Sunday morning at 6:30, I am fast asleep when my heavy teak bed rocks. Half-waking, half-dreaming, I think the fan fast-spinning above is responsible and go back to sleep. If you have traveled on long-distance trains in India, a rocking, rattling bed can lull you to deep sleep. A knock on my door and it opens. “There are tremors.”
Although half-asleep I get up and change into the first set of day clothes I find. Run to the bathroom. Gather up my passport and wallet. Then pack my laptop.
I am not the only one in the house to mechanically prepare for flight.

We are all displaced people. Of this, I am now convinced. We live in each place as if we have always lived there. But we carry in our hearts the memory of each displacement, as surely as if it is now happening to us still. And deep in our souls is the conviction that in one moment we will have to flee this place. It is a life lived in the interstices between cooling your heels and standing on your mark.

Where are you from? Oh, from here, Delhi.
No, I mean where are you from? Originally? I am from Calcutta. And you?
I am from a small village near Peshawar.

I have moved with those belongings I managed to carry all the way over in the chaos of Partition. Which as you may guess, were really not anything at all. Not in the sense that you could carry or store or touch.
But in my heart, I carried a lot. I carry a lot. I carry the small desk at which we used to do our homework. I carry the memory of the way rotis used to smell in the winter air. I carry the memory of the longest walk I will ever take. There is a reason I don’t like going for a walk as much as some of my neighbours do. I carry the memory of playing house with my best friends. Who must also be grandmothers by now. And I have also left some luggage behind.
In another time and place, I have left behind secrets I am sure my best friends have forgotten. I have brought theirs with me and kept them safe. My friends had my house, my dolls, my ribbons to remember me by. I only brought their secrets.

The TV runs on. We are watching the news. Or rather, the news is being broadcast to our screens. We sit before it, eyes transfixed on screen and mind wandering.
“We came like that. With nothing.” It is a statement of fact. That is all.
Now we are all mentally present. The pain of that small memory ends our wandering and moors our present firmly in the past.

In a tearing hurry, several small children, a group of women and one man scramble on a departing boat. They find themselves places to crouch on deck.
The smaller children are tired, excited and curious about their surroundings.
In the eyes of the older children lies the realization that this is not a holiday voyage. They cling to each other so as not to have to reveal what they know to the younger ones.
The elders have their own secret worries. Who will they see at the other end of this journey? Who will they never see again?
Food is scarce, and so is water. The older women are experts at making nothing stretch into filling meals. They have known poverty and scarcity before.
The small children are secure in the presence of the elders. The sea air and the presence of their playmates is enough.
They have not registered the bombing of the harbor as the boat left the pier.

We waited for months. No one came. Sometimes there would be word of someone who saw someone who saw my brothers and my husband. The second someone was killed by a landmine. Now, hearing that, I did not even want any more news.
All we could do is pray and we did. We prayed together every morning and every evening.
And every member of our family arrived in one piece. We were very lucky.
There is a god and god does care.

“Oh, him, I know from Dearborn.” “When were you in Dearborn?”
“Let me see, now is it four years? Five years ago?” “I thought you were in Madison then?”
“No, Madison was three years ago. The year of the big snowstorm.”
“Where did you grow up?” “Jakarta.”
“Really?! I thought you were Indians.” “Yes, my father worked for a Dutch company.”
“Ever live in Holland?” “No.”
Silence, while he tries to map my personal geography. I wait patiently and in amusement. How can he when I barely can? I decide to make things interesting.
“This view reminds me of the bay in Dubai. You’d think it was a drab desert city, but it is quite spectacular.”
“Oh, you lived in Dubai too?” “No, in Colombo. For many years. But I traveled a lot with layovers in Dubai.”
“You have lived in a lot of places.” Yes, I have. I have moved from a lot of places. At each of which I have had this conversation a few dozen times.

