Kuala Lumpur is a city that does not stay still. For days I wandered the streets alone, my skin singing with the heat and the grit of a city so unaccustomed to rules that cars drive recklessly on the pavements and stoic pedestrians meander carefree among the traffic. The wind carried with it the sickly sweet scent of shisha and with it the promise of escape, a brief foray into heady weightlessness, temporary flight from the sweltering heat and noise. It is a city that is easy to get lost in.
I was excited to be traveling alone. There is a certain allure to self-imposed exile, a freedom that both liberates and terrifies. In Andre Aciman’s words, an exile is “not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another” — a truth that I was to find out, backpacked and on foot on the precarious streets of Kuala Lumpur. I walked through dusty alleys and towering air-conditioned malls, and at every turn, I couldn’t help but think of Colombo, the home I left two years ago. I felt Colombo everywhere: the smell of the roasted chestnuts lingering on my hair as I walked through ChinaTown became the scent of oil frying fresh papadam in my aunt’s kitchen, the taste of teh tarik from the stall next to my hostel brought back sunny smiles and too-sweet tea drunk on Sunday mornings at home. There I was, in a city that made my skin sing, and all I could think of was the home that I ran away from. There is pain here, in remembering what I chose to run away from, and at the same time, there is the unencumbered promise of mornings that taste like chestnuts and shisha— the promise of knowing how much you have before you. And in the space between the two, there is the loneliness of the self-imposed exile. And so, there I was, wearing my loneliness like a backpack, wandering the streets of Kuala Lumpur, caught between the home I left and the endless horizons of cities far from mine that I run towards.
The hostel that was to be my home for the next few days is in Bukit Bintang, tucked away in a little corner, hidden inside a side street, sandwiched between a noodle shop and a little garage as if it too did not know its place in the world. It took me two hours to find it, and when I did, I walked in, dripping sweat, Kuala Lumpur’s relentless afternoon sun radiating heat off of my bare shoulders.
Inside, I am greeted by the receptionist. He asks for my passport to check me in and as I hand it over, his face splits open into the biggest smile I have ever seen, as he looks at the gold-etched letters, spelling out the words ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.
“My name Francis,” he starts. “I am also Sri Lankan. You from Jaffna?” he asks. His smile is disarming.
He asks me if I speak Tamil. “No, I’m Sinhalese. Thamil peseda ille” I tell him, in the little Tamil that I do speak. I don’t understand Tamil. Not “I can’t understand Tamil”, but that I don’t, that I made a conscious choice to run away from what I knew and turn instead towards English, a language that was never my own, but seemed to me to be the key to escape from everything I thought I wanted to leave behind. English fit itself easily in my mouth. In English, words like virginity, daughter and tradition are just that — words. I do not know how to tell this stranger with skin like mine that English did not come with the weight of expectation masquerading as duty, it did not weigh down my mind the way Tamil did. In English, the lines between gender and obligation and home are blurred. In English, I found escape from what was expected of me, and so I let the foreignness seep into me, holding on to its spiky consonants and gaping vowels as if they would help me run away from home.
We talk of home, the war, cricket. He tells me his family was from Jaffna, but they fled during the war. I offer him broken fragments of the place we both call home, the place that we both left, fleeing two very different ghosts. He nods as I speak, painting him a picture of a home that he would never have known. I tell him of Passikuda and Nilaveli, both on the North Eastern coast of Sri Lanka, once inaccessible during the war and now a popular tourist destination, drawing in crowds of dreadlocked surfers and bare-chested men in flip flops and board shorts, smoking joints on their haunches on the streets that once – not so long ago – echoed with the sound of kafirs flying overhead. I want to tell him that sometimes I feel like a lone buoy lost in a sea of white, that I feel like a tourist in my own country.
I want to tell this stranger that all I share with him is a common homeland, one that we both left, fleeing very different ghosts: I was not driven out by war or the threat of death. Instead, I ran away, privileged enough to leave home just because I could, just because there was something better out there.
