Like me, there are several others who call the mountains home, but we do not reside there anymore.  However, we know that the idea of home is a certain emotion, laden with warmth and tenderness you constantly carry within. It is more of a consciousness of belonging and not just a place of residence.

Monisha Raman

When Home Is a Fluid Construct: Journeying with Memories | Monisha Raman

Migration is the core of human history. In this age of perpetual change, excessively shifting landscapes and extensive migration, what can we call a home? Is it spatial? Is it a memory of our childhood residence or any space that helped us live, grow and evolve? If so, what do we gain by holding on to something as intangible and hazy as a mere memory?

My earliest recollection of feeling a deep enigmatic connection with the world around me was when I was about seven or eight. It was a bright spring morning in South India and in a small corner of an ancient mountain district, my maternal grandma and her helpers were getting ready to sow the seeds of beans in a small patch of her field. I was a spectator, standing guard on the edges of the farmland where women had kept their belongings. Neat rows had been scratched on the soil with a hoe. The earthy scent of rich laterite ready to receive the seeds lingered in the air. The burble of the stream a hundred feet away, as it lashed the heavy rocks, was audible from grandma’s field. The mighty hill on the east, facing us, seemed enormous from the field and to me, it appeared that I could touch its serrated rocky peak if I took flight.  There was stillness in the air except for an occasional bird song and the swift unanticipated gusts of wind which sounded like a whistle.

Grandma had her personal rituals before the first seed of the season was sown. She looked up with folded arms and prayed to the sun and then to the water in a pail by her side. Then prostrating to the ground, grandma offered her gratitude to the soil. She then tilted her head backwards with her palms together over her head, looked at the peak and murmured something. At that moment, driven by a strange impulse or fear, I ran and stood behind her, close enough to feel the soft cotton of her garment on my face.

The morning sun was strong and our shadows converged on the rust-red soil. In my imagination, the hill was paying attention to grandma.  As if in acknowledgement, there was a sudden gust of wind. I felt its moisture on my burnt cheeks. With our feet partly buried in the soil and our shadows converging ahead of us, we stood still. Grandma’s petite frame cast a long shadow that generously enveloped mine. I could see four feet, but our torsos blended. Watching our shadows, I did not know how to distinguish grandma from me; we were an ideal amalgam. Her grace shielded me from all sides.

Later I would ask grandma what she whispered then and she would reply that she offered gratitude to the Goddess of the peak for protecting our ancestors, the village and the soil. Grandma’s mother-in-law would have whispered a similar prayer a few decades ago from the same place and her mother-in-law before that.

Grandma often pointed to the corners and slopes where the women before her enjoyed solitude. I haven’t seen my great-grandmother, but I know the spot around the field where she enjoyed a smoke after a day’s work. I recognise the corner my great great grandmother liked to sit all by herself on a rare day with no chores. I know how my great-grandmother stuttered certain words as she walked the edges of the field. As a child, I imagined hearing her echo if I closed my eyes. Sometimes, I envisioned those women of yore watching grandma and her companions work.

Today, the fields are barren. The peak appears smaller to my adult vision and the stream is audible only after copious rainfall. There are hardly any women in the hamlet praying to the sun, soil, water and peaks. There are fewer trees and broader roads around grandma’s village. Most natives are in faraway cities earning a living.

In a session on writing from roots by Emergence Magazine, its editor and writer, Chelsea Scudder, spoke about Axis Mundi in certain cultures across the world. In spiritual traditions, people believe in the existence of a particular place that connects the spirit world and the underworld to ours. Sometimes it is depicted as a tree or any other natural landform. She also mentioned that each of us carry our personal axis mundi, those sacred centres through which a deeper connection with the world around us is possible.

This image of grandma and me looking up at the mountains is a memory that flashes unsolicited and I presume it takes form at the most unsure moments of my life. It is an image that roots my connection to this world and makes me a tiny part of an indigenous community with roots as old as the mountains. In my family, I am among the first-generation migrants who stepped away from the mountains. Like me, there are several others who call the mountains home, but we do not reside there anymore.  However, we know that the idea of home is a certain emotion, laden with warmth and tenderness you constantly carry within. It is more of a consciousness of belonging and not just a place of residence.

With landscapes rapidly shifting to give way to development, the places and ecosystems revered by my ancestors may soon change. In the corner where my great-grandmother and I enjoyed our solitary moments may stand a concrete structure.

At this juncture, where our pasts are rapidly erased and the idea of the future is perceived to be dystopian, perhaps our memories of home, of entrenched belonging, may serve as our personal axis mundi. Those experiences rooted in certain places that we carry and those engraved memories we revisit at different points in our lives may help us step into something beyond ourselves as Chelsea Scudder says and make a deeper connection possible. Probably, that is closest we can get to the idea of permanence of a home.

Words by Monisha Raman @monisharaman

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