Memoir Reviews

‘Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation’ review: About a place called home

Why does where we live mean so much? In a country as diverse as ours, the first thing we often ask each other is ‘where is home?’ As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across India, and the government imposed an intense lockdown, thousands of people walked back to their ‘native’ places many miles away from the cities where they had been working. To explore the idea of home and belonging and answer the question — ‘Is there still no place like home?’ — journalist and fiction writer Annie Zaidi wrote a 3,000 word essay, winning the Nine Dots Prize in the process, before expanding it to a book, Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation.

A million anxieties

Once at a literary festival Zaidi found herself at a stall selling posters and a line from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude caught her attention, albeit written in Urdu “with its curlicue graces”: A person doesn’t belong to a place until someone beloved is buried there. Though her family hails from north India, the notion of belonging was always a fraught question for Zaidi, because she had lived at many places. This is true of so many other Indians, migrants all, whose janmabhoomi (place of birth) and karmabhoomi (workplace) are often different. Zaidi works in Mumbai, a migrant hub, and is anxious about many things, from the National Register of Citizens, land rights, campus violence to the rise of Hindutva and the end of liberalism.

The first three words of the title tie her to a remote industrial township in Rajasthan, JK Puram, flanked by the Aravalli hills and a cement factory, where her mother shifted with her two children to put bread on the table after quitting a bad marriage. The wonderful illustrations accompanying the book are by her mother. For Zaidi, one of the first memories of that place is cactus — there was enough around to suggest a desert and be associated with thorny memories. She heard stories about the Bhils who lived in the hills beyond and could snatch valuables from children. Twenty years later, she returned to JK Puram and looked at it with “grown-up eyes”, and understood who the outsiders/usurpers really were and what happened to the original inhabitants and their land.

Bias in everyday life

Zaidi is keen to tell the stories of people who lose power, and then have to give up ground. The migrants who live on the margins; the Adivasis, who “displaced often, end up in cities where they are reduced to penury and homelessness”; and minorities, including Muslims who face bias in everyday life.

So, this safe place called home, does it exist? For her, a home is where she wants to return to, the heart being a compass. Sometimes, she thinks of home as morning mist, wispy and beyond her grasp.

Though the world around us may change, “something of home remains within.” She ends on a beautiful note: “This too is a way to define home — as that which we have lived and that which will not leave us: the love that will not quit on us, our social habits, our sources of self-esteem, hunger, shame, genes, fragments of solidarity, refuge, and undisturbed rest.”

Bread, Cement, Cactus: A Memoir of Belonging and Dislocation; Annie Zaidi, Cambridge University Press, ₹980.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 7:48:24 PM |

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