Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Nostalgia | A Conversation with Ashok Panikkar

A. K. Allin

AP: I remember seeing Solaris a long time ago. I know of Tarkovsky only because of the near adulation many film buffs seem to manifest when they talk of him. Regardless, I can empathize so completely with his notion of "Nostalghia" that it makes me almost home sick for him! Rushdie, Marquez and Naipaul also refer to this sense, often from the point of view of the immigrant. I felt this sense of nostalgia even when I was very young and, incredibly enough, had no way to know any other "home" well enough to miss it.

AKA: Rushdie calls home "an enabling migrant fantasy." I have migrated enough to know it is this precisely, a fantasy. That doesn't reduce my need for it though, and because of my need I have trouble calling it fantasy. I prefer direction or home. I might be wrong, but I think there is a hope one day I will obtain it.

I never felt nostalgia as a child. I first felt it in my mid-teens when I awoke to a new idea-- I was inhabiting the wrong space. My God, I thought, I should have been born somewhere else! I longed for that place and began to fantasize about it. And about leaving. Sailing and writing and running were ways to escape. I continued to feel that I was meant for another life, a life far from suburban PA. Any place really beyond this endless stretch of ¼ acre lots. Farmland? Chester Country? Laboring on the land, living close to the cows, under a long arch of elms?

AP: I sometimes think this infinite yearning for a "homeland of the spirit" is as much of a curse as a romantic ideal.

AKA: But if it is involved in what it means to live, how can it be an ideal? I think we turn it into a curse by neglect, by removing ourselves from the search. And what a chore, this removing!

AP: How beautiful those moments are, when we feel we understand and can even touch what we deem to be true beauty and harmony and how wretched it is, when it quite inevitably, slips away.

AKA: How this pushes us to create such moments! How this asks us to live them! This is what I mean by search, the chosen land, the crafted nostalgia which becomes, with practice, over time, quite natural.

AP: On a personal note, and I don't know how we can talk about this except at a personal level, I think there was a way in which the place that came closest to being "home" for me was ten thousand miles away in Cambridge/Boston.

AKA: For me, it is much the same. Boston embodied home most of all, gave most of what home might be. A history, a built-up place, society, and the way we construct a place, the way we weave ourselves in. Will I ever make a home in Seattle? I feel more and more the answer is no. The frequency of my migrations, over the years, has made the path my home. Strange to say, but I feel at home when traveling, when truly adrift. At sea, wandering, on the fringes. Then, as an awful contrast, I go back to a place, seek a lost home, and experience the most god-awful feelings of loss I've ever known. Seeing everything just as I'd left it, but never quite the same. Movement and change have become standard fare. Perhaps they are safer?

AP: Home was Boston, despite the months of loneliness, the trauma of being broke, not having the right working papers and the other innumerable challenges that come with being an immigrant. I think that in the predictable and yet dramatic shifting of seasons; the bracing chill of the winters; the almost edible beauty of the New England countryside and the ways in which I felt a strange one-ness with people who were so different from me-- I felt that I was finally home (even if alone). I guess the fact that I am not there anymore resigns me to yet another stretch of 'homelessness'. And condemns me to another bout of unquenchable nostalgia.

AKA: Not despite the months, but because of the months of loneliness, because of the trauma. Because I was writing and because you were writing. Because we were still learning. How open we were! How easy, how fresh our voices!

AP: What is your distant homeland? And what can you do about getting there?

AKA: My distant homeland is a guest cabin on"Lycia" in the South Pacific. A picnic table on a hoa with Manu. A tiny NYC apartment with Mora and Kike. Mount Baker with Lisa. Puget sound with Hayley. The Brandywine River. The sidewalk between Porter and Harvard Square. Night or day, rain or shine, summer or winter, in Krakow. On a folding chair in an aviary with Kazmierz, just outside Nowy Sacz. My distant homeland has more to do with the table and bread, with the ladeling hand, than with latitude. But I am at fault for creating competing homelands, for forming and dropping home more quickly than it can mean. And my family is at fault for dissembling our home and for squandering our bonds. And my friends are at fault for casting themselves to distant harbors. Might there be a way to piece together a homeland by fusing all of the places that have a bit of me in them? A wealthier poet might have built a home to host their lost friends. A wealthier poet might have revisited her homes often enough to keep them alive.

AP: How can your friends help you in your search? Is the search as much intellectual as it is spiritual and personal?

AKA: Not only can a partner (friend) help in the search, a partner can be the search, can ultimately be the homeland. We know it immediately when we meet bits of our home. We know when we meet our kin and tribe.

AP: Is the search helped by the presence of a companion? Or is it best undertaken alone?

AKA: Every search is undertaken alone.

AP: What is the cure for this- is it complete immersion in the mundane routines of everyday life?

AKA: Complete immersion in the various tasks of everyday life (I shall not call them mundane because I feel they are exalted) is the only option to living. Anything else is subsiding. Anything else is idling astride life.

AP: Or is it best to plunge deep into the sea of 'non-tranquility' knowing that the only way to "restore harmony in the world" is through the "renewal of personal responsibility."

AKA: The sea of non-tranquility exists right here. And over there. Plunge into everything! Do what you are doing, but do it with deliberation. Harmony in the world will only come through harmony in the self. They are one in the same.

AP: And in that case, what might it look like?

AKA: It might look like a hammock. It might look like a bench. It might be yellow or blue. It might look like you with a ladle, making home where you go. It might look like me with wings. Home is a liquid thing and yet is a connected place, a place with texture, the pattern of which we know from having lived it so well. Home is the place where all the pieces of you float about intersecting all night. A place this complex and liquid can only exist in you. Home is what you carry about with you.

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ASHOK PANIKKAR is a Bangalore based writer and conflict resolution professional. He is founder and Principal Consultant of Meta-Culture: Center for Conflict Transformation and Dialogue.

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