“Where Do I Belong?” – a simple title asking a simple question. It is as simple a question as “What if I were not born?” or, “What am I here for?” “Do I belong to a community?” “Or, to a family?” “A country?” “A piece of land?” “Or maybe, to a culture?” “Could it be that I belong to a composite culture?” – A very beautiful novel by the name “Where Do I Belong?” answers these questions. Archana Painuly, the author, through her vivid portrayal of expatriate lives, gives us a riveting account of life abroad – of life away from roots.
The novel mainly belongs to the Shandilyas – a well-established family living in Denmark for years. All throughout these years they have tried to stitch together a garland of relations. Between generations. In that garland can one find many flowers – of different colors, of different textures. The most beautiful flower of them all is Rina. The girl shines and shines until she becomes the star of the narrative. She is sophisticated, intelligent, passionate, yet vulnerable. She is her mother’s girl, her father’s too. She finds happiness in the men she meets. Yet, she is searching. Her search to find out where she belongs never ends. It is this lyrical journey of Rina that holds the novel together. Readers just cannot get enough of this character. She is the spokesperson of the author. She can speak to the readers, she can tell us about the agony of people away from their homeland. She can relate to their dilemmas, their emptiness. She can share their joy. She can cry in their sorrows.
The novel is a great source material for students who want to study the multitude of emotions, especially of Indians living abroad. The details are just fantastic. Any interested reader of Danish way of living or for that matter, Danish culture, can read through the pages where the city of Copenhagen, its uncertainties, its people, its shortcomings are being described in clear and objective way. In fact, the city itself is a character in the novel. Prominent and inseparable from the context.
There are certain passages, certain anecdotes and certain descriptions that compel the reader to think. I believe in today’s world, where the sphere of independent thinking is shrinking, this book is a must-read. Rina’s worldview, his father Nirmal’s contradictory viewpoints, attitudes of his boyfriends Hari and Radhesh towards life broaden our perspective of the modern world. A world that perhaps lacks depth. A depth that is lost in crudity. There is no place for softness. There is only practicality all around.
A great novel has an inherent quality. Its size does not matter at all! “Where Do I Belong” certainly has that quality. The way it unfolds captivates. The characters do not just come and go. They all have back-stories. They are all human beings who can make mistakes. A Suresh, a Linda or a Radhesh do not come through as bad persons. Rather, they are all prisoners in the hand of circumstances. The depiction of these characters is such brilliant that the reader starts to own them. They become our friends, our neighbors. Our brothers. Our sisters. They have the power to hit us.
A word or two must be mentioned about the language. As mentioned, this is one book where the author takes no chances when it comes to detailing. With the detailing comes authenticity. Those of us living in this part of the world can easily relate to what is written on the paper. Such is the power of the words the author has chosen! Besides, there is hardly a difference in language between the dialogues spoken and the narration done. It is as if the narrator is speaking her own words in a monologue using a similar lucid language. A great skill. Having said that, how beautiful it is to note that all characters have their own distinct dictions, own choice of words and independent ways of expression. Some of the conversations between the daughter and the mother or the niece and the uncle become deeply engaging, thanks to the free-flowing language used.
To summarize, the book is a document of expatriate lives. Lives in Scandinavia through the eyes of some of its citizens. Through this novel, the author creates, breaks and re-creates complex relationships. Through this novel, the author establishes a belief. The belief of making a choice of where one must belong. A place where one’s heart tells one to stay.