Hiraeth

Of Lost Homes and Longings

Author’s Note: When I started writing this piece, Father’s Day was a long way off and I did not intend to write a piece about my father. I never do. My father, however, still manages to find his way in, one way or the other. Father’s Day has come and gone. And yet, here this is — a piece that is not about my father, but is still about my father. Which is pretty much the story of my life.

Hiraeth is a Welsh word for longing. If you will try Googling it, Wikipedia will tell you it is a word that has no direct English translation. And that it is a mix of nostalgia, longing, wistfulness. An earnest desire for the Wales of the past.

And that is exactly why back at law school we were asked to never trust (or cite) Wikipedia.

To be fair, at least in this instance, Wikipedia is not wrong. It is just limiting.

Perhaps the word was originally directed towards the Wales of the past. But with due regards to Welsh and their linguistics history, I do believe that the word is far more universal in appeal and application. And I also hope that the Welsh won’t mind sharing this linguistic delight with the rest of us.

Thankfully, when I first came across this word a couple of months ago, Wikipedia wasn’t my landing source. It was a Reddit thread.

And here is how that Reddit thread described this Welsh word — Hiraeth is a longing, a homesickness for a home one can never return to, a home that maybe never was.

It was like a lighting strike. And I was instantly smitten.

What a beautiful, heartbreaking idea!

I wracked my brain for weeks, plumbing the deepest recesses of my emotional experiences, searching for an experience, a moment, a feeling that could mirror Hiraeth.

There was none.

It sounds irrational in retrospect but somehow, so fascinated was I with that word, I wanted to feel it in my bones, and have it echo in my soul. Because without that feeling, everything that I knew about the word, read about it, thought about it or felt about it felt hollow.

It felt like a lie. And I longed for the truth of Hiraeth.

Don’t get me wrong. I was not at any point of time unaware of the shattering pain that Hiraeth would be. I was. And I was drawn towards that pain like moth towards flame.

Masochism is not my hobby. Writing is. It is just sometimes hard to maintain the distinction.

So Hiraeth eluded me. Even when I tried to live it through the characters of my stories, the words on paper sounded like a beautiful, exquisite lie.

Eventually, like most obsessions, Hiraeth faded away.

I didn’t know Hiraeth.

Until I did.

It was unexpected. A silent punch in the gut that had me reeling. So blinding was the impact that for several hours, I did not even think of Hiraeth. I just wondered if there was a way to define or quantify the way I was feeling. If there was any sense, any reason, any logic behind the surge of emotions.

If those emotions had a name.

It wasn’t the first time I had felt those emotions. It was the first time in a long time. And the first time I had tried to pin point their nature and identity.

I think these ramblings need a context. I will back up a little.

I spent the majority of my childhood in the Himalayan towns of India, in the picturesque Kumaon and rustic Garhwal. As is true for most early childhoods, it was one of the most pleasant, happy times of my life. The schools I went to, the friends I made, the teachers I was taught by — everyone and everything has a fond impression on my conscious and sub-conscious memory, not to mention a lasting impact on my overall personality.

They were good times.

But, there has to be a ‘but’, or this won’t make for a good story.

So they were good times. But they were complicated.

My memories from those Himalayan towns are the last set of happy memories that I have of my father, hale, hearty and alive. Those are also the set of memories whose edges are tinted and scarred by the shadows of the monster on our door, the monster that eventually took my father away.

It was beneath the canopy of the pine trees, overlooking a majestic Himalayan valley that the word cancer was first uttered in our lives.

A word that was to become a constant for the next two decades.

If complicatedly happy ever needed a definition, that would be it.

My father is the single most important influence in my life, way beyond father-daughter adoration, way beyond parent-child bond of love and respect, way beyond anything I have ever known in my life.

There is a reason why I rarely write about my father. Because words on paper always seem so insignificant, so woefully insufficient, to express my love and respect for the most important man in my life.

It has been over 17 years since his left his physical form behind for journeys beyond human comprehension.

And yet, he is the reason I am.

For years, I avoided visiting hill stations and Himalayan towns. Because buried beneath the winding roads, the cool breezy vibe and the lush green environs of the Himalayas were memories that I was too scared to revisit.

