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Rochelle Potkar On Going Home

The "On Going Home" series offers a glimpse of what returning home means for authors who have spent three months in the U.S. as part of the International Writing Program's Fall Residency. This installment comes to us from Rochelle Potkar:
Rochelle Potkar with her daughter, Keya.

Iowa is affixed in my mind as this cool place of beauty, sprawling gold fields, the rippling river blue, the talcum sky above, the bridges connecting the art library, crossroads of book launches, libraries, cinema screens. If this is pristine, then every moment sliding along the infinite line of a finite life shows the grade of a difference.

And there is distance that makes the lens less foggier, meless cross-eyed.

My biggest habit in Iowa was: people. For three months, other participants who started off as difficult names, some from countries I hadn’t heard of in a decade, like Estonia, became faces and friends, voices and narratives, humans and songs, and then phantoms of memory that orbited around me at all time. I cannot forget El Jones and her sprees, Jo Aitchison and her haka. Bands of us in sixes and 10’s making our way to the Cinematheque, or jumping into the car en route to grocery runs.

I am alone now and never alone with 34 dialects of English, and its accents, with the epidermis of struggles and triumphs, philosophies and ideologies, pain, laughter, gain, and childhood stories. That undying spirit that is truly Iowan or heavenly-universal in a clear pure pitch, and an echo that says: we come from everywhere, we can do anything!

I felt un-belonged when I came to India.

Goan Holiday

I even thought of joining an organization that wanted storytellers for brands. Then I thought of time. How it could not be regenerated… spent like a 100-dollar bill.

Month two, and I was fine with un-belonging. I drafted two proposals for two-week-long artists’ residencies in India. I wanted to bring Iowa closer.

I also signed a contract for my first book of poetry, Four Degrees of Separation, which will be out soon.

I seeped back into my writing life, enjoying literature festivals outside Mumbai. Reading poetry at the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, and fiction under ‘New Indian Writing in English’ at the Hyderabad Literary Festival gave me a high.

Rochelle Potkar at the Hyderabad Literary Festival.

My phantoms began evaporating.

Then the line got darker. The light, dimmer. The silence, deeper.

Month three, and we came face-to-face with a young PhD scholar - so intelligent, promising, and wise - who committed suicide. He was a Dalit. His death was because of the centuries-long caste-based discrimination of students by educational institutions. In his final note, Rohith Vemula speaks of the growing gap between his soul and his body, that he wanted to be a writer like Carl Sagan, that the value of a man was always reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility, that never was a man treated as a mind, as a glorious thing made up of stardust.

Rohith’s journey had been one of humble beginnings and hard work. His life trajectory was very precious. I feel helpless when such things happen. It hacks at the soul of everything progressive, putting us back into darkness.

When did labels become important? Which country do we come from - first-world, second-world, third-world? Which family…? High caste, low caste, rich, poor. The color of skin: crème, milk, caramel, bitter chocolate, rum, resin. Are we wine? Ice-cream?  

Can’t we be acknowledged for the journeys we traverse, the hardships we face, the wisdom we earn? And that alone?

What are these grades that keep some humans feeling perpetually inferior so others can feel perpetually superior? This isn’t IWP and its inclusiveness, I know.

What of the quest for spiritual superiority?

I have started watching my own writing – lines of prose peeling like dirt away from skin. What is the point of eloquence and linguistic beauty? How can it change reality?

When one Rohith kills himself, it shows me that racism, casteism, religionism, gender-and-LGBT discrimination, patriarchy are all here and very present, and our fight is not unified enough to stop it.

Then I realize we only have a voice.  And then, at least that.

Flowers and stars, they say, grow in the dark. Children of the womb.

As something untoward happens individually or collectively every day in my country, and in Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and the rest of the world, I wonder when would I, when would we truly come home, and what is home.

Then it is only the self to behold,
to hold on to,
moving, sifting,
foot loose.

Migrants, we all.

I am sorry. I had intended for this to be a happy piece.

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