By: Annima Bahukhandi
Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University, Delhi, India
We are increasingly living in a world where the state of being a refugee represents one of largest common condition amongst a wide variety of people. There are those who are refugees due to civil strife and war, those who are forced to be refugees due to international or internal politics wherein exile remains the only option. We are increasingly also seeing a large number of those rendered as refugees due to environmental issues. On the other hand, now more than ever we are also witnessing a movement of people who recognise themselves as ‘global citizens’ or ‘globe-trotters’ migrating from one place to another, many a times living just simply out of a back-pack. Given such a diverse background, how do we then conceptualise the idea of ‘home’? Does ‘home’ which has traditionally been recongised as a geographical and temporal location continue to be recongised as one? Or does home now become a memory or a metaphor for a spirit that one carries with them? This essay engages with questions on the idea of home, especially in the context where there has been a loss of the ‘geographical’ space identified as home as in the case of refugees who are exiled from their home-land. Additionally, the essay also engages with the flip-side of the problematique, the individual who is neither coerced out of their geographical home nor disallowed from entry back but leads a home-less or ‘multi-home’ existence, what Lifton terms as a Protean existence. The essay deals primarily with two theorists, one is Renos K Papadopoulos (2002) – a psychotherapist who has worked extensively with psychological rehabilitation of refugees. Papadopolous in his book Refugees, home and trauma (2002) offers us pithy insights into the psychological imagination of home and what its loss symbolises. The second theorist is Robert J Lifton (1995)- a psychiatrist who worked on issues of war, violnece and their psycho-social impacts. Lifton in his book Protean Self (1995) provides an analysis of our contemporary times which is marked by an increasing global connectivity and a deep desire in the youth to deal with historical changes through a rootless existence.
I will first begin with Papadopoulos’s text on refugees and then move to the two other texts from Papadopolous’s book that detail the experiences of psychologists who were supervising students in Kosovo to become counsellors to grieved refugees in their country. Finally, I will try to bring the themes together using Lifton’s ideas on increasing global interaction and a rise in what he calls as the ‘Protean spirit’.
Papadopoulos begins his text with the most telling insight about refugees, according to him the only common feature that all refugees share is a loss of home and not trauma or grief. Home, then becomes their shared condition. Even though Papadopoulos is mostly talking about experiences of individuals who’ve had to flee their lands and settle elsewhere, like the Kosovars yet such accounts aren’t far away from our understanding. Today, a large number of people have settled in places away from what they call “home” for various reasons; however the longing or the pressure to return to a home that refugees feel (due to socio-political reasons that prohibit their returning to their lands) may not be present. This text becomes all the more important, given the socio-political conditions leading to frequent wars, riots or large scale migration around the globe. Refugees aren’t just those others that occupy one’s space temporarily and then move back, they are Tibetans exiled from their lands, living in ghettos in Delhi, they are Kashmiri pundits driven out of the valley, Bangladeshis working as laborers to earn better wages.
Home then is that place which provides a holding environment, a place of continuity which is able to contain the polarity of opposites. It is often the place where one starts from, but it also is the destination one wishes to reach. What happens then when this home, is no more inviting, or worse non-existent? What then does one call “home”? Papadopoulos helps us here, by illustrating that home is not just simply the literal piece of land or the physical structure, but it encapsulates the totality of experiences associated with home: the house, family, relationships, the continuity and the acceptance. So when a person loses their home it isn’t simply their geographical location that gets distorted on the map but the psychological and existential as well. “Nostalgic disorientation” is the word that the author employs to capture the refugees longing for their home. We can see this in the writings of many authors who’ve settled out of their home country yet through their literature there are able to maintain their homeward links. Khaled Hosseini is one such author whose family applied for asylum from a war torn Afghanistan when he was 11 years old. His writings are filled with nostalgia mostly centering on an Afghani protagonists and against the backdrop of a post-Soviet, Taliban regime in Afghanistan. He returned to his home country after 27 years and admitted to feeling like a “tourist in his own country”. Hosseini’s experience helps to understand Papadopoulos’s take on refugees better. Even though, Hosseini’s family was distant from the violence in their country and were able to resettle in USA safely yet, Hosseini’s protagonist’s aren’t doctors practicing in California, they are the young boys and girls still in Afghanistan, fighting against the odds. USA may have accepted Hosseini and he may have readily integrated into the society, yet home still invokes those familiar imageries of Afghanistan and but that home no longer exists, after all he feels like a tourist in his own country. Literature perhaps then becomes the space for Hossieni whereby he is able to fill this gap and bring together the past and the future, the home that he started from and the home that he longs to settle in.
Unfortunately, not all refugees are able to create such a space, most find themselves in an endless search to fill this gap in what Papadopoulos calls their “mosaic” and therapists or clinicians only perpetuate this by falling into the usual, victim-savior roles. Their suffering is pathologized and the atrocities forgotten. It is here, that the experiences of the clinical supervisors who visited Kosovo can come in handy. Helping refugees is about giving an ear to their sense of homelessness, it is about becoming a witness to what some clinician’s felt was like a “war crimes tribunal” and yet it isn’t about just that. From here, instead of rescuing them, you start to allow them their space to grow and heal. A psychological hypothermia, which reminded me of Veena Das’s (1990) work and how one woman told her that “it is our work to cry and your work to listen”. This isn’t just a task for therapists, helpers or counselors, but for all of us, the neighbors, the relatives and society, can we allow these refugees the space for them to heal, can we tolerate their grief, rage and anger without pathologizing them?