As I speak, I am painfully aware of how different we sound. His voice bounces with the curvature of English as a second language. Mine is rigid, polished, the curves under my tongue lost somewhere e in between elocution class and empire. Thamil peseda ille I say, but what I mean is that I am sorry I have tried for so long and so hard to run away from brown, in the sterile smell of whitening cream, in the ivory towers of a university that makes me sound less like him every day. As I speak, I forget how much English has given me; suddenly, liberation looks a lot like occupation and I find myself yearning for home, forgetting that I was the one that ran away.
Francis hands me my room key. “It’s nice meeting you,” I say. I reach across the glass counter to shake his hand. As our hands met, I couldn’t help but realise how closely his skin mirrored mine. Quickly, I say goodbye, closing off the bridge we had just built, client and contractor once more.
The first time I remember running away, I was eight. I had been fighting with my mother. It was probably something trivial: a reprimand for sitting out too long in the sun — “Chi! Look at how dark your face has gotten. Why can’t you act more like a girl?” — or a quick smack on the side of my head for undoing the tight braids that my mother painstakingly plaited for me every night, hanging straight down the length of my back. I remember acutely the pain, the sharp sting of betrayal that hurt me a lot more than the one lash that my mother dealt out, the dull thud of my father’s brown belt on my skin. It wasn’t the physical pain that got to me– it was the fact that for that moment, my mother and I weren’t a team. We weren’t the secret-sharing, giggly, exclusive duo that my father so often laughed at. For that moment, I couldn’t connect to my mother. In her disgruntlement, I felt like a door had been closed on me, like I had been banished. And so, with all the self righteous rage of an eight year old, I packed my things into a small blue plastic bag, and set off into self-imposed exile, barefoot, eyes stinging with tears. My mother caught me by the arm right before I reached the gate, and yanked me back inside the house. I can’t remember what happened afterwards — this wasn’t the first time I had tried this, and it definitely would not be the last.
Ten years later, I boarded a flight with no return ticket. I kissed my mother goodbye at the airport, said that I would call her everyday. I cried, but I did not look back as I walked through the gates. I made the conscious decision to exile myself — from her, from home, from everything I had known. I was surprised at how easy it was. I wonder if it would have been harder had I thought that I could never go back again.
At the hostel, I find Francis hunched over a laptop screen, watching a rerun of an India vs. Sri Lanka cricket match.
“Dilshan’s game is off”, he informs me gravely, stroking his chin.
I nod, knowing precious little about Dilshan’s game. I left Francis punching the air as one of our batsmen hit a sixer, muttering obscenities under his breath at the Indian team. In this light he looked like any one of the Sri Lankan uncles I had grown up with, staring hungrily at the TV during cricket season, counting the number of runs, waiting with bated breath for the next sixer to come. There is a joke among Sri Lankans that we live in the past. Sri Lanka has only won one Cricket World Cup, twenty years ago. To this day, we relive the glory of that one day in 1996 where we jumped to our feet as one nation as Sri Lanka grabbed the coveted trophy right out of India’s hands. Since then, Sri Lankan cricket has grown in leaps and bounds — we are probably one of the strongest teams in the world, and in spite of that, we have never managed to win another World Cup since. And yet, every match, men like Francis hunch in front of TVs in crowded living rooms, hoping against hope that this year, against all odds, we will relive 1996.
It struck me, watching that little screen with Francis, that not one of the men on our team looked like him. Not one of the men on our cricket team was Tamil, a telling commentary on the post-war state of equality amongst the Sinhalese and Tamil people of my beautiful paradise lost. And yet, Francis cheered louder than I did when one of the Sri Lankans bowled over someone from the other team. Watching him, I felt guilt choke the back of my throat, like the curvature of words long forgotten. Here he was, exiled from a country that betrayed him for his surname and the language he spoke, and still as fiercely patriotic as if it was 1996. And here I stood, a foreigner in this country and my own, trying so hard to run away from everything that tied me to him, to the men in blue and gold on the screen in front of us, to the language that bound us both like hands clasped over glass counter, held firmly, a reminder that you never really leave home.
