Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Vision of Home

I have found in reading and in life that each person shares some eternal and inexplicable bond to their home. It can be a past or origin, an experience, or it can involve a connection to a physical location. No matter the form, this connection elicits a wide range of emotions and can greatly affect one’s outlook on like and on themselves. It gives sight into the ways of the world and into the workings of our own hearts and minds. In Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay, the characters’ homes carry great significance in the unfolding of their individual stories. Jago Antia and Sheila Binjlani both give credence to the effect of home on literal and figurative vision. Jago’s return home leads to sight of himself, while Sheila’s humble origins allow her to see and value people who others cannot.

In Dharma, we are introduced to Jago Antia, a war hero disturbed by a past he has spent his whole life attempting to stifle. Jago finds himself relieved from his military duties and in his childhood home after experiencing debilitating phantom pain where his leg once was. We discover that his house is haunted but are not privy to the ghost’s identity. Jago adamantly stays away from that eerie part of the house, determined to shut whatever is left of his former life out. It is only after several days of struggle against the spirit that Jago finally ascends the stairs naked, his bareness a mark of his vulnerability—of his newly opened mind and heart. When Jago reaches the roof Chandra writes,

“Then he saw at the parapet, very dim and shifting in the grey light, the shape of a small body, a boy looking down over the edge towards the ocean. As Jago Antia watched as the boy turned slowly, and in the weak light he saw that the boy was wearing a uniform of olive green” (30)

This apparition is immediately followed by his memory of receiving the uniform for his seventh birthday, after the death of his elder brother Soli. Jago’s journey to and through his material home, as well as to his past, ultimately leads him to a literal image of his young himself, and thus to a more abstract enlightenment about the significance of the life he has tried so desperately to snuff. It is only when he has seen/“seen” that the spirit can whisper, “Jehangir, Jehangir, you’re already at home” (31).

In Shakti, we see the same dual vision with Sheila Binjlani, a single-minded woman bent on outdoing her peers and pleasing her only son. Chandra tells us that Sheila’s home, in this case more broadly meaning her origin in general, was modest and somewhat looked down upon. To the people around her, Sheila was the “shopkeeper’s daughter” or even “the poor girl” (33, 34). However, her humble beginnings seem to allow her a vision that her wealthy friends, specifically Dolly Boatwalla who was raised into an old and prestigious family, cannot possess. She sees those socially beneath her and appreciates them regardless of their station. Sheila’s maid, Ganga, conveys this to us when speaking about working in Dolly’s household saying,

“I mean that she doesn’t see me. If she’s talking to someone she keeps on talking. To such high people the rest of the world is invisible. People like me she cannot see. It’s not that she is being rude. It’s just that she cannot see me” (69).

Another suggestion of Sheila’s “vision” is on her way home from the wedding of Ganga’s daughter. Chandra writes, “As the car came around the curve, Sheila saw a family sitting by the side of the road, father and mother and two children around a small fire. There was a pot on the fire, and the flames lit up their faces as they looked up at the car going by” (71). This minute detail is mentioned once and never resurfaces, but the poignancy of it causes the image itself as well as Shelia’s ability to “see” even more evident. The lowliness of Sheila’s home allows for keener physical observation of the poor as well as a figurative “sight,” which gives her the capability to recognize and understand them.

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