Home is an irrevocable condition

An uber driver once sang christian hymns for me, one older gentleman debated the finer points of the Koran, another traded recommendations of western classical music, the symphonies that in my childhood had set the pace for Tom’s pursuit of Jerry.

Every time I slide into the back seat of an unfamiliar car, I step into someone else’s world stuffed unceremoniously in a metal box. The atmosphere congealing with their music, their stories, sometimes the smell of weed, and sometimes of stale milk clinging to children’s strap on seats. It is always an intrusion, an extremely personal one.

A blue evil eye hung from the rear view mirror of this car. 
I thought- Turkey? Egypt?
It reminded me of home, a similar one hangs in the room my mother, a teacher, has taught in for years. It was a gift from a Turkish gentleman, he claimed to be her long lost brother, he sold us a lamp, four domes decorated with fragmented colored pieces of glass. It still illuminates the center of my house. 
It could be Egypt, I thought. The app told me that his name was Mustafa. 
I asked him is the music Turkish, Egyptian? Relying on my basic knowledge of that part of the world. 
He replied that its Iraqi, his syllables rough on the edges. Iraqi music is possibly closer to Egyptian than Turkish he told me. 
It was only now that I noticed a ginger beard peppered across a soft chin, perhaps only a few years older to me, he certainly looked young, carelessly good looking. His blue shorts were creased with all the sitting.

Where are you from? He asked me. A question that is a ritualistic part of my Uber small talk. I look and sound Indian, but they always ask, just to be safe. 
I said-“India, grew up there, have been here three years.” I added anticipating further questions. Although, he never asked, I don’t think he ever intended to ask. 
“ Where are you from?” I added, knowing of course that the music was from Iraq, I did not wish to presume either, the world is full of worldly people. 
He laughed a short laugh, scoffing at my reluctance to connect the dots, and added “Iraq”. 
“Aah!” I said. Do you like it here? 
He turned his head a little, looked back at me and said-“Not really, I miss home, that’s why the music”.

I listen to a lot of hip-hop these days, the rapid intricate words set to a beat and confined by breath remind me of the early days of poetry. When this country was still new to me, their songs never touched my heart. My road trips to Florida and Texas had a Sufi soundtrack.

“What brings you here then?”, I asked. He peered back at me, deliberating his answer. “What brings you here?” he fired back. The question was in a quieter voice, more somber than the usual small talk. 
 I said, “ I came here for grad school, Hopkins”. He nodded and peeled his eyes off the road and looked out of the window to his left, in the process, turning his face further away from me. His voice heavier, “I came here as a refugee”, it nearly broke at the last word.

I nodded my head, said a soft “hmm” and kept quiet. The word reminded me of a young Kashmiri girl, my age, like him she had golden hair too, she had come to our house after the death of my father. She had asked for help and said that “we had a home just like you and then we had to leave everything and flee”. It was years ago. It was the word “home” that got to me. I remember giving her a pair of my father’s shoes-the first object of his we parted with. Mom and I, we spread a sheet in our verandah and loaded it with everything that could be spared, just at the spot where at one point dad’s corpse had rested for a moment, until we decided to take him inside. The house was his Taj Mahal, the walls were fortified with his love. He would wake up at five in the morning to water the walls as the brick and mortar grew stronger. That day, with the sunlight streaming in, her golden hair glittered, we had given the refugee girl a lot, but hardly a home. Someone told me later, Kashmiri refugees have a colony behind the Ganesh temple in our city, I wanted to go and teach their kids, seeking a redemption of sorts. In her gray eyes, I could sense a hint of me, although, as much as I knew of loss, there was still home.

Breaking my reverie, the uber driver then changed the song and asked about the subjects I studied in school. We talked of Biomedical engineering and how it was different from Biotechnology. He studied the latter and worked in a laboratory. He liked the west coast but his relatives lived here. 
I tentatively asked, prefacing my statement with a disclaimer that it is not politically correct to ask-“what do you think of this country?” He shrugged his shoulders laconically and said that, “politics is just messy, for me it is more about home.”

“Where would you rather live?” I had asked. He named Jordan and reasoned that the culture is closer to his but he cannot work there as a refugee, so he is waiting to become an American citizen. You can do a lot with an American passport, you can work easily in Jordan with an American passport and then he laughed the same short burst of a laugh, rueful, sarcastic, but not acrimonious, the irony was hardly lost on either of us.

Home for me, at its core, is always my childhood home with its white walls and marble halls. I remember vividly how the curtains glowed back-lit in the afternoon. My mother’s fingerprint on every corner, my paintings still hang on every wall. Since then, home has evolved, it has been everything from an embrace to a sleeping bag- always a temporary refuge. I lived now a refugee at a friend’s house, unable to decide the country where I want to lay roots. To go and seek a future back home or stay and make this one a new home. I like who I have become in this country. I have learnt to flex my muscles and challenge my visions. As I find myself understanding this place more, I also see it changing. Or perhaps, it was always the same.

The uber driver slowly cruised through the shadier parts of the city. This building, my friend’s apartment, is an erstwhile community school, abandoned for lack of pupils and funds, and now re purposed to create luxury apartments. Each apartment uniquely molded to the school’s skeleton. A bare, decrepit building still lingered like a homeless person next to the parking lot, it looked like the Colosseum against the backdrop of Baltimore downtown.

He gracefully pulled in and parked at the driveway of the building, looked back at me, smiled, and added-“Here, you are home”, unwilling to clarify and elaborate on my current rootless existence, I merely smiled a lopsided smile and said, “ I hope you find home, I hope that you find your way to Jordan”. He looked at me, a little moved, almost smiling, and then laughed. He nodded a quiet good bye and drove away.


Turkish Lanterns