Book Review: 'Homebound' Makes Sure We Don't Forget the 2020 Migrant Crisis

Puja Changoiwala’s new novel begins with the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown. It then makes real a 900-km journey by a migrant family from Mumbai to Balhaar, Rajasthan.

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The idea of home is a fundamental human concept. We’re not taught about it at school, nor is there a pedagogy of ‘being at home,’ nevertheless, all of us have a sense of belonging that we associate with the word.

Even those hunter-gatherers and other indigenous groups we refer to as Adivasis have had this idea of home although it’s not restricted to a fixed physical location.

A home may not always be a positive place that exhibits warmth, comfort, and a frictionless environment. But the word home does bring to mind an innate sense of belonging, of belonging to a place and among a people. A place that one returns to when all options of life and survival close in on you.

‘Homebound’, Puja Changoiwala,

This idea of home, of belonging, is what Puja Changoiwala’s new novel Homebound explores when it recounts the unprecedented mass reverse migration that the pandemic has brought along.

As the biggest national lockdown to date brought unforeseen changes to the Indian polity, it also set into motion, migration on a scale the nation has not experienced since the partition in 1947.

Embellishing journalistic research carried out for well over a year, Homebound’s narrative is a creative curation of migrant experiences from various parts of the nation.

The narrative begins with the announcement of the lockdown. Overnight we find tens of thousands of migrants desperately attempting to leave Indian cities. Returning home from places that feed them but to which they never really belong. Thus, it is in the maximum city that we find our protagonist trapped, under a state-imposed emergency. For Meher, the 15-year-old protagonist in the novel, and her family this meant no wages to earn, rent money to pay, little food to consume, and no reason to stay.

Thus begins the journey of this family, along with many others, who quickly discover the comfortable familiarity of everyday life in the urban chawl fading away as the always open city turns into a restrictive bounded space. 

The strong urge to reach the safety and familiarity of home soon carries thousands of migrants over barricaded roads, deserted streets, blocked state borders, and acquaints them to khaki-clad fear-stoking machines.

Driven by the sheer basic instinct to survive, we see Meher, her kith and kin, traverse existential conditions that are alien to our types. The novel’s ingenuity lies in the manner in which it explores the idea of belonging and its relation to identity. For a migrant, the lockdown in many ways was a quick reminder of seeing their place in the world. Cities took no time to abandon them, the government forgot they existed when they announced these measures and the police got a chance to exhibit the sinister colonial heritage of maintaining law and order.

The narrative unveils a raw instinct that courses through the poorest of the poor. A force that not just imagines but makes real a 900-kilometre impromptu journey from Mumbai to Balhaar, Rajasthan.

Also read: To Fully Understand the Migrant Worker Crisis, We Need a Larger Perspective

Homebound blends fact with fiction with accuracy. Sensationalised, popular media indeed told these stories but in a format that embraces forgetting as a necessary part and parcel of its day-to-day business. This is where Puja’s narrative stands out, as a more lasting tribute to those whose lives are mostly cloaked in invisibility. Ink on paper etches in permanence, the fate of many lives and the boundaries of the periphery. Cities in this sense are epicentres of meaning-making and migrants are most often placed at the periphery of such meaning-making. 

The writing sketches out grey areas that exist in the recesses of the popular imagination. The novel’s brilliance lies in the craft of fiction, the silences and the gaps that are tactfully created by the writer, the vacant pointers that urge the imaginative reader to fill in the blanks.

Having spent well over a decade in professional journalism in an era characterised by sensationalism, Puja’s foray into fiction hints at the limits of what can be said and what can’t. The art of writing then becomes like that of creating a treasure hunt.

The power of fiction lies not in what is said but what is left unsaid and this is something that the novel has been able to do with utmost precision. 

The novel through many voices intertwined with a stream of consciousness mode of writing aptly contextualises modern India plagued with systematic structural issues of poverty, informal economy, rural-urban divide, superstition, communalism, and an overbearing nationalistic discourse. The author does not shy away from asking tough questions about the nature and actual purpose of public governance.

This novel is an earnest and empowered attempt to make sure we don’t forget the faces and the journeys of those resilient souls who walked hundreds of kilometres, “fleeing the cities they built, walking under the stars and the sun, in a trickle, in a flood, in the dead of the world”. 

Dr Sonia Ghalian teaches at the Department of English and Cultural Studies, Christ University, Bangalore.