or new, depending on how you look at it) are tied more to people, family and immediate environments rather than a country and sense of national identity. As children, I don’t think we ever dream there is a world outside the playgrounds we make for ourselves – except of course in the fancies of our imagination. For me anyway, anyone who wasn’t a fellow pint-sized sibling, or protective parent or grandparent, or stooping, loving Sumana, or sari-wrapped teacher, was either faceless or quickly forgotten.
My memories of Sydney are clearer in my mind, probably because I was a little older then. They are truly great memories, some of which I’ve recounted before. I don’t know if this applies to anyone else, but memories of certain periods of my life have certain impressions that come to me before any distinct recollection of a particular day or incident. Kind of like smelling something delicious from a kitchen far away before you actually see what’s cooking. My primary school years in Sydney give me snatches of sunlight and blue sky, the security of having my mother always close, and just pure, childish happiness. My sisters and I found endless ways to occupy ourselves at home, school was fun and we had a large, eclectic gaggle of friends to play with, and there never was a greater treat than going to the video store to rent a movie for the night or being taken on a weekend to the stationery store to buy glitter and stickers which we guarded jealously and almost never used. It was a time of simple pleasures, to be sure, but the joy of it when I think back almost makes me dizzy.
Sydney was home, then. So much so that when we left it, seemed unfathomable to me that I would never be back. The longest I could perceive being away at the ripe old age of eight was about five years, which I announced to all my friends on my last day of school. “See you in five years” I trilled, with absolute conviction. It ended up being twice that long. Still, I always looked forward to the day I could return ‘home’. The years that followed in Sri Lanka, although they were very much enjoyed, always progressed with a kind of back-of-mind knowledge of my inevitable departure. As soon as I was old enough to realize that one day I would be going to university (without having any inkling what a privilege that was, I’m ashamed to say – I simply took it for granted that this was the natural course of things), Sydney was the only choice. Sometimes, when I was idly doodling in class, I would map out a shaky floor plan of my old home there, just to see if I could remember where everything was. I couldn’t wait to be back – I was sure I would feel right back at home there, I didn’t even question it.
University started off being a bit of a shock, but I had my twin sister with me and we soon shook ourselves out of being homesick – not so much for Sri Lanka but the security of our home there and our parents and friends and the familiarity of it all. We made our friends and we lived in that delightful, unreal bubble that is college and campus life. Yes, this was home. I even called it home. I used to roam around my college in my quieter moments, running my fingertips against the old brick walls and feel a rush of affection for the place even though my only space in it had the dimensions of a tiny college room. I still loved every inch of it and the affection was transferred from room to room as the years went by.
University ends, as it inevitably must do, and off I went back to Sri Lanka, which happened quite by accident. I was toying with the idea of a Masters during holiday time in Colombo and on a strange whim decided not to go for it and instead to stay and work in Colombo for an indefinite amount of time. Again, the decision felt temporary and I knew I would always leave again. This time though, as I experienced Sri Lanka for the first time as an adult (or partial-adult, which is probably a more accurate description), something began to change. My job and new friends and new lovers opened my eyes to a country I felt I’d never properly seen before. It had always been there, of course, but as a backdrop. Furniture, so to speak, that I would relax on whenever I felt like it, but that I would forget about as soon as I had my attention diverted to other things. For the first time, I started to get to know Sri Lanka – its past, its present, and what I and many others saw to be its frightening and uncertain future. I started to despise certain things about it, but also to intensely love other things. Things that I would come to tangibly miss when I was anywhere else in the world. The places, the smells, the food, the faiths, and of course, the people – not just the ones I knew anymore, but collectively the ones that made up this country which was just starting to pick itself up after the horror of the war. People whose capacity for hope and sheer will for survival in the midst of despair and destruction has been what has really moved this country forward to what it is today – more so than any new highway or building or hotel.
For a while, I didn’t want to leave. Sri Lanka, the country, was finally feeling like home. I felt like I belonged, like I could be something and do something of value. The feeling, heady as it was, didn’t last – at least not in its entirety. After a while, for reasons not at all Sri Lanka’s fault, I felt suffocated. A little like Alice in Wonderland who drank from that little bottle and grew so large that her arms and legs were sticking out of doors and windows. It just didn’t fit anymore, and I was eager to go away again, to keep moving. It was a big decision and a difficult one to make, but I made it with the comfort of knowing it would take me back to my second home again – Sydney.
Despite my confidence, moving back to Sydney, living ‘in the real world’ and joining the work force was not at all what I thought it would be. The city which once felt like home suddenly felt enormous and I felt incredibly small and alone. My friends were scattered and few and I found it difficult to make new ones. The practice of ‘making friends’ seemed so childish and playground-like and for a while I didn’t even try, preferring instead to spend my time with my two sisters and aunt – my living embodiments of home away from home. Still, although they never failed to make time for me, they still had their own lives and partners and jobs. They had remained in Sydney during the years I was away and for them it was, more than ever, home. I on the other hand, had to face the fact that, shockingly, it was no longer home for me. Probably for the first time, and absolutely involuntarily, whenever I said the word “home”, I realized I was talking about Sri Lanka.
