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Site of Loss

In many ways being a migrant is characterised by loss; it waxes and wanes.

Art by Garnet Chan

Things move swiftly when you leave one country for another. There is no time to reflect in the immediate aftermath of arriving; the migrant is plunged into a quickening maze of adjusting and carrying on. As a child, your energy is spent going along with it all. Though of course, as a child, you don’t think of it as spending energy; you don’t think of it as anything in particular. Eventually, the weight settles.

I have lived in Australia for 11 years now — over half of my life. I moved to Sydney with my family about a month shy of my 11th birthday. We left behind Colombo and Chamma, my grandmother. While we lived here, Chamma lived there, in her flat. This separation, especially from Chamma, gradually came to weigh very heavily — chronically — on me over the next seven years until it was eclipsed by that other, final separation.  

I was recently re-reading John Berger’s And our faces, my heart, brief as photos and came across a passage that had somehow passed by unnoticed the first time:

Home was the centre of the world because it was the place where a vertical line crossed with a horizontal line. The vertical line was a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards the underworld. The horizontal line represented the traffic of the world, all the possible roads leading across the earth to other places. Thus, at home, one was nearest to the gods in the sky and to the dead in the underworld. This nearness promised access to both. And at the same time, one was at the starting point, and hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.

As the permanence of our emigration dawned on me, so my sense of migrant-hood crystallised; the two are inextricable — being here and the memory of who and what was foregone to do so. Amma’s attempts to have Chamma brought here as her dependent became the back-drop to our family life for the two to three years that followed the decision to stay here permanently. It was her main preoccupation — chasing up documents, certifying copies, writing affidavits, medicals, liaising with family overseas and so on. Ultimately, to no avail, the visa application was rejected. Life became deeply coloured by the grief that sprung from being apart from Chamma. It seeped into everything; expanded into something without discrete borders. It came to be my avenue of accessing the very thought of her, of Colombo, and over time, also my own present. Knowing she was more-or-less alone after our departure, the thought of how dull and quiet life at the flat would have been, day after day, for years, aches my heart still.  

There was also the sharpening sense that I was lost to this society. My life was here — my friends, school, my parents and brothers. But I was increasingly absent from it. The knowledge that I was now a migrant was not automatic, though once aware, I identified very strongly with the term, became conscious and vigilant of its implications. This acute alertness to the possibility of hostility, the possibility of being slighted, is difficult to halt and is in many ways also necessary for one’s survival — to the extent at least that this means moving through society with one’s pride intact. The trouble lies in discerning between instances of white/western superiority — from the artless to the covert — that warrant being challenged and taking offence for imagined malign. Navigating the white superiority complex without resigning to a defensiveness that borders on paranoia is an art in itself — a practice that can at times be violently othering. More and more I focussed on going back – this idea of having some point of origin to return to; somewhere unspoiled by the disorienting, undermining after-shocks of emigration.

Re-reading Berger got me thinking and writing about this again — home, being away, being apart, returning — something I have not done at length for some time now but used to almost obsessively. I don’t know why or when I stopped. Certainly not because these things relinquished themselves of aliveness in my mind. I still feel the knowledge of that displacement, the force. More at certain times than others, but always, always. And maybe there was an element of fixation to the whole thing that I am better off without. Though I wonder if perhaps that is too harsh; I was desperate for how things once were, for our Iife in Colombo with Chamma. Knowing it was all still there — or at least all the parts were, albeit scattered, so that hypothetically speaking, it could have been reassembled. But that is no longer possible. Chamma has been dead for some years now, and with her she took the delicate assemblage of tethers I had constructed between that place and myself — whatever meaning I had imbued it with depended on her being there. After Chamma’s death, the grief that had become something of an anchor for me came unmoored. There was no longer even the possibility of returning to how things were. Life as it had come to be — a day-to-day hinged on constantly looking back there for reassurance of wholeness, hinged on longing for it – was undone.

Emigration does not only involve leaving behind, crossing water, living amongst strangers, but, also, undoing the very meaning of the world and – at its most extreme – abandoning oneself to the unreal which is the absurd.

