Thursday, February 3, 2011

Religious Community and Home in Love and Longing in Bombay

Although “home” and “homeland” may bring to mind images of physical places and actual houses, the feeling of being home comes with the community with which a person associates these images of location and physicality. The people are more important than the places, and as long as the community thrives the home is peaceful. It is only when conflict happens that home no longer feels like home, a truth which became painfully clear in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Communities can have different centers around which they assemble, and one of these centers is religion; a religious split between the traditional Igbos and the new Christians shook the community. In Vikram’s Love and Longing in Bombay the reader does not witness the communal split of the different religions; instead, he is thrust into a world which has already seen the divide and now must form its religious communities within close proximity of one another. In the third story of the novel, titled “Kama”, Sartaj experiences homelessness, not physically, but mentally and even spiritually.

Sartaj is a Sikh, and he recognizes that he is an “outsider” in Bombay (110). Sartaj’s home had been with his wife Megha, but it becomes clear in one of his flashbacks that she did not share his religion. During one of their fights she screamed that he had the face of a terrorist, pointing out that he is clearly different from the people around him. Although he does not make this clear at the time, the assumption is that his physical appearance, which indicates his religion, accounts for her outburst. He then reflects that the man she is remarrying had been a friend of her family’s, and both of their “families had always thought that they were good together” (95). A part of a family’s common identity is its religion, and often families of different religions become a community. The story never makes it clear whether or not Megha and her new husband-to-be Raj are of the same religion, though conjecture allows one to believe this is a possibility. Even while he is married, Sartaj is never truly at home in his apartment with Megha because he is not a part of her community, so he never truly has a community--or home--of his own.

The turban he wears is a visible symbol of his homelessness, a reality that comes upon him when he follows Kshitij, the son of the murdered Chetanbhai Ghanshyam Patel, to an apartment building where the young man meets his friends, and it becomes clear this is where Kshitij finds his community. He is a Rakshak, a part of an extremist group that wants to “clean up the country” and targets outsiders like Sartaj (89). The Indian homeland is not only threatened by English outsiders; it also faces internal conflict which in some instances centers around religious and spiritual differences. When he thinks of his own status as an outsider, someone without a community, Sartaj reflects that the Patels are Gujaratis, and therefore they must be outsiders too. However, they are outsiders because of their ancestral location in northern India. Their difference lies in their ethnicity, not their religion. Unlike Sartaj, Kshitij still manages to find a place at home with the Rakshaks, an indication that he feels more at home in Bombay than Sartaj does. While religious communities are not the organizations of home, they play a dominant role in “Kama”, and his lack of a community ultimately leads to Sartaj’s loneliness.

This sometimes reminds me of my own experience growing up. When I was about seven my family left Hollowell, the church of my early childhood. After that, we never found a church at which my family felt truly at home, so throughout my elementary- and middle-school years we jumped from church to church. I often felt as though I was missing out on something special as I would sit in a pew with my parents and brothers and watch the children my own age, members of the youth group, sitting together, talking and laughing and shuffling around so that best friends could be next to one another. Even at school my peers, who were friends from church, would oftentimes sit at lunch together and run around together at recess. My town is one in which religion is extremely important, and church functions always bring together communities. As I said, religions are not the only way of forming communities. Of course I had my own friends on the cheerleading squad, I spent time with girls I met in my dance classes. Yet, I still remember always feeling like I was missing out on something completely different, missing out on a community centered around a shared faith and shared house of worship.

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