An exploration of that which shines and guides us.
Time is slow in Kumarakom, South India. A tapestry of canals and brackish lagoons, the backwaters rest parallel to the Malabar coast. Here the pace of life echoes that of the canoes unhurriedly gliding downstream, passing fishermen casting nets, sweat glistening on their dark foreheads. At noon, when the sun is at its peak, the young daughter at my homestay sits in the shadow of the balcony and spins a metal ring into infinity. Even as we can’t converse with each other, she and I, we meet around the spinning wheel, giggling. In the evening, her mother teaches her English, her small hands pressed into mother’s as she repeats: “home”.
One afternoon I hear a truck pulling up behind me as I witness an old woman skilfully braid palm leaves into roofing, her pink sari wrapped around her legs as she bends down to the dirt floor. Without interruption to the motion in her hands, she raises her gaze to the road, a blazing narrow path alongside an 80-year-old, man-made river. 44 rivers run through the state of Kerala, a water-rich region. The truck comes to a stop and men join others already labouring on the foundation of a house.
“We’re still rebuilding homes,” my guide, a man with a gentle unwavering smile, explains. Five years ago, on August 8th, 2018, 35 of 54 dams burst open, triggering flash floods following continuous heavy rains. The waterways broke loose, overturning their artificial confines, 25 000 bodies rapidly forced into motion. As he reminisces, a flock of ducks appears from the water, eagerly following the old woman’s voice to feed from a bucket of grains, now sheltered from the midday heat. “25 000 bodies shifted to relief camps.”
What is the relationship between desire and movement? How do they relate to our sense of belonging, especially in an era of climate change?
Walking through the air-conditioned gallery of the CSMVS museum in Mumbai, Western India, I come across a painting of a young woman making her way through a starless night. Not even moonlight to expose her on her journey. In Sanskrit, Abhisarika Nayika translates as the one who “moves” or “goes forward”. The Indian poet and novelist Priya Sarukkai Chabria describes her as the heroine who “resonates with the yearning of absence, still stubborn, splendid, transgressive, wandering on wild paths that appear before her feet”. She symbolises a woman who sets off into the night, braving danger, drawn forth by her desire to meet with her beloved.
Abhisarika Nayika is first mentioned in a treatise on the performing arts, Nāṭya Śāstra, commonly dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE. Much like moving water, she appears and reappears across Indian classical dance, literature, painting and sculpture. More so than the seven other Nayikas (the heroines classified by the Sanskrit treatise) and the experiential states of a woman they convey, she is love in action. With a conviction that compares to that of a river flood, she leaves her house in secret and sheds her earlier identity, holding the opposites: “her innate hesitation to defy social convention and the love that makes her rebellious”, Chabria writes. The barriers despite which she makes her journey may have changed over the course of two thousand years, but the longing to connect that moves her, the longing we share, persists.
In the English language there is a fitting resonance between the words "longing" and "belonging". Humans live to belong, we long to create a world of shared meaningful experiences. This longing is present in the earliest days of our life when, prior to initiation into a culturally specific system of semantics, we enter communication through the subtle sharing of emotional rhythms. The dance-like, non-verbal exchange between caregivers and infants gives rise to the ‘feeling of belonging’, which developmental psychologist Maya Gratier and psychiatrist Gisèle Apter-Danon describe as a delicate and dynamic balance “between sameness and novelty, between well-known trajectories and adventurous detours”.
As adults we belong in more complex ways, through myriad affiliations, yet remain rooted in motions across the relational field. Now this field includes more humans, more-than-humans, various territories and trails. I’ve often thought, not least because of having built and lost relational homes or having moved back and forth between two countries, or perhaps because of having found a sound belonging in dancing, that we each inhabit a personal topography that is less a territory and more a choreography. Like the musicality of mother-infant interaction, as described by Colwyn Trevarthen, a Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology, it reflects our human desire for cultural learning, our innate skill for moving, remembering and planning in sympathy with others.
We create as we move. The anthropologist Tim Ingold writes that human existence is not fundamentally place-bound but place-binding: it unfolds not in places but along paths; proceeding along a path, every inhabitant lays a trail. Where inhabitants meet, trails are entwined like palm leaves, braided, as the life of each becomes bound up with the other. Human beings inhabit the earth as wayfarers, Ingold states. From the developmental perspective, too, our sense of belonging originates not in a particular place or culture but rather in an intersubjective musicality. We could even say that, first and foremost, we belong to and through a movement process, a temporal flow, between a longing for at-homeness and a longing for the unknown.
The Sahyadri mountain range extends across six states and feeds the perennial rivers of India. “Feels like being close to a place where everything began,” I type on my phone, sitting at the edge of the bed in a sunlit study turned guest room, against an orchestra of Marathi, traffic and bird song. Some of it sounds soft, as if bubbling to the surface. Most of it is high pitch, a sharp whistling, reminiscent of the vividly embellished trucks struggling to climb over the Western Ghats the night before. As I snaked into the city of Pune beside them, the sun rose over where the Mula and the Mutha rivers meet. Yet only now does India begin to dawn on me.
Marathi-speaking men are assembling furniture in the living room. Unpacked boxes crowd the edges of bedrooms and both of the balconies. The study overlooks a leafy residential courtyard and the pale facades of neighbouring buildings. Out there, marking each sunrise and sunset, a flute player offers her melody to the symphony. Her sound is like a temple bell calling one to presence. On the bookshelves sit titles from woodwork and yoga to rainwater harvesting, primarily academic literature in environmental science. A couple of them are authored by my mother’s husband, a professor of hydrogeology, the study of groundwater and its hidden movement.
