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"On Going Home" - Usha K.R., IWP 2011, India

On Going Home is the name we've given to a short series of essays by our 2011 fall residents. We commissioned the pieces because we wanted to keep in touch and because we were curious to know what the process of returning home was like for authors who'd spent nearly three months in the U.S. writing, researching, travelling, and interacting with Americans. We also asked the authors to send us a photograph that somehow represented "home" in some fundamental way. The second installment of the series comes from Usha K.R., a fiction writer from Bangalore, India, who is seen here taking an autorickshaw. 


In the three months I lived in Iowa City I woke up every morning to see the first rays of the sun falling on the tower and the turrets of a castle on the horizon. The blue-green turrets were burnished in the sun light and stood out against the clear blue of the sky. From the wide north-facing windows of my sixth-floor room I had a perfect view. The blue was duller when the sky was overcast, but the tower was a constant on the horizon. What, I wondered, was a medieval fortress, pennants aloft, doing in a modern sea of buildings, its anachronistic curves standing out oddly amidst the squares, rectangles and right angles?

I often stood at the window during the day, looking out, my room stretching behind me, snug in my solitary cosiness. I watched the cars in the parking mall opposite come to life and purr away – at night they sat quietly in their places, their fenders gleaming in the lamp light.  On the pavement below, students in hoodies stumbled to class, office goers with bags hitched on their shoulders and smoke curling from their coffee cups disappeared under the awning of my building. Garbage trucks stopped by the curb and businesslike men in overalls hauled black sacks into the back. On week-end nights I could hear the ambulances hooting and the students whooping on the ped mall, in celebration of another football win. (On the morning after a match I saw an entire student band  packing their instruments – a large brass trumpet was tucked without fuss into a black case – and riding off.) I watched the tree next door change colour from green to red and yellow and then turn bare. On fine days I walked by the river, sat on the greens beside it or wandered where I wished. Here I was, suddenly, happily, becalmed; my days were mine to do exactly as I pleased. The turrets I glimpsed every morning brought me back to earth, reminding me that I was not the only one displaced.

News from family and friends back home came regularly – like the constant thrum of a musical instrument designed to keep the vocalist’s pitch from slipping. Meanwhile I marveled at the group of which I was a part – ‘thirty seven writers from thirty two countries’ as we had heard ourselves pronounced  – and looked at us, myself included, from the outside – at the different colours of our skin and hair, our accents and clothes. I was entranced; we were all living characters in a romance. 

Week after week we read from our work in bookshops, discussed it in class and drank it in our glasses in restaurants and pubs. At night, after a session of the Cinematheque, we of the ‘sticky rice’ predilection, gathered in my room and discussed the films the writers had made or endorsed. In alien tongues we spoke about the experience of being human – in different parts of the world, under siege and in self-indulgent freedom, in pain and in pleasure, in tears and in laughter, in prose and in poetry.  In the background was the city and the people who had made the unobtrusive theatricality of our lives possible.

One morning we pierced the walls of the turreted castle. There was nothing to it – no moat, no armoured soldiers on horseback – we, the public, were free to walk in. It was, I learnt, the Courthouse, the local seat of justice. We climbed up wooden stairs and in a wood paneled room, under a canopy of coloured, figured glass, we enquired at a counter where a blue uniformed official sat next to Tinker Bell (it was Halloween and officials were allowed to come in mufti). For three days we listened to arguments and counter arguments as a young father was charged with being instrumental in the death of his adopted infant son. Lives were laid bare – candid photos of transient happiness, the shining faces of children,  the warp and weft of a marriage, the web of a sustaining but all-seeing community. There was scientific evidence too, complete with scans of the fatal injury.

As September led to October and then November, the sun rose later and later, daylight saving ended, the blue sky and turrets remained.  I returned home to the coldest winter in years (65 degrees Farenheit to Iowa City’s autumn of 50 degrees).  I was seized immediately by a respiratory allergy – a finger wagging to remind me that coming home was no easy matter. The day after I landed I was back at work, standing on the pavement in the morning, overcome by such a sense of déjà vu that I was disappointed when the autorickshaw agreed to go in the direction I wanted. It had snowed in Iowa City I heard and saw photographs of the ground blanketed with snow, the sky mirroring the ground, the trees bare. Outside my window, my flowering creeper flourished and the dulcet tones of the bulbul and the song of the sunbird rang out at dawn. The newspapers here are full of the story of a battered and abandoned child, fighting for her life in a hospital – the police are on the case. (The father in the other battered baby case, I learnt, was acquitted – found not guilty. I imagined him receiving the verdict in the wood paneled room, under a high ceiling with the sun light streaming in in rainbow bands.) And to round off my story, during a recent visit to the nearby city of Mysore, a small city of many gentle attractions, as we completed our ritual tour of the royal palace, I was stopped short by the pillars in the gorgeous Royal Marriage Pavilion. It wasn’t just that the pillars were graceful and magnificent and stretched to hold up the highest of ceilings, but they were painted an exact colour that sent a nervous buzz of recognition through me. It took me a moment to recall the metallic blue of the turrets of the Courthouse. But even as I tried, incoherently to explain my excitement, my family urged me to hurry. So I stood for a while by myself, a crowd of tourists swirling around me, and savoured the happy moment alone.