Years passed, pain faded and life moved on. And one day, I found myself back in the Himalayas.

It was a hard to decipher feeling — the lingering melancholy that clung to my soul despite the very pleasant, very happy vacation that I was supposed to be enjoying.

I avoided Himalayan vacations for another decade.

And then, last month, I was back. Again.

The majestic mountains stood tall and glorious, just as I remembered. The snow covered peaks in the distance glistened in the sunlight, like a shimmering dust of gold. Just as I remembered. The forests were lush and thick and fragrant, and the nip in the air was enticing. Just as I remembered.

Everything was just as I remembered.

And that I realized was the problem.

It turns out that the sense memory of Himalayan town’s cool breezy vibe and lush green locales is something my subconscious automatically associates with my father’s presence, and times that were, when he was around.

When I go back to the mountains, I want to go back to the home where my father played old songs on his trusty radio while the aroma of my mother’s food filled the house on lazy Sunday afternoons.

When I go back to the mountains, I want to go back to the tin roofed, wooden walled house of my childhood where on dark, cold Christmas nights, my father quietly played the Santa, and kept wrapped presents on the doorstep.

When I go back to the mountains, I want to go back to the times when worst of my problems could be solved by my father’s presence. And when that 4th grade mathematics test kept me awake all night, my father sat right beside me, telling me with complete conviction that it was going to be fine and he was right.

When I go back to the mountains, I want to go back to a home that was a home for less than a decade. A home that was still the most complete, if not absolutely the best home, I ever had.

A home that never was. A home that never would be.

My own, personal Hiraeth.

And just like that, the lingering melancholy made sense, that feeling of being displaced, that longing, that sense of missing an important piece of my soul.

I was standing in the midst of a Himalayan town not unlike the towns that used to be my home. I was in the midst of my home. And I was missing it.

It doesn’t matter how many times I go back to the Himalayas, doesn’t matter how many times I sit under the fragmented canopy of the pine trees, doesn’t matter how many tin roofed houses I live in, doesn’t matter how many times I let the warmth of roaring fireplaces seep into my bones, doesn’t matter how many times I breathe in the cool breeze, and feel my lungs swell, I am never going to be able to go back to the home that my soul longs for.

The home that was my father.

I have had, and still have many homes (not just houses) since then; each of them beautiful and complete in its own sense. The Sunday afternoons are still as lazy as ever whenever I am home (which is often) and still filled with the aroma of my mother’s food.

My father’s radio is of course missing. But, most days, I only notice it in the sense of a fond remembrance — a piece of my personal story that gives it the hues it has.

It is only when the mountains loom large, and the fragrance of the fallen pine needles invades my senses that the forgotten parts of my story come alive.

Hiraeth is the name of an emotion that couldn’t possibly have a name. Because Hiraeth is the gut wrenching ache of being a stranger in one’s own home.

Hiraeth is perhaps where every refugee — cultural, political, emotional — finds their pain get an expression.

I was not surprised when I revisited the Reddit thread that spurred my love with Hiraeth and noticed that the poster who had given this word its enthralling definition called themselves Expatchild.

Hiraeth can be subtle and personal, like my bitter sweet bond with Himalayas. Or it can be social and cultural, like the scores of people who left their homes and lands, out of necessity or otherwise, chasing their dreams or searching for better futures. Or it can be violent and political like the pain and tragedy of the people displaced from their homes due to wars and violence and tragedies; people who had to flee their home because that was the only option; people who had to choose between staying home or staying alive.

Not everyone gets to know Hiraeth. And that perhaps explains why so many of us across the world find it hard to understand the crisis of being a refugee, of being an immigrant, of being a stranger in someone else’s home while your home becomes a stranger for you.

Hiraeth has many hues, many versions, many intensities, and many layers of pain. Some pains arguably cut deeper than the others, but what remains universal is the soul deep resonance of our Hiraeths that is a defining force behind who we are, and who we will become.

You can call it Hiraeth. You can call it Saudade. You can call it something else. Or nothing at all.Vocabulary and definitions are linguistic conveniences that have limited application. It is the emotion that needs to be conveyed, that needs to be understood, that needs to be empathized with. Because how can we welcome those home whose Hiraeth we know nothing of?

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