Night or day, his phone rings off the hook. “It’s not about me,” he says, leaning his tall grey-haired figure against the kitchen door after yet another call, “it’s about water”. In Maharashtra, where surface water is scarce, he lives to help bring water’s nourishment forth. A handmade Ganesh sits mounted above him as he speaks, the Hindu god of beginnings, the remover of obstacles, revered across local religious traditions. I had seen similar figurines, with elephant heads, in the trucks’ windshields, some accompanied by beads or textiles “collected from ceremonies,” the geologist's daughter explained. She is a teacher of Indian classical dance. She too knows movement.
Here everything is in proximity to everything else: crossroads are gathering spots, momentary knots. I catch my mother's reflection in the round rear mirror of our tuk tuk that afternoon, the tale of her ivory headscarf flapping in the dusty wind.
Even as humans are wayfarers at heart, migration is often described as entailing a sense of rupture. A study conducted by Gratier and Apter-Danon found evidence that mothers who had lost their sense of place as the result of troublesome emigration experiences had difficulty in sustaining lively and exciting vocal exchanges with their babies. These migrant women appeared severed from their at-homeness and, consequently or simultaneously, their innate temporal flow. Their ability to foster a ‘feeling of belonging’ with and within their newborns, too, was affected.
The way in which we move matters. Social anthropologists Claudia Liebelt, Gabriele Shenar and Pnina Webner have shown that one way some migrants defy this sense of rupture, animating “an unfulfilled desire to capture a lost, imaginary, subjective wholeness,” is through recasting the moral geography of diaspora by becoming religious pilgrims. Pilgrimage, like migration, traverses administrative and political boundaries, but also, as Liebelt and colleagues argue, “reimagines the ethical landscape of homeland and diaspora,” thus transforming the subjective experience of the one who moves. It becomes a place-binding existence, one that “destabilises the dichotomy between fixed dwelling (ergo culture, identity) and movement”. Whatever one’s religious orientation, by way of pilgrimage one braids one’s own sacred geographies and embodies the choreographic nature of belonging proposed earlier in this essay.
Were we to think of Abhisarika Nayika as a migrant woman, she would appear to be a pilgrim. Drawn forth by her desire to meet with her beloved, her journey transgresses borders, social norms, and leads her to cast off her earlier identity. As she moves–geographically, bodily, affectively or relationally–she treads a path beneath and between her origin and her horizon. I imagine her beloved as not external to her, rather a kind of creativity, an internal growth. I imagine, instead of reaching for belonging in an object of her desire, she realises her belonging through the devotional wandering of her feet or, indeed, through relational musicality.
Late in the morning, we park between two food stalls and descend, through shops selling myriad gifts to the gods, passing The Ranjangaon Ganpati temple’s “fast track” entrance. Before the security gates I remove my shoes, relieved to meet a cool concrete floor. Down, then up, a staircase, the path leads through spacious halls, then narrows and slows. Some locals in the queue carry offering bowls with coconut or fruit. There are flowers braided into women’s hair; they radiate.
It takes a while until we flow into the open again, into a large courtyard, towards a small temple. Suddenly, my mother’s husband halts. “I’ll meet you on the other side,” he says, backing up from the gates. He’s wearing a leather belt; it would be disrespectful for him to come in.
Another Ganesh, this time adorned with fresh flowers, sits at the entrance. Pilgrims bring their hands to its form, and to the blossoms upon, before touching their own foreheads. It’s crowded. A man conducts our flow as if leading water into a reservoir. “I’ll walk quickly,” I think to myself. Yet when I come to stand before the altar, the conductor points towards its depths, as to indicate: “this is your time”. Instinctively, I bow.
“You are blessed now!” mother’s husband says, as I open my palms to reveal the sweets placed there. Many of the pilgrims are young couples, about to get married, gathering blessings and making offerings. The temple has been built around a water source and as we climb upon its stone edge, gazing down into the dried up well, he tells me of a river in the region that flows only once every few years.
Leaning closer to study the precise and delicate lines depicting a wayfaring Nayika in the painting in scorching Mumbai, I’m reminded of an article on water’s desire by journalist Erica Gies. The latter suggests that what many of us think of as ‘river’ is a restricted, straightened canal that no longer wanders across its floodplains. I nod to her conclusion: “as fresh water’s true nature is to flex with the rhythms of the earth, the key to greater resilience to both flood and drought is to reclaim space for water to interact with the land.”
As a guest in India, I am exposed to the ways of water through those who live these landscapes. Witnessing a woman rebuild in the aftermath of a flood in South India, I hear water speak of its transgressive desire to move. Listening to the hydrogeologist pick up the phone at dawn in Western India, I hear it speak of its slow, hidden movements beneath a place of drought. Thus I contemplate water’s migratory character.
The observations, experiences and ideas braided into this wandering essay lead me to propose that human belonging, like that of water, is best understood and cared for in its relationship to movement. After all, from the earliest of our days, we belong through the subtle exchange of emotional rhythms, moved by a longing to create a world of shared meaningful experiences. We all, to varying degrees, inhabit systems in which the ability to travel freely–geographically or interpersonally–is a privilege. We move, like Abhisarika Nayika, within and despite the restrictions of our dams and diversions. We do so as an expression of our innate desire and capacity for creativity as connection.