In his new book Peninsula, Rehman Rashid started off by hypothesizing that ‘there are two ways to belong to a place: to be born there, and to die there.’
I have been thinking long and hard about this premise, coming as it does at an opportune time when I am exploring, at times questioning my own bearing. Home, in its physical embodiment as well as an emotional experience has always been a subject that fascinates me. Our intense association with places are truly unique; the places we were born in, memories of homelands and cities where we decide to pursue our dreams are all fragments that shape our present identity.
My family moved to Shah Alam 18 years ago following my father’s work transfer. We had never lived outside our hometown of Terengganu previously, so to say that adjusting to life in a new city was tough is an understatement. I imagine it must have been especially hard for my parents, hauling 4 young kids to an unfamiliar territory with different social settings and high cost of living. My sister too found schooling in the city a rough ball game; she would come back home after school crying, begging my parents to get her out of the ordeal.
But the beauty of humans is we are bound to adapt to our surroundings sooner or later. Taking my own family’s case as a sample, 18 years on we could hardly imagine living in anywhere but Shah Alam.
Using Rehman’s notion of home, it is easy then to surmise that home, to me is Terengganu, my hometown, and potentially Shah Alam, where I spend the majority of my time. Where then, does the space in between belong? Surely other temporary abodes, the choices we made before deathbed are worth a mention? If I choose to leave Shah Alam tomorrow, where does the city I spent 18 years in relegate to in the wider spectrum?
I am reminded of the Afghan father character in The Kite Runner, who never seems to belong truly to America despite meeting his Maker there. His birth country of Afghanistan was in full custody of his soul from the minute he left the country down to the moment the soul left his body. Home, in this instance, is part-association of the past, part-aspiration of unknown future (for even if he did get back to Afghanistan, the country may no longer be what he once knew). Our longing for the place we belong, real or imagined is what pushes us, sometimes at the expense of present comfort and ambitions.
So in trying to embrace the dictum of Rehman, I conclude there are rooms for the ties to the past regardless of distance, and also rooms for men with desire to tempt fate and shape their future. The definition of the former is loose; the past is not restricted to birth place but includes family links and identity, odd new surroundings and transitory rest stops. The present is a moving object, such that today’s event will become tomorrow’s past. In a way, home can be anywhere we set our foot in, with perhaps a closer link to a piece of our soul than a piece of soil.