In class, I learned that the symbol of a key held special significance for Palestinians expelled from their homeland in 1948. The key symbolised their right to return — many Palestinians still held the keys to their ancestral homes, wherever in the world they were, holding tight on to the promise of their someday triumphant revenir into a home that would not let them stay. Leaving, then, is contingent on return. They left, keys in hand, in search of something — peace, safety, sanctuary — comforted with the promise of one day coming back, unlocking doors to the homes that they had lived in for so long. Reading this story, I had to wonder at the tragedy of it all. Do these keys still work? Can any of us ever really go back in the same way, once we have left? I wonder if Francis would recognise home, if home would recognise him, if he went back. Or would he encounter nothing but glorified tourist towns, with only the bullet holes in the palm trees to remind him of what once was, of what he left behind?
I wonder what it is about independence, about escape, that leaves us in this constant state of displacement— in the liminality between home and not quite? Between don’t look back and remember when? Like a little lost brown girl wandering a foreign country with a passport and loneliness tucked in her back pocket, free to come and go as she will but always looking back, always unsure, there is a bittersweet taste to this independence of ours — as soon as you think you’ve made it, you look back, remembering what you left behind more fondly than if you had stayed. This is the tragic loneliness of the self-imposed exile. Now, when I think of Colombo, I think of sweet milky tea on Sunday mornings and not of whitening cream pushed into unwilling hands, or sharp words by well meaning aunts that come back to scar my reflection every time I look in a mirror. Perhaps it is not so different to watching men that look like you win a cricket match and cheer loudly, remembering home and not the way that home betrayed you. Nostalgia is kinder to memory than the truth — perhaps that is why we yearn to go back home, even after we have left.
Aciman said that an exile cannot even think of another home. What does that say about us, we self-imposed exiles, stuck in the liminality between home and not-quite? Do all exiles look like Francis, watching home on a tiny screen in a country an ocean away from the one that he was forced out of? What about me, who left because I wanted to, because I had the privilege to? Home did not betray me, not in the same way that it betrayed Francis. And yet, I still stood there, skin singing in the lilac light of a Kuala Lumpur sunset, yearning for Colombo.
Every time I have to board a flight back to Colombo, I feel a cold dread settling into the pit of my stomach, and it doesn’t leave until I am back on that plane, flying away from all the things that I have tried so hard and for so long to run away from. I don’t think that it is home that has changed — I think it is me. I feel like I have outgrown home; it fits like a too-tight dress, uncomfortable, sticking too close to your skin, making it hard to breathe, reminding me constantly that the only way to fix the problem is to find a new dress that fits better, or change myself until I can force myself to fit. I am not sure which is worse.
In the space between leaving and homecoming, in the line between loneliness and solitude, I hold in my hands the promise of return with the possibility of loss. It is a heartbreaking position to be in: the audacious, persistent hope that one day, some day, that dress will fit and the devastating possibility of it never being enough. So maybe it is that we can’t go home. We can, but not without changing some aspect of ourselves to fit into the memory of what we left behind. Maybe it is as easy as covering up a tattoo when you go back home to your conservative South Asian family. Maybe it is harder, lying about your girlfriend and changing the pronouns on all of your love poems to fit the mould you are expected to be. Maybe it is impossible — sometimes the keys we hold unlock doors that are now long gone. Sometimes home just won’t let us stay.
Perhaps this is the hardest truth of all. Maybe exile is just a lie we tell ourselves, like “I will call you every day”, like “I’ll never forget you”, like “I’ll come back for you”. Maybe, like broken keys, the temporary state of exile is a lie we tell ourselves to make leaving easier. Maybe there is a reason we left in the first place. Perhaps Francis cheered louder than me when a team that looked nothing like him won, but it does not change the fact that our country betrayed him, not so long ago. And as for me — I still feel the sting of my mother’s betrayal all those years ago, the insistent pressure of whitening cream pressed into my palm, my own guilt, weighing heavy on my chest at my own inadequacy. I still taste the guilt as my tongue trips on the curvature of Tamil, on words that I knew so well as a child but it does not change the fact that English fits me like a well-worn dress, free from the weight of the expectations that Tamil brings with it. Maybe once we leave, we leave for good — and maybe, just maybe, that isn’t so bad after all.