I pulled out my laptop and went on Google Earth. I typed in my mother’s childhood home address, but Google Earth didn’t recognize any matching location. I decided to turn to my mother and carried the spacecraft-like laptop to her. After placing it on top of an orange table mat, I asked her to help me find her parent’s house. She reacted surprised at first, but then went on to ask me if you can see it on there; if she can really revisit home on that stained screen marked by fingerprints. We typed in Hospital Street and the screen started to zoom into the peninsula my mother called home. We began driving down the road with the cursor and our fingers carefully placed on the laptop’s finger pad. While the images constantly shifted between green and light brown patches, she lit up. Her usually tired eyes, worn out by underpaid overtimes, brightened up and started narrating stories of places, encounters and histories. She suddenly looked younger than she had just minutes before; like the girl she’d describe she was but left behind when she crossed that fatal line.
My mother took me on detours around Jaffna Town. Her excitement grew the closer we got to her house. She remembered what she did at this junction, what she did in that park in details that made me question my own twentysomething memory. She recalled these information as if they were only few months old, as if her past was no more than her yesterday. Soon she grew impatient with the my travelling speed. Her stories and memories were overflowing, my drive to memorize hindering. She directed me towards new corners and routes, throwing in colonial, postcolonial and neocolonial street names. She wanted to show me her school, her college, her life in a place she could never take us to or return to herself. I asked myself, is this how ‘a return’ feels like, how home feels like?
Days later we showed the images to my aunt, my second mother, who wanted to show me different places to those of my mother. Our fingers pulled back and forth, both sisters arguing about what to see first while my father and uncle, who were sitting meters from the screen away, were busy throwing in names of even more places to look at. I didn’t know who to prioritize, whose wishes to listen to first; whose longings to queue up. We were excited, loud and emotional. They wanted to remember, to not forget and discover what was left. They wanted to show me, born abroad child of a criminalised diaspora, the home we were never granted to have. They wanted to impress me, western-born, eastern-dispossessed. ‘Life wasn’t always this’, whatever this may be, for them. We were driven by curiosity and nostalgia. I watched them silently, smiling while simultaneously being annoyed by the contradictory instructions I kept on receiving. I was torn observing the joy they had in seeing their homes as pixels; in returning in pixels.
Weeks later, while in Oslo, I sat around the living room with my aunts and cousins who gathered from Canada, UK, Denmark and Germany. Since my cousins had never returned home either, I pulled up Google Earth on the flat screen and told them they could see their childhood homes, their schools, their father’s factory and other places from a distant, by now almost mystical past. When I typed in Manipay, they were able to guide me to their house by merely looking at the rooftops of buildings. One of my cousins stood right in front of the TV screen, pointing with his fingers at places, naming them and confirming them one by one. His voice moved from excitement to overhastiness. Stories started to emerge, memories started to be uncovered and smiles to be exchanged. My aunts, generations apart, desired to see different places to those of my cousins; places of meaning, weight and erosion, places that had different layers of meaning for each generation. In that darkened room, snowed into this Norwegian landscape, they were amazed to be able to watch their tropical home from afar; for technology to ease their pain; for being able to return while being exiled.
Through the reflection of the TV screen mirroring in their eyes, I could see the oceans locked away within them. Everyone had their requests waiting of houses, schools, stores, cinemas, beaches and temples to revisit. Everyone had their wishes to see something they left behind, something they abandoned; something they were forced to abandon and watch fade from their vision. We watched pixel after pixel, they recalled and I recorded. I wanted to capture this moment in some way. To pause, for us to remember our distance, the tragedy of exile, but it was as fleeting as was my visit to Jaffna.
Some return as people, others as pixels.
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This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.