Finally I come to Lifton and his take on the lifestyles of contemporary men and women. Lifton in his book isn’t specifically speaking of refuges however I find many parallels between the “protean man” that Lifton talks of and the longing for the home (material and imagined) that refugees long for. Just like Proteus the shape shifter, the protean man is consistently changing, recreating, and reimagining the self. But what propels this inherent need for change? This is where our protean man’s inner world meets that of the refugee. The protean man in many ways is like our refugee, he is pushed by this need to constantly know and get in touch with new forms of ideas, thoughts, people, cultures, yet he doesn’t know where this need emanates from. Just like the refugee longs to fill the gap left by a loss of home, the protean man it seems is in a never ending quest to fill his mosaic, only he doesn’t know with what. Can it be said then that the protean man longs for a home that he never had, yet at the same time while a refugee carries the experience of losing his actual home, the protean man doesn’t also quite know what this feeling of home is due to its taken-for-granted-ness?
Lifton identifies two developments as leading to the protean way of life. One is the break from traditional symbols or historical dislocation and the other is the flooding of imagery. I can easily identify these two as significant in my own life trajectory. Both my parents grew up in different states, while my mother came from a Punjabi family, my father came from Uttrakhand with rich accounts of his life in the hills. As children both my brother and I were raised in Delhi in an environment with cultural symbols from both our parents’ cultures and as well as the environment that our public schools provided. Even though we assimilated both the cultures well we were never able to identify or grow a strong attachment to either the mother’s or the father’s side, we never considered ourselves as either Punjabi or from Uttrakhand, instead identifying as Delhi people. Over the years even that claim seems feeble. The point I’m trying to make is that the historical dislocation that protean man carries, not only puts his claims on a certain past in jeopardy but also give rise to feelings of finding that home, metaphoric more than literal where one is accepted, loved and able to fuse together all the differences. On the other hand, the flooding of information, from different parts of the globe facilitated by the World Wide Web only makes matter worse. It is easier to hold onto a clear sense of home when the outside world seemed is perceived as alien but when that world is brought closer through varied mediums every day, then what is home (inside) and what is outside? Instead, what emanates is a need to explore this world, to find an identity, an identity which feels more like one’s own than the ones in the past yet this need is placed in a world that is viewed as consistently changing and challenging, then is it possible for one identity to ever sufficiently envelope the inherent differences?
Just like for the beat generation, for the protean man travel then is seen as the ultimate answer, the balm for a bad breakup or an invitation to a new one. Home then takes varied forms, it becomes the place one is fleeing or the place one wishes to go to or maybe it’s just a place that is carried always in our hearts and minds. For Papadopoulos, home signifies the totality of all dimensions, but what happens to the protean man’s idea of a home and is it still represented by a totality of experience and if not, how does one carry it with oneself? Travel for me is like an invitation to explore the unknown, to purge myself into the newness of an experience, to open myself to varied forms of living but mostly to also cut out the familiar for the time being. Travel isn’t seen as means to a destination, it is the experience which is exalted and seen as liberating. The task however becomes to balance the quest for meaning beyond the mainstream and the home one comes from.
However, this very strong protean need to pack one’s bag and travel emanates from the growing familiarity, or dependence that one encounters when the environment loses its novel charm. The anxiety is felt as diffuse, the everyday becomes monotonous and existential anxieties overtake. Lifton uses the concept of “suspicion of counterfeit nurturance” to explain this tendency. Does the growing familiarity of a place signal a comforting acceptance that goes against the constant search of the protean life? Is that why vitality is felt in “on the road”? And in case this isn’t possible then is the mocking, self-effacing humour our only outlet? So either you are out there changing the world (is it the self?) or leading a monotonous life peppered with whining and mockery.
This flux of feelings creates a paradox where there is a struggle with the idea of change itself and in Lifton’s own words, “beneath transformation is nostalgia and beneath restoration is attraction to contemporary symbols”. A need to be the father, to know it all, to be the teacher, the harbinger and at the same time a sense of fatherlessness exists, a freedom from absolutes, from right and wrongs a freedom to question, to problematize and dissent if need be.
I do agree with Lifton that the contemporary men and women have immense potential for changing and shaping the world. They are the people who came out in the Tahrir Square, the ones leading the Hong Kong protests, the ones that join the anti-corruption movements and so on. Is this an effort at changing the world at the cost of subvert one’s own pain? Is it perhaps, the protean man’s sense of symbolic immortality which equips him to come out on to the streets and protest against the wrongs which have happened for decades, are these forays into danger and destruction an attempt to create revolutionary world that symbolically immortalizes them? Lifton sure thinks so; we may never fully know however the protean man’s inner struggle sure seems to hold great possibilities for the world. And it seems that only time will tell whether the protean men and women of our times are able to reconceptualise the idea of loss of geographical ‘home’ and create better homes both real and imagined. I’m rooting for them!
Das, V. (1990). Our Work to Cry: Your Work to Listen. In V. Das (Ed.), Mirrors of Violence (pp. 345-398). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Lifton, R. J. (1995). The Protean Self: Human Resilience In An Age Of Fragmentation. London: Basic Books.
Papadopoulos, R. K. (2002). Refugees, home and trauma. In R. K. Papadopoulos (Ed.), Therapeutic Care for Refugees: No Place Like Home. London: Karnac. Tavistock Clinic Series.