Chamma’s short-term memory became more-or-less non-existent over my last few years of high school. She was leaving by and by. After high school I returned to Colombo for a year. I lived at the flat with Chamma and Sheela Achchi, our family maid.  It was a relief to be back in their fold again. Of course, many things had changed. Having been away for so long Chamma no longer recognised me with much coherence. But many things also went on as they always had. The flat was airy and open, level with treetops, birds and squirrels at the bird-feed by day, bats and polecats by night; cats lazing around in the courtyard below. And while it may have been incoherent, and naturally far less articulate than before the dementia, our bond remained. The ease, the familiarity, the tenderness, the intimacy was unaltered; she was my grandmother, I was her grand-daughter.

Apart from the comfort afforded by returning to (what remained of) familiar people and places and routines, for the most part, that year was spent feeling utterly alien in the country I had come back home to. I found myself unversed in its ways. Looking back now, I don’t quite know what I was expecting at the outset, but it was a revelation. Living in Sri Lankan society again offered no homeliness in the vein – none of the warmth and ease or specular scale – that I had been hoping and preparing for. In a way, I suppose there never was a ‘home’ to return to; it was lost to me from the moment we left. I am reminded of what Jhumpa Lahiri says in the introduction to her book In Other Words:  “Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t in fact, return anywhere. The concept of exile and return imply a point of origin; a homeland.” How fickle this ‘point of origin’ is, especially when one is removed from it as a child. This is a time before you are able to set down roots, when your existence in a place has (as do most experiences during childhood) a kind of airy, lithe quality. This is an existence that is extremely relational and has little to do with one’s own life (schedules, routines etc) which in turn, to use Arundhati Roy’s words in The God of Small Things, is yet to acquire “a size and a shape.”

After the migrant leaves home, he never finds another place where the two life lines cross. The vertical line exists no more; there is no longer any continuity between him and the dead, the dead now simply disappear; and the gods have become inaccessible. The vertical line has been twisted into the individual biographical circle which leads nowhere but only encloses. As for the horizontal lines, because there are no longer any fixed points as bearings, they are elided into a plan of pure distance, across which everything is swept. What can grow on this site of loss?

I sometimes wonder what it might be like to return to the flat again – what it might be like to arrive, and for it to be empty. Amma’s sister — Chamma’s eldest daughter – died many decades ago, back when Chamma was raising her children there. No doubt it’s been marred by her absence ever since — even I, as a young child growing up there three decades later, was subliminally aware of my Loku Amma and the guarded tenderness that prevailed over her memory. But it also stayed alive, a place where meaning (and food and love and play forts) went on being made. And maybe this has something to do with it; maybe a place can be redeemed of loss if you remain, steadfastly (unthinkingly) physically rooted to it. To my thinking, the most complex struggle that a migrant contends with is the faltering continuity of their personal and cultural histories. The place that does the work of bringing you and who and what you are made of into one, a collective, is abandoned. The individual being and body are left to salvage and carry what is left. Chamma’s flat is still there but none of us are. In that sense it stopped being when she stopped being. We carry what we can of it but I wonder if this will ever meet the mark of the place, the archive and shelter, we have lost. 

“What can grow on this site of loss?” asks Berger. This is the question, and the task. I am no longer burdened by a sense that there is nowhere to return to; I no longer depend on the possibility. As Mikage in Yoshimoto Banana’s Kitchen says, “To the extent that I had come to understand that despair does not necessarily result in annihilation, that one can go on as usual in spite of it, I had become hardened…” So I suppose you can say that I go on as usual, in spite of it. Thinking now of the intensity with which I felt for that flat, for the knowledge that Chamma remained there – I find, to my surprise, that I cannot access it anymore. It is here, but beyond my reach. I’ve come to realise that loss, like most feelings, is not concrete or permanent in form; it waxes and wanes. And with this, so too does access to a place and its people when loss is your channel of reaching them. I’m increasingly wary of its dependability as a means of attachment, of memory, of loving. I still think of migration as something akin to the death of a loved one. Except here the grief is prolonged, its progression truncated. You are left longing for something you have essentially — even if unwittingly — rejected. And which, inevitably will also reject you too. But these are the absurdities, the paradoxes we traverse as migrants. You give yourself over to the unknown at the risk of all that you know, all that you are sure and certain of. 

“You know, darling,” Chamma said to me once, one afternoon, “when I look at you I feel” — and here she paused,  considered my face — “…like I know you”. We were sitting on the settee in the hall. At that time of day the flat would be filled with sunlight. Chamma’s voice had a golden ring to it. That is one thing I remember most viscerally about her. Whether she was greeting, or scolding, or consoling —

You know, darling, when I look at you I feel like I know you.