A man tells me to go home.
My first thought is, where?
Where is home? This is a thought that has plagued me for years. I grew up in a time where complex notions of identity and belonging were solved by what cricket team you supported. I grew up in a time where our political leaders encouraged social mobility, like it was a realistic choice, to which we all had equal access and opportunity. I grew up in a London suburb that was becoming increasingly Gujarati, while going to a mostly-white school.
So where is home?
Is home Mombasa, where my father grew up, till he was 16 years old, before he came over to England to make money. The rapper Heems once said of our immigrant parents, that they didn’t come here to assimilate. They came here to make money. ‘But if you want to make more money,’ he added. ‘You had to assimilate.’
I lived in Mombasa for a year, in 2006. I was a third generation Indian man with a white English wife, living in a compound in a black African nation, in a big Muslim area. Our stay was curated. Race lines were clear. The msungus hung with the msungus, the mohindis hung with the mohindis, the black Kenyans hung with the black Kenyans. We were an anomaly. When dad came to visit, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Everything was different. Culture was in thrall to gangsta rap and Premier League football. Resorts lined the coastline. He didn’t recognise his home anymore.
Is home Aden, where my mother was born and a young child before she was sent to boarding school in India with her older sister? Her older sister would have to wake up before anyone else to walk to the other side of the dormitories to wake my lazy mum up, so she didn’t get in trouble with the Christian nuns who ran the school.
Or is home Keighley, where they moved to become teenagers? My uncle ended up there because his best friend was coming over to the UK to become a professional juggler in the cabaret clubs of London. My uncle came over first, to wait for his friend. He struggled to find lodgings that accepted ‘coloured’ people, so through a set of coincidences and circumstances, he ended up living 220 miles away from London, in Keighley. My mum occasionally would say things with a Yorkshire inflection, very rarely, but you would always notice them.
I know where isn’t home. In 1968, my uncle tried to buy a house in Leeds. He went to view it and later, made an offer by phone. The builder asked if he was the ‘coloured’ man who had just come round for a viewing. He said he was. The builder refused to sell the house to him; having someone ‘coloured’ on that road would devalue the houses in the area. My uncle took him to court under the newly-instituted Race Relations Act for discrimination. The judgment was reserved. Our family never lived there. It was never our home.
Notions of home in these situations negate nuance in favour of skin tone. The implication is that I should return to India. India is a country I visit as a tourist of sorts. I have family there. I have been there multiple times. Each time, I view the country through the eyes of someone who is there to see the sites, meet the people, eat the food, take the photos, add the right Instagram filter, buy a tour book. It connects to its diaspora in ebbs and flows. It pushes us away and pulls us back in. On paper, I am a non-resident Indian. On paper, I am non-veg. On paper, it is my home and yet it isn’t.
When I moved out of home, I lived in South London first, discovering what it meant to live in the mysterious ‘south of the river’. My parents still thought of South London as a dangerous area of guns, gangs and violence. We took them out for dinner there multiple times and they both began to realise how wrong they’d been about the place.
Still, it is not home. I witness its change in drastic bursts. The occasions I visit, watching it gentrify, take it further and further from where I lived.
I lived in North London, seemingly amongst all the old money. We lived in a flat belonging to the daughter of a literary dynasty, opposite a Hollywood movie star. Change in this area was slow. It seemed too self-satisfied to do things differently. When we go back, the bread in the local bakery still tastes as it did. The pubs still feel like sets in a Richard Curtis film. The pub with the comedy club below is still filled with a who’s who of BBC panel shows. But it wasn’t home then. It cannot be home now. We were pretenders living there. We weren’t as rich. We weren’t as famous. We faked it the entire time, holding on to this bizarre lovely idyll for as long as we could.
We could never afford to return. It cannot be home.
When my mother died, my dad couldn’t live in my childhood home any longer. It was too filled with ghosts. Everywhere reminded him of what he lost. That had been my childhood home since I was three years old. It was now a museum of what was lost, how things used to be and how they never will be again. When we moved out, I found a stack of letters I thought had been thrown away. Letters from cousins, telling me everything about our shared history, each one postmarked to a house we could no longer call home.
I own land now.
I feel embarrassed saying it. It feels a strange boastful thing to admit. I own a house, thanks to my mum’s death. How strange, to thank a bereavement for buying me something.
My name is on the mortgage papers, the bills are in my name, I drilled the doorknocker, shaped like a huge stag, into the front door myself.
Is this my home?
We came here to make money, not to assimilate.
But I was born here.
When we first moved into that house, in Bristol, away from the city I was born in, the house stank. It had been previously occupied by hippies, so the incessant smell of incense and patchouli burned our noses and made us sneeze while we unpacked boxes. They owned a cat, so we vacuumed up as much as we could, the stray hairs trodden into the carpet by bare feet. I picked off, with a screwdriver, a mound of wax from a series of burned bath time candles from the shelf of the bathtub.
I cooked my mum’s recipes, burning mustard seeds and cumin seeds and onions and garlic to try and make the place smell like home. We listened to Rafi, De La Soul and Radiohead to make the place sound like home. We painted the walls, hung pictures, pulled up the carpet to make it look like home.
Still, it feels like a construct, a plaster to help heal wounds caused by colonialism, migration, recession and grief. No matter how much I look at the picture my friend Kunal drew of a Bombay cityscape, on a wall next to a poster of Ms Marvel. No matter how much I feel at ease surrounded by my books and records. No matter how I walk down stairs I stripped and sanded, holding on to a rail I sawed, painted and put up. No matter what is under my feet. No matter what name is on the majority of post that gets put through our door, I am reminded that my presence here is transitory. Like I am passing through. If I am to be sent back, I don’t know where.
The rhetoric of ‘go home’ does not make time to know our histories, because as I sit here, in my house, looking at a string of online abuse, telling me that my time in this country is up, I should be packing my bags, soon I shall be returned to ‘brown land’, I couldn’t tell you where home is.