Lit.-Mag #36 Home & Homecoming
Islands are places far from land
“Islands are places far from land. They lie unknown to the world, separate, secluded, segregated. And one must leave the mainland to discover this new, little-known acquaintance. Yes, one must be mobile…and the arrival has to discover it; for when he arrives, in many instances he doesn’t not know whether the place is an island. Only during discovery and exploration does the far-off place prove to be an island. No other way”. Some such thing is what the foreigner said.
“Yes, it is important…” he continued, repeating himself, “…to explore the land, to discover it. And to notice that the space is an island…had the searcher known from the outset that was an island, then it would no longer remain an island…In that case it would long have turned into mainland.” At this point we both broke out laughing simultaneously.
There is a story by Graham Greene in which the plot revolves around a tiny little private island and its secrets. In the story, “Under the Garden,” the boy Winton grows up on a farm. There is a private lake and on the private lake there is an islet. This small isolated place with its shrubbery and plants hides within itself an array of riddles which cause the boy’s imagination to take flight more and more each day. Especially of an evening, when dusk falls. Winton wants to go there and thoroughly discover the island. Its secret treasures.
One evening the little fellow feels the urge to discover, he wishes to locate the secrets of the private lake as well as its island. As dusk falls, Winton hides while his older brother searches in vain for him. Only briefly, because the obedient George is afraid of the encroaching darkness. He withdraws into the house to Mom. The good boy.
The younger Winton stays away a long time that evening. He goes to the island on his journey of discovery. While explorating the unknown, space, size and levels of consciousness meld into one. In the ‘real’ imagination of the boy the tiny geographical space expands to a immeasurable secret place with giant trees and chasms.
All of this Winton describes and recounts as an adult when he learns that the house with its garden and island are to be sold by his older brother. In recollecting he is deeply amazed at the actual size of the islet in the private lake and at its intense effect on his childhood soul.
The older George is a mainland boy through and through. A businessman in the making, who pursues a ‘rational’ life and then becomes captive to it. George marries, has children and a home.
Winton on the other hand remains a child of the island. One who becomes enmeshed over and over in the charm of irrational secrets and is always on the move in order to unravel its mysteries. Changing his job and abandoning places, he finds himself even as a fifty-year old, ever searching.
When I read Graham Greene’s “Under the Garden”, my own childhood danced before my eyes as I was reading.
Back then, the East Indian town of Motihari was small, pretty and full of secrets. In contrast to the overcrowded city of today, whose half-paved streets full of holes threaten to explode with all manner of primitive and modern means of transportation – from horse and ox cart, bike and motorcycle. Indian and half-Indian cars (Suzuki, Daihatsu, Ford…), trucks and busses, tractors, rickshaws.
In the holidays, when my big brother came to visit from the boarding school, the syllables of two children’s nicknames could be hear rhyming with one another. As soon as these sounds reached our ears on lonely evenings, our mouths would automatically answer “Yes, Papa, we’re coming.”
A curious, quite amusing anecdote occurs to me about this very thing. At this very time in my life, a new street vendor whose voice was markedly like that of Papa’s, began ramble the lanes in our part of town. And whenever he called out the names of his “nutty delicacies” (Chole-Chole), I heard my own and my brother’s names in Papa’s voice. Promptly as an automaton I replied, “Yes, coming!” Immediately, however, the fact became clear – even after I’d repeatedly searched the house – that neither Papa nor my brother were there on that still afternoon. My child’s soul queried in bafflement whether I’d heard correctly or merely imagined the calls. My childish brain puzzled over it. In the days to follow I heard the odd calls that I’d initially answered mechanically a few more times. Then I was baffled. A few more days passed until I investigated myself and laughingly discovered the embarrassing reality – a peddlar!
The playgrounds of my childhood were the streets of Motihari. Back then that little East Indian town was not overpopulated, and the dry, clean streets of every part of town were ideal for our games: marbles, tops, badminton.
And back then Motihari was a wide distance away from the big world.
There were very many mango and lichee trees, fragrant lemon bushes, broad, large fields…and very few people. There were scattered decrepit hawelis1 and bungalows, in which frightening bhuts, geniis and juraels2 dwelled.
My childhood on that island was cosy, enchanted and now and then, jinxed. Every day brought with it a renewed sense of riddles in new unknown quarters, whose secrets always enthralled me anew.
The bejinxed evenings in Motihari repeated themselves and resembled one another, and at the same time there were far from any sort of boredom.
And I left Motihari, and today I live on the mainland. Yes, we leave islands. Perhaps unwillingly, but not unseldomly. And some of us travel without interruption, from land to island and from island to land. Ah, as blissful as shepherds.
Translated from German by
Marilya Veteto Reese
1 Richly decorated traditional trading posts in the desert of Rajasthan
2 Various male and female forms of ghosts