The Journey to Home
Cassandra Sundaraja (University of New England, Australia)
I’ve always found it difficult to answer the question – “Where are you from? Where do you call home?” Living in Australia, it seems straightforward enough to respond, “India,” and leave it at that. However, if the person is from India, familiar with India, or if the question is asked in India, such a simple answer would not suffice.
For many, this may not be a particularly complex question, and back where I come from, it’s a very common one. The expected answer is a specific state or city (or town or village), where one’s ancestral home is, or where one’s parents are from. My parents were from two different geographical states, two different religious backgrounds, and decided to move to Africa soon after I, their first-born, came into being. We moved around a lot. When they decided to move back to their home country, I was a teenager, unsure about where exactly I belonged. To add to the confusion, they chose to settle in another city, Chennai (formerly Madras), different to the one they had moved away from and where I was born. Grappling with my cultural identity, I never really felt I belonged in either of these cities. Once I crossed adulthood, I moved to another city, Bangalore (later renamed as Bengaluru – as you can imagine, these name changes don’t exactly help the confusion!) for work and higher studies. I loved this city – perhaps this could be the place I call home?
Bangalore was where I met my husband, where we set up our own organization, where we made friendships that have lasted over the years. It was where I tasted freedom and independence, along with the accompanying responsibility. Amid the joy and laughter there were of course, tears and pain – just like any ordinary home, one might think. I was starting to settle in, learning the local language and beginning to reply, “Bangalore,” to the ubiquitous question.
One thing I’ve learnt though, is that things never stay the same. Everything, concrete and abstract, is in a state of flux and change. In the same way Bangalore changed, maybe I, too, changed. The pleasantly cool weather devolved into harsh dry summers, the trees that filled the city were forced to give way to wider roads, which soon were not wide enough. The traffic grew unbearable such that socializing became restricted and one would rather order a take-away than brave the traffic to go on a romantic date! Water was starting to become scarce and the pollution, suffocating. I was losing the affection I felt for this city, and it eventually became clear that this could not be our home.
An opportunity to move to regional Australia arrived and we took it. It was surprisingly easy to leave. Settling in a new country takes time, and there were several helpful individuals who were eager to show us the ropes. We acclimatised. Many asked us whether Australia was going to be our home, but we were hesitant to respond. The truth is, we didn’t know. Can home ever be a permanent place? We were not ready to commit to Australia. Perhaps we were yet to heal from the grief of having had to leave an ‘almost home’.
My understanding of home and what it means to me changed when I met Hamish.
At almost nine and a half years old, Hamish is an intelligent West Highland White Terrier with the most adorable brown eyes. He came into our lives unexpectedly; his owner had to be overseas for a few months and requested us to look after him. In the past I’d never really taken to small breeds, although I have loved dogs for as long as I can remember. Hamish has changed that forever. A fiercely independent boy with a stubborn streak, Hamish worked his way into our room and our hearts. He started by climbing into our suitcases as we unpacked them, treating our neatly packed clothes as a bed made just for him! As we kept lifting him out of the suitcases, he then asked to be placed on the leather chair in our room – a true master of the door-in-the-face phenomenon (where after turning down a large request, people are more likely to comply with a seemingly smaller request)! From that moment on, that chair became Hamish’s chair.
People say that older dogs are set in their ways, therefore the increased demand for buying puppies versus adopting older dogs, but this was not true of Hamish. He adjusted rapidly to our routine, our spicy style of cooking, our accents and our commands. He also responded enthusiastically to our affection, as we too learnt his unique way of expressing himself. Hamish loves his mornings and eagerly looks forward to saying “good morning!” by nuzzling you and rolling over several times, as if he’s gratefully dizzy with happiness that everyone survived the night. A quick turn of his head towards his tail indicates that he wants to be scratched or massaged in his lower back, followed by a grunt of pleasure when you hit the right spot. A sharp bark outside the door to the backyard means, “Human, I’m too lazy to jump in through the doggie-door, let me in!” An insistent look late evening when we’re watching TV implies, “Do I have to remind you that it’s bedtime? Let’s go to sleep!” Three circles round and around is his signature move to express joy – when you return home, or when you ask him if he wants to go for a walk. And the adorable head tilts, which have us wrapped around his little toe, willing to do anything he bids us to do!
Within a short period of time, the bond between Hamish and the two of us strengthened.
Unfortunately, within two months of coming to live with us, Hamish fell ill with meningitis. It was heartbreaking to see him in pain, unable to walk, reluctant to eat, convulsing with seizures. I felt miserable as I was grappling with the possibility that he may not survive the illness. It was at this time that I realized that Hamish is what made the house we were living in a home. He was the one holding that fabric together with his goofy dances, inquisitiveness and most importantly, his welcoming spirit.
After several tense weeks, slowly Hamish recovered, day by day gaining strength. I remember how happy I was to finally hear him bark, which he hadn’t done in over a month (Hamish has the reputation of being a notorious barker, particularly at night). After his course of steroids, Hamish was almost back to his usual self, a huge relief for us all.
Hamish has taught me a lot – for him, home is where his loved ones are. Home can be small, like his safe place in his little crate, whenever there are children who annoy him, or when there is a thunderstorm raging outside. Home could be the entire house, including the backyard where he frolics around and sunbathes. Home can be my lap, when he wants to feel included in a game of Catan, or on holiday, exploring new places. Home is where there is trust, a sense of security to be able to express vulnerability – to sulk when upset (when we have to go out for a few hours, or we don’t let him bark into the dark), and to love wholeheartedly. Home is never restricted to one specific place, city or state. The place we call home can change. Just as Hamish demonstrated love to his owner, and now to us, his caretakers, so can one have the feeling of home in multiple places and with multiple people – family and friends. Transient homes can be my parents’ house, in-laws’ house, or even my friends’ houses when we stay there…all it takes is adopting that perspective and then feeling comfortable and secure wherever you are.
I was recently away from Hamish for five weeks, while my husband and I visited family in India. While it was nice to see everyone after a long time, my thoughts would keep wandering back to Hamish. The day we were to finally return, my excitement of seeing Hamish again overshadowed the sadness of saying our goodbyes. It seems clear, that at least for now, Hamish is where our home is.
Cassandra Sundaraja is a psychologist and is currently a PhD student in the School of Psychology, University of New England, Australia. Her PhD research is on “Exploring, Understanding and Influencing Palm Oil-Related Pro-Environmental Behaviour”. She has completed her M.Sc and M.Phil in Clinical Psychology. She had her own psychotherapy practice in India, where she worked with children, adolescents, adults and couples. Her research interests include environmental psychology, social psychology, behaviour change and empathy.