“Baba, did you feel awful when you got home and no one was around?” my seven-year-old daughter asked, erupting into the room like a well-aimed projectile.
This was late one evening last week when Oishi and my wife had returned very late from a birthday party to find me at home — an unprecedented occurrence.
With intense concentration, I pretended to search for my cigarettes, eager that I make the response expected of me. (I hardly ever do. I’m terrible at this. But I’m getting better. At least I am nowadays aware of the fact that I hardly ever do.)
“Baba, did you feel bad when you had to let yourself in and it was dark and you had to switch on the lights?” I know this tone: soft, yet insistent, unwavering in its determination to elicit a response.
“Look, I used to live on my own for years, you see,” I said. “So it wasn’t quite new, this letting myself in and switching on the lights.”
Her eyebrows were raised; her eyes were dilated with a mixture of tense expectation and apprehension.
“But all that was many years ago,” I said. “Before you were born. Today, when I came back, it felt odd not to have you at home. I very much missed not having you at home.”
She hugged me. I had, I realised, said what was expected of me. For once. But I wasn’t lying.
I don’t feel particularly rooted to any place. We don’t own a flat or a house anywhere.
Since becoming an adult and moving out of my parent’s to study abroad, the longest I have stayed on the trot in one city has been for six years. I rather enjoy being on the outside; instead of fostering a sense of not belonging, it engenders in me a sense of beady-eyed objectivity.
I used to once need merely my books and movies and music to make me feel at home anywhere in the world. Ever since becoming a father, that has not been enough:
I need my daughter to be there — in the evening, when I return from work — to make any alien place feel like home.
Oishi makes me feel tremendously welcome when I return from the office. (And that’s very flattering, isn’t it? It’s good for my in-turns-bloated-and-battered ego. But it can’t be just me. We all terribly want to feel wanted. Don’t you?)
There are different kinds of welcoming back.
There is the little jig she does on opening the door. There is the feigned indifference, nose in book, which gives way to a rapturous bout of gambolling on the floor. There is the hide-and-seek welcome in which she hides (oh, poor thing, in a small Mumbai flat, that’s a hard thing to do) and I need to find her. (I always do in the end, but the fun of the exercise lies in taking inordinately long to do so — even when, especially when, I can tell precisely where she is.)
I know what she meant when she asked me that question that evening. I also suspect she knows what it feels like to return to her.
If coming back home to your child is the high point of your day, even genuinely awful days have in them the potential to be redeemed; no day appears to be irremediable.