Hiraeth-a Welsh word that according to Google describes a longing, greater than mere homesickness or nostalgia, for a home or homeland. A homeland that may be lost or may have never even existed. When I shared my discovery of the word with my Mom, she immediately recognised it. She was the daughter of political refugees, who uprooted themselves from their ancestral home and crossed many borders for the sake of the freedom to follow their faith without unjust oppression. When I was little and I asked for a lullaby, she sang me a sweet, hauntingly melancholy refrain: “…please take me back to my real home…” She was not asking for a once tangible place now fixed in memory but for a place that held her warm with unconditional love and gave her the incontestable right of belonging.
We have all experienced hiraeth, perhaps some more consciously than others. We miss the carefree happiness of childhood, the absolute feeling of safety and love in a parent’s all embracing hug, the security of living in a bustling family, a place we once lived…if only that fleeting sense of absolute happiness and belonging were a tangible place that could forever be our home. As a daughter of expats, I live with this feeling of hiraeth and I am jealous of those who have only ever had the vaguest, brisk meeting with it. I contemplate the injustice to the refugees fleeing Syria, the people labouring in terrible conditions abroad forever trying to earn enough to be able to go home, the children who grow up too fast into unkind, unsympathetic individuals because they were not nurtured and protected from a harsh ‘adult’ world, the ‘misfits’ of society and anyone else who is caught in the limbo of not belonging and longing to go to their real home.
The sweet pain encompassed in the feeling of hiraeth stems from the knowledge of one’s loneliness yet the knowing memory of a home that must be waiting for us somewhere. I do not think an antidote to this awful haunting exists but I think compassion, a rather underrated form of unconditional love, provides a balm. We live in an increasingly individualistic doll’s house where we are all wallowing in a loneliness that we are distracted from by the buzz of that new season of our favourite tv show, that party we are heading to, the mountain of work we are trying to finish…we are all existing but in disharmonious isolation from one another because we are too busy chasing anything, disinterested or scared of contact with that which does not fit our predetermined way of living. Sometimes our hectic buzzing existence seems like happiness but then, just when we were moving in perfect harmony with our own noise, a pause catches us off-guard and we ask: What is the point? Why the hell am I here? That pause can herald true compassion and sensitivity to other’s discomforts, vulnerabilities and lack of belonging or plunge one into a competition to prove to those we perceive to be more unfortunate than us that we have never felt the sadnesses and hiraeth they feel. There is nothing in common. We are different.
What makes us act one way and not the other? Why are some people able to extend compassion when they recognise another’s feeling of hiraeth and why do some, instead, ignore it or treat it with scorn? Why are some people kind and others are not even when they have suffered similar persecution or loneliness? In Mumbai, India, there lives a doctor who has run his homeopathic practice for about 10 years. When he was a young, poor medical student, instead of continuing to study allopathic medicine he changed to homeopathy because he believed it lacked a completely holistic understanding of humans. Everyone is welcome to his practice and it is run on the principle that his patients should pay what they can afford. Those better off subsidise the medicine of his poorer patients. Everyday, he listens to dozens of people: hypochondriacs, those with terminal illnesses, the anxious, the obnoxious and those just in for a quick check up. Now he is a middle-aged man, fair skinned, greying a little, slightly plump from his sedentiary job. He is probably one of the most complete human beings I have ever seen. A humble aura of patience, contentment, kindness and a sprinkle of mirth envelope him. He is Marathi and living in the State of Maharashtra, he has seen Mumbai flooded with newcomers from all over the world who do not respect the local culture and customs. He is still not rich. But he does not carry the bitterness of animosity to those who are ‘different’ within him. He is not weighed down by the hate of perceived competitors.
In contrast to him, stands a shopkeeper I stumbled into one day when I was 4 years old. I had strolled out of the house with my friend. We were following his 10 year old elder sister off to a dance class. She realised we were following her but decided in the naïve spitefulness of elder siblings for the younger to rush her Mom along so she did not realise we had come out behind them in an attempt to catch up with her. We lost them in the criss-cross of cars at the market place. So we tried to go home. I was barefoot, I had been in such a hurry to not be left behind. As my friend and I wondered the maze of lanes outside our house, utterly lost, we stumbled across a shopkeeper sitting on the porch of his corner shop with his Alsatian. He was the kind of obsequious man who would have given us sweets and patted our heads if our mothers were buying something from his store. He probably had quite a hard life making ends meet. Him and his dog saw the two of us, dusty, barefoot and lost in our scruffy play clothes. He smiled and called us closer. I thought he would help us find our way home. Instead, when we were a couple of feet away, he shook his dog and told him to attack. We ran. I found out how cruel people are to those they perceive as poorer and more vulnerable than them when they think their victims cannot retaliate.
I see a world where even today people excuse oppression, so what makes one once-persecuted person more compassionate than another? What current drives one person to alleviate another’s feeling of hiraeth, while another exacerbates and magnifies it without caring? Compassion should be on the curriculum. Understanding and caring for others, and the warmth of being understood and cared for in return should be as mandatory a part of growing up as the school syllabuses that are drilled into our heads and rendered useless at university because they were based on simplistic conceptions of the world. In the shifting, changing world we live in, the feeling of hiraeth is never going to leave us but how far will we travel and what kind of shadow creature will we become if we fail to be human, to be the compassionate beings that reflect the best part of humanity? To put it simply, why do public institutions such as schools allow bug-torturing kindergartners to evolve into bullies and then adults who are excuses for humans packed with unkindness?
Written by: Divya Jalan
Featured image by Kinga Britschgi, via.
Enclosed picture – Calvin & Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson.