One would think that my predilection to make even a hotel room feel like home comes from a strong sense of attachment to things. In fact, it comes from a sense of detachment. Keeping a few shuffles out of the reckoning, this here is the 19th house I have lived in. My father did not have a transferable job. He was what you could call a small, an almost petty businessman. Each shift of residence was preceded by a shift in his fortunes, a few steps forward, a few steps back, and round 2, 3 and 4 the same. I followed the pattern in my first marriage, the rocky state of the marriage and our finances made sure of that.
For 3 years while I was an adolescent, we shifted rooms almost every month between one community guest house (musafar-khana) and another. (I have counted these as only 2 residences, instead of the several they were, from one room to another, including time in the community hall.) For 2 years before that, we had shared a 200 sq feet house with my grandmother, the 6 of us under one tiny roof. For a long time, a house or a lack of house defined a significant part of my personality. It was this that had drawn me to visit and re-visit Bhuj after the earthquake, the story of people losing houses in which their families had lived for generations, sometimes as long as 200 years.
When my first marriage collapsed, it was for the first time, that I questioned the validity of a home. What did they mean, those things, painstakingly accumulated, those walls, that roof, when there was no love?
In ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (1971), Tevye and the villagers faced with the inevitability of leaving the village Anatevka where they have lived forever, as far as they can remember, sing, “A little bit of this, a little bit of that. A pot. A pan. A broom. A hat. Someone should have set a match to this place years ago. A bench, a tree. So, what’s a stove? Or a house? People who pass through Anatevka don’t even know they’ve been here. A stick of wood. A piece of cloth. What do we leave? Nothing much. Only Anatevka.”
Gita, in my film ’150 Seconds Ago‘ said to me once, when she had finally found some modicum of peace in a tin shack, allotted by the government, which was better than the tent in the park where she had been living for the past year with her rickshaw-wala husband Jagdish and their daughter Sangeeta, that she had met a neighbor from the old mohallah, on the road recently. Though the new settlement was only a few kilometers away from the old city, everyone had been scattered into different worlds. I wondered what it meant to meet someone on the road, someone you had seen until then, every day of your life, next door?
When Tevye and the villagers leave Anatevka, they all seem to have somewhere to go, even if it is to an unlikeable relative, but what they do leave behind is “Anatevka, Anatevka. Intimate, obstinate Anatevka. Where I know everyone I meet. Soon I’ll be a stranger in a strange new place. Searching for an old familiar face. From Anatevka.”
‘Fiddler on the Roof’ escapes being maudlin because despite all the hardships the villagers and Tevye’s family in particular face, a sense of humor pervades the film. The characters are poor, most of them, and each turn of life seems to bring something worse for them, yet, they have their faith and their belief in ‘tradition’ to see them through. The twist of course is, that Tevye who keeps on harping about tradition has to accept change as each one of his 3 older daughters marries the man of her choice, contrary to Tevye’s beliefs.
The fiddler on the roof, according to Tevye is just like all of them, trying to play out a tune, while maintaining his balance on a precarious perch. And as the fiddler follows Tevye as his family leaves the village, it is clear that life will go on in the same way, trying to keep happy in the face of a God who singles out Tevye for hardship, as he does everyone else. Even Lazar Wolf, the butcher, who was a wealthy man, his house a sharp contrast to Tevye’s, leaves with 2 suitcases and alone. Tevye and his family may not have many possessions, but they do have each other and a great deal of love.
By the way, another song in the film, which we all loved, particularly Dhanno, was “Do you love me?” an exchange between Tevye and Golde, his wife, after 25 years of marriage, brought on by their second daughter’s engagement to a poor but radical teacher. The realization of love, in a marriage that had never been questioned, concludes movingly as Golde sings – “Do I love him? For twenty-five years I’ve lived with him. Fought him, starved with him. Twenty-five years my bed is his. If that’s not love, what is?” Tevye persists – “Then you love me.” Golde shrugs – “I suppose I do.” Tevye admits – “And I suppose I love you too.” Tevye and Golde sit side by side, and exchange a split second smile – “It doesn’t change a thing. But even so. After twenty-five years. It’s nice to know.”
The film is long at 3 hours, but in fact, the slow pace of the film as it seems to follow each event in the village and Tevye’s life, in loving detail, makes you feel that you yourself have settled down in Anatevka, and which makes the parting with the village and its people, so poignant at the end.