Yet again I felt like Alice, but this time the tiny, shrunken version of her, lost amongst huge buildings and endless roads. I realized that the part of the city that I spent most of my university days roaming around was less than a fraction of Sydney and I used a lot of my free time to venture further out and find my way around new parts of it, trying to get back at least some of that sense of familiarity. That helped, and Sydney is a place I will always love for its incredible culture and its beautiful old buildings, which seamlessly fit in with new ones, which are just as beautiful if in a different way. I never tire of glimpsing the Harbour Bridge in the strangest places – you may be walking way inside the city, but suddenly, amidst the skyscrapers in the distance where there is not even a hint of water nearbye, you’d see the top of the bridge, looking absurdly as if someone had moved the entire thing into the city centre. The Opera House which I have now visited a little too often than I’d care to admit, still gives me that old thrill when I walk up its steps, gaze at its unusual silhouette against the darkening sky, step into one of its many theatre halls and sit down in anticipation for some great act. Oddly, it is in this great space, which is visited by countless throngs of tourists and culture enthusiasts every hour of every day, that I feel really comfortable. Every time I go there, it feels more than just an outing – it feels like a return to something loved and cherished.
Now, two years into my return to Sydney, I have accepted that I will probably not settle there. It’s comforting to know that I always have the option if I wish, but for the time being, I feel it is much more like a half-way house – a stepping stone to where I want to get. I’m not sure what ‘where’ is exactly but I am fairly certain it will have something to do with what I’m currently studying and the work I eventually want to get into. Once again I feel like my life could go in any direction; that there is no clear course ahead and that I am charting unfamiliar waters. There is always a certain measure of anxiety accompanied by this feeling, but also always excitement – especially because I am sure that these crossroads will be fewer and further between as my life becomes more settled. Ah, but not just yet.
Now I am back in Sri Lanka for a couple of weeks and am relishing the feeling of being back home again. It’s not quite that I want to settle here – that is something I’ve been wrestling with for some time, and probably will continue to do so, but I still feel that Colombo will present me with the same frustrations as before if I should choose to make a life here. However, this trip has proved to me that there will always be a home for me here – no matter how long I’ve been away and no matter how long or short my stay. I find myself enjoying and appreciating the simplest of things – things I knew I took for granted not so long ago. Now I jump into the car to go grocery shopping with my mother, even when she protests that she’ll only be five minutes and not to bother. I love my long morning conversations with my father – I with my coffee and he with his tea, newspapers in his lap, waiting to be read – about the world and its history and its problems and its possible solutions. He is such a fount of knowledge, I (in the fashion of a true Uni student) find myself wishing I could take notes. I have seen my grandmother often, my heart bursting with love when she smiles that smile of hers which is still so beautiful; when I hold her hands and feel her skin, soft with age; when she gets up to walk me to the door, even though it has now become an effort for her.
I worry about the things I’ll miss while I’m away. In just a year, the city has changed so much, it’s a little frightening. I wonder how much more transformed it will be when I return next, probably in another year. My grandmother, although still healthy and fairly active, has aged a lot in the past year. She seems smaller, somehow, and more frail and I’ve never thought of her as frail before. Even my beautiful dog, still a puppy at heart, now has a grey snout and whiskers that betray his age. I feel this less with my parents, who I see more physically throughout the year, either through their visits to Sydney or through frequent Skype chats – bless the internet! But still, I miss the comfort of having them close. There’s nothing quite like that feeling, I think it is only something a parent can give a chid.
So, back to the question at hand. Is ‘home’ simply where you live or where you feel the most comfortable? Is it an amalgamation of the two or something else altogether? I’ve come to feel that the meaning of ‘home’ changes as you grow, and the change is individual to each and every one of us. For me right now home is this feeling that I have being back in Sri Lanka again: I feel safe, loved, comfortable. My parents, my grandmother, my closest friends, my dog, the houses I spent so much time in as a child (whether my own or my grandmother’s or my best friend’s) – these old familiar, beloved things and people and creatures are home to me. This beautiful country whose beaches I have spent the last few days digging my delighted toes into, whose people I find so fascinating and beautiful as I pass by them going about their lives, whose politics I feel I’ll never quite understand and whose potential for real peace I will continue to wish for with all my heart.. this is my home.
Still, I have the nagging feeling that something is missing – a home should also mean the place you physically live – otherwise what’s the point of living there? I one day want to feel this way about the place I choose to settle, wherever in the wide, wide world that may be. It must be a place I feel I belong to and that, in some special way, I feel belongs to me. For that place, I am still searching but for now, my Sri Lanka is enough.