They drove as far as they could and then there was no choice but to walk. The terrain was rough and the trek difficult. But the survival instinct puts muscle in your calves and breath in your lungs and even those who had never walked to another compound on the same street were now moving like experienced mountaineers.
They had left in a hurry, carrying very little—identity papers, fungible items like gold jewellery, a change of clothing, small mementos. The exchange process had already begun, and now they shed the mementos and clothing to lighten their load.
All the usual concerns about cleanliness and creature comforts were forgotten with each hour of the march to safety. They knew whatever they saw on the road, living conditions would be worse still wherever the journey took them.

“Have you lived here all your life?” “No. I am from Laos.”
“Oh, how interesting! When did you move here?”
“Thirty years ago, as refugees. We are refugees.”

“Those who sought refuge once.” Not an unusual identity for a group to acquire. The history of flight becomes an inalienable maker and marker of who you are.
Ask Parsis in India. Their story begins with flight in the seventh century CE and the compact they make with the local Indian ruler who gives them permission to settle in his domain. They are still identified in terms of where they came from (Persia) and they still adhere to the promise they made about remaining distinct from the local community while contributing to the betterment of society. The story of flight, refuge and integration is part of being Parsi, thirteen hundred years later.
Ask muhajirs in Pakistan. Almost half a century after they chose to move to Pakistan, they were still identified for their migration. Accepting the markers associated with this migration—Urdu, for instance—the diverse non-community of Partition migrants transformed themselves into a single identity group. Who are they? Those who once fled.
Ask Jews all over the world. The word ‘diaspora’ referred first to them before it became a fashionable contemporary word for all émigré communities. It referred to flight and Jews were probably the first community in human history to be identified by flight, and to remain a community although they were scattered. The Diaspora. ‘Those who were scattered.’
‘Those who were scattered and those who fled and those who sought refuge.’

We were just going about our morning chores. It was a perfectly normal morning. The children had holidays and so we were not rushing. Suddenly the sea, our closest neighbour, retreated as if afraid to touch the land. Before we realized what was happening though, it rose up in a wall of water and came to us. Like a rakshasa, an ogre.
Like Hanuman met on the way to Lanka. She would have swallowed him whole had he not been able to shrink and fly out of her mouth.
We were not so lucky. I grabbed my children and ran towards the road. But the sea gave chase and I fell. The children ran on. It has swallowed and swept me away. Then deposited me elsewhere. Yes, I am alive.
But where are my children? I lie in a temporary shelter where those hurt by the wave are being helped. It must be somewhere near my home. But they say I am not well enough to move. I must find my children. I must find my children. I close my eyes to lock in my tears.
Around me. Those who were scattered. Those who fled. Those who sought refuge. Those who are not dead.

We only had the clothes we wore. And were utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers. In our case, distant relatives who never forgot they had done us a kindness. Or let us forget it.
Hardened by experience, we knew we had to make good. To never be in need again.
Yes, we walked all the way. All of us—men, women, and many children—trekked through the plains, the mountains and the valleys. Surviving landmines and air-raids.
It makes you believe that someone is looking out for you.
Once, just once, my sister broke her ankle as we were scrambling down a hill-path. That healed. When she is tired, she limps. When she limps, we are back on that hill-side, praying there will be no air-raids.

Those who are not dead. That is all of us in this moment. In the next moment, it will be a different group. Everything changes from minute to minute.
When people said, this was our ancestral property, I always imagined it was at least 600-700 years old. And for that, it was in very good condition. I grew up. Studied history. And realized the mansion was only built 95 years ago. But in those ninety-five years, it nurtured a sense of timeless permanence in the children who played hopscotch on its side porches.
We lived in a flat by the sea in India’s first city. When I was born it was not built, and the sea licked the shores a thousand times and more each day. My parents would wheel me out in my perambulator in the causeway by the water.
They filled in the bay, one barrow-load of sand and gravel at a time. And then on that sand and loam, skyscrapers were built. Towers on sand on sea.
And we moved in, and built a life. I had lived in two other buildings in the first seven years of my life, but this is my home. It still is.
For every tile laid, every cupboard built, every shade of paint chosen, we thought we would live there forever. And then we left, first one by one, then once and for all.

