On Belonging and Home

Towards the closing scene of Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevye, Golde and their two daughters were preparing to leave, evicted from Anatevka, Golde is seen sweeping their house. When Tevye asked her what she’s doing his sharp tongued wife, Golde, replied, agitated, “I don’t want to leave a dirty house!”

Directed by Norman Jewison, the 1971 musical is the story of a Jew peasant in the pre-revolutionary Russia. The story centers on Tevye, the father of five daughters, and his attempts to uphold his Jewish religious and traditions as outside influences encroach upon the family’s lives. He must cope with the strong-willed actions of his three older daughters, who wish to marry for love. Each daughter’s choice of a husband moves further away from the customs of his faith – alongside Tevye and his family is helpless to the edict of the Tsar that evicts the Jews from their village.

The opening lines of the movie, at sunrise, when Tevye goes around in the village to deliver milk, with a sober fiddle score in the background, goes:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!

Critics claim that the Fiddler is a metaphor for survival in a life of uncertainty, precarious as a fiddler on a roof “trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck.” The fiddler also represents that tradition that Tevye sings of in the opening number, the traditions that Tevye is trying to hold onto in a changing world. As the movie poignantly ends, Tevye and his entire folk ends up uprooted from Anatevka and all that the home-loving Golde could do was sweep her ‘house’ for one last time amidst the turmoil of eviction.

Perhaps, the movie drives home the point that one’s belief and stricture on tradition and one’s overwhelming love cannot save one’s home the moment she/he is given the tag of an outsider. This is exactly what happened when the Jews were declared outsider by the Czar.

If eviction and forced migration is not a matter of personal choice, then can belonging be otherwise? To me belonging is accidental just as one does not have control over one’s birth. Alien at Home an article by Priyamvada Asthana, published on January 30, 2018 in The Sangai Express, Imphal points to this poignant issue of belongingness. She writes:

We have various homes in the course of our lives. Some are part of our DNA, like ancestral homes. Others, part of our hearts, of our very souls. They are part of us. They influence our decisions. They shape us as people.

Manipur is the latter. It isn’t my ancestral home. My father came here in 1986, as a young IPS officer, as Mayang as he could be. As a police officer, he was a symbol of the State at a time when the insurgency in the Hills and the Valley was at its peak. He saw a side of Manipur that I didn’t. Even if I did see it, I was too young to remember it. He stayed on for the next 9 years, roughly, mostly serving in the Hills, though he did a brief stint as SP, Imphal West, during that period.

She came to Manipur in 1992 as a toddler when her father was the superintendent of police of Churachandpur and at a time when the Naga-Kuki conflict just began. Then she moved to Ukhrul when she was a year old. To her, Ukhrul isn’t a town of ambushes but a house, the SP residence, a sprawling bungalow built on top of a hill overlooking the valley. It is the orphanage where her birthday was celebrated. The city, for her, was confined to that house that was home. As a child, she also briefly lived in the 2nd Manipur Rifles Officers’ Mess, which according to her is now a decrepit hovel. That had once been “home” to her. Her parents, breaking with family traditions, had not taken her to Vindhyachal for her Mundan. The Devi Temple within the MR premises had sufficed. “That break from the past was my bond to Manipur”, she writes.

Rituals act as agents that bind, and bind me to Manipur, they did. And that is also where all trouble began. I say Manipur is home, but it’s a home where I have never had a house. At least in the Hills, the SP residence could be called home, in Imphal, home has always been a room or a suite of rooms in the Officers’ Mess.

She returned to Imphal after 15 years and her family stayed in 1st MR Mess. But she stopped calling it the Mess. To her, “It has simply become, ‘home’, ‘Yum’, as they say in Meeteilon.” But the pang of being the ‘other’ also churns her. “I love Manipur with all my heart, but it’s a place where my Mayangness is strikingly apparent. I barely speak Meeteilon, no matter how hard I try to pick it up.” Yet, acceptance also comes sometimes from the oddest places.

From the Imas at Ima Keithel, who chose Phaneks for me to buy based on what would suit me. From the people who, at a wedding, marveled at and hugged me for wearing the Phanek with aplomb. From the people who smiled at me in the Archives and called me their sister. From the people who suggested I marry in Manipur. From the people who automatically changed the ‘v’ in my name to a ‘b’, because, that is how it is spelt in Meeteilon.

Love triumphs is her concluding annunciation.

The Phanek and Phi and Chandon don’t make me Manipuri, but perhaps, unconditional love is the bond that ties me to both, the place and its people; however they may choose to identify. Manipur is not home to various ethnic communities. It is home to the love that binds them, irrespective of the insurgency and the inter-ethnic clashes and AFSPA.

Belonging continues to be rooted in ‘place’, familiarity, sensual experience, human interaction and local knowledge. These elements constitute the sources of ‘homeness’, its ‘conditioning context’, but they are not equivalent to nor do they automatically produce feeling of belongings, let alone identity. In other words, belonging is conditioned by social and psychological concreteness, persons, landscapes, sensory experiences, identification and memory. But what matters most are the ascription/constructions of belongings driven by nationalism and racism. Belonging is collectively transformed into modern, nation-state dependent form of identity, which collapses individual, cultural and political interpretations of identity, socialisation agencies and official, ethno-national versions of historical memory; draws boundaries, transforms concrete place into abstract (imagined) territoriality and re-interprets familiarity as nationality and strangers as aliens – in other words, imposes homogeneity and ascribes belonging.

This ideal model of belonging (ethnic, bonded, homogenous, organic and unitary) continues to challenge even the post-modern understanding of belonging and fluidity of belonging informed by globalism and cosmopolitanism. Ulf Hedetoft goes to the extent of saying:

It is hard not to attach a passing comment to this faddish internationalist way of critiquing primordialism: “Trees have roots, humans have feet”. Well, cows have feet, too. What they don’t have is mind, intelligence and consciousness to conceive of themselves with “roots”, nor do they have their very own politicians and opinion-leaders impressing their national rootedness on them, or if they choose their “feet” to move elsewhere – a corresponding set of people telling them that they don’t belong and should get back to their “roots” as fast as possible.

Reality of today’s world is that it simply endorses the idea of a nation, which compromises emotional overtures and romantic fantasies. Anthony Giddens has remarked, “It is nationalism which in our world has appropriated and reconfigured most people’s sense of belonging and identity”. Manipur is in throes of this construction, embedded in the demand for an Inner Permit System or a similar law to check influx of outsiders. This sadly puts in peril people’s feeling of belonging to a piece of territory, to a community, or to a state (of course I’m referring to Priyamvada Asthana). A person is at best left to freely imagine, attach values and even give wings to the feet. This is possible by deconstructing the English word “belonging” – a fortuitous compound of “being” and “longing”, of existential and romantic imaginary significations and associations. But can we be apolitical and a-cultural and escape from the ordering principle of the day?