Alone in my room, I feel the fever rise and rise, burning up my strength. My body aches. I close my eyes. I want to go home. There is a problem. I don’t know where home is any more. And the image of tall corn-stalks comes to mind. Home.
But now, amid the cornfields and the Great Lakes, I sit alone in my apartment and watch the snow fall incessantly. The night is still and silent. The white powder piles up higher and higher covering half the French windows in my living room. The heat is on low because turned up any further it will give me a headache. There is nothing on TV and it is too nasty outside to go get something to read. What am I doing in this icebox of a town? I want to go home. And the deep gold-and-coppersulphate of the Arabian Sea comes to mind. Home.
I walk through the subway market in downtown Seoul. Except that all the writing is in Korean, the stores could be in Churchgate or Palika Bazar. The crowd could be Victoria Terminus or Shinju-ku. The merchandise could be Pettah or Pondy Bazar or Bangkok. All the walking makes me hungry. But I speak no Korean, and cannot ask for vegetarian food where no meat or fish touch the food. Hunger makes my eyes tear. I want to go home. My kitchen, with its Indian food and American snacks. All ingredients made known to me on the container. Home.

Who lived here before you? And before them? And before them? And before that? Was there a home here? What grew here? What slept here? Where were you?
I don’t know who lived here before me. Or before them. Or before them. And before that.
Where was I? I could answer that if I knew who I was. Or for that matter, who am I?

I am. I can list many qualifiers and attributes for myself. And many places.
To one Sri Lankan friend, I am the girl from Bambalapitiya. To one American friend, I am a true Midwesterner. To the girls I grew up with, I am a Bombayite from Cuffe.
With the heart of a homesteader, I have lived like a gypsy in my adult years. A friend once wrote to me, “A free spirit knows no home.” My spirit cannot wander unanchored.
They also say, a rolling stone gathers no moss. It does, it does, I tell them. Friends at every turn, memories of every patch, pain from all the rolling and pleasure from the ever-changing vistas.
I have built my permanent address in my heart. The foundation is experience. The roof and walls are provided by acquaintances. The pegs, anchors, cement are close friends. The accents on my walls are the people I have met once and never come across again. I carry this home with me from place to place. In spite of that, in each place, I need new pegs and anchors, like you need new curtains or dustbins for a new flat.
It takes an itinerant to befriend an itinerant, and an exile to understand the isolation of an exile. To know that the feeling of being settled or permanently belonging, is a simple illusion. We are all displaced persons.

Yes, all my peregrinations have resulted from choices I have made. But something in my heart recognizes that lost expression on the face of the girl in the relief camp. I have never known the misery she knows today.
Without however exaggerating the small dramas of my life or belittling the genuine tragedy in hers, it is a difference of degree or intensity that separates our shared experience of life-changed-in-one-minute, of not having a clue as to what tomorrow brings, of suddenly finding yourself in a new place surrounded by strangers. But at bottom, somewhere, it is the same experience.
In her eyes, I see the replay of moments from my past. In that reflection, the tsunami sweeps through my life as well.

We move from experience to experience. From place to place. From life to life. From body to body.
Memories travel with us; some vivid and immediate, some faint and lingering. So do lessons. We identify ourselves by the people we have been and been with, the places we have lived, the way things have been in our lives. And leave all that aside, we are where we are.
Displaced from minute to minute by time that never stops and change that never ceases.
Like children playing house, we make ourselves secure and think ourselves settled, but in our minds, our bags are always packed. And when the earth shakes, we are ready to pick up and move. To that next patch of stable ground.
Secure in this moment. Insecure in the movement between moments.
Leaving pieces of our hearts and lives everywhere. Displaced, misplaced. But busy bungling along.

Swarna Rajagopalan
January 2, 2005