Home Bound

Aakash Rajaraman
17 min readApr 8, 2024

The first time I’d really understood the majestic power of shame was when my cab had dropped me back in front of my parents home. The same home that I’d so excitedly left two years ago to pursue an ultimately fruitless career now stood before me. It was like a monument built to my embarrassment. A literal brick and mortar shrine with a simple message: You Failed.

I suppose it’s no real surprise to anyone but me that I was fired, or as Mors-Aminae called it, an “unfortunate termination”. I was but an afterthought in the proud corporate tradition of treating employees as disposable. A simple number on a screen. One click of a button, and poof: problem solved, bottom line saved, economy sustained.

Even the cab I came in sputtered comically as it drove down the road it came. I stood in place, as did my family home in front of me. A veritable staring contest which I was to lose. It was physically painful to stand there, although it would have been impossible for me to go anywhere else.

Something I learned very quickly at my job was that working for a Fortune 500 company is incredibly misleading. The compensation for your gruel is not in the slightest fortunate and very very close to just 500. So coming back here entirely unprepared was my only option.

I had just two mid-sized suitcases with me. I sighed pitifully looking at them and gripped their handles, preparing to walk past the gates and knock on the front door. It was impossible. A veneer of pathetic shame had come over me, and I couldn’t picture myself walking up to the door and seeing my parents’ faces. I’d told them that I was coming back home for a Christmas vacation. I don’t know how they believed me. Perhaps it was just joy that I was coming home at last. The prodigal son returns. I hadn’t even looked in the direction of my hometown for the last two years, much less planned to come here. There’s something intoxicating about the independence of struggling on your own. I’d almost gotten high on my own suffering, and even dialing my home landline felt like defeat. You’re trained to look down on your past. Once you step into a corporate office, it’s nothing but gray cubicles and mandatory employee appreciation meetings. Don’t you ever look back.

But here I was. Standing in front of my parents’ home, completely different to the miniscule flat I’d rented before. I was certain that the minute I stepped in there, I’d blurt out the truth.

So, I did the only thing I could. With surprising purpose, I rolled the suitcases next to the gate and arranged them one behind the other. I looked intently at them. Everything that I owned, that was worth keeping, fit into two small suitcases. I hadn’t left anything behind, and I hadn’t thrown much away. I even kept my employee ID card. I didn’t know what to call that: a memento? Desperation? A psychologist would call it toxic. I would lean towards indifference.

I left the suitcases next to the gate, and took off on foot eastward. The clean December air felt thin and difficult to take in. I’d only walked about forty paces and found myself panting. You had to be careful walking on these roads. Jagged stones poked out with reckless abandon at every possible opportunity. My black formal shoes were already covered with a thin coating of dust. I was wearing beige slacks and a dress shirt with a hideous blue and white check pattern. It was even tucked in and held secure with a black leather belt. These were the only clothes I’d cared to wash regularly and were free from stains of all nature. Besides, what else would I be wearing on a Tuesday morning? I was on duty, even when I wasn’t.

When I was walking down the chaotic system of meandering dirt roads, I heard the distinctive clicking of bicycle wheels rolling up behind me. I quickly turned around to see who it was. The man riding the bicycle hadn’t lost the carefree style that he used to dash around these same streets on this very bike seven years ago. He was standing up, right arm propped up in the air, waving towards me. His hair weaved through the breeze, as he sped up to catch up to where I was.

“How’ve you been, man? It’s been a whole year!” He said in a voice distinctly his.

I had to put my brave face back on. I was still working; I was just here on Christmas break. I thought I’d have more time to prepare the finer details of the story, but I suppose this would be a trial run for when I meet my parents.

“It has! I’ve been well. You know, just working. I just don’t seem to have any time. This is the first real break I’ve had in two years.” I responded, still out of breath. I didn’t want him to get a measure of how unfit I’d become. To put it in perspective, if I’d rode a bicycle at the speed he did, my lungs would probably collapse in on themselves.

“Right, big city makes a big man, eh?” He tapped on the chest with the back of his hand. “You said you’d call. You wrote down my landline number and everything. I even checked with your parents to see if they had your number, but even they hadn’t gotten a call in a year.”

“Well, yeah, just working, you know. I wanted to call, I wanted to come back down, but I couldn’t find the time.”

“Oh, that’s fine, I get it. Are you here long?”

I didn’t know how to respond to this. Hopefully not is what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t open the door for certainty either way. I dug my fingernail into the palm of my hand, and brought my fist up to my mouth, feigning a cough.

“I think so, yeah, about a week or so. I’m not sure though. I need to double check once.”

“Oh that’s awesome. Listen, this week, we’re reliving all the haunts. A greatest hits week, if you will. And you’re not running away from here without giving me your phone number. I’ve got so much to tell you, man. I mean, do you even know that Shikha got married?”

“Wait, really?” I said with genuine bewilderment. That is certainly news that would have floored me. I stood there awestruck, gaping at his face. It was exactly the same. In the past two years, I’d aged like a glass of milk kept outside in the Chennai heat, but he? He hadn’t aged one bit. His childishly large eyes, the soft cheekbones and round chin were untouched. It was frankly destabilizing.

“How the hell did she let that happen?” I said, shocked.

Our stares met. He looked at me and shrugged casually. We stood in still silence.

“Listen, I’m going to head down to the shop. I’ve got to get this repaired,” he said, tapping the handlebars on his bicycle. “But, today, we are catching up. How about we head to Sunrise Cafe today at four?”

I looked down at my watch, to see the time, feigning inquisition on my face. I took a second to think about whether I’ll be free, or how I could possibly prevent that from happening.

“Oh four works, for sure.”

“Great!” he replied and got back onto his bicycle with remarkable grace. “I’ll come to your house to get you if you don’t show up on time. I’m not sparing you this time,” he joked.

“I’ll make it, have some faith,” I quipped back.

He shot me one last smile, before pedaling away on his bike, swerving past stones and dips in the road. I stood for a second, unsure of what to do, really. I was planning to walk down in the same direction, but it felt likely that I’d see him again. The repair shop was just half a kilometer ahead. So, I turned left after walking a few hundred feet onto one of the only streets in this town that was lined with any foliage.

I would’ve never guessed that two years away from home would’ve depleted my skill to have a casual conversation so severely. The words felt like thick molasses clogged in my throat, struggling to make their way out. I’d become fluent in pseudo-technical jargon that even I didn’t understand half the time, but a simple conversation with an old friend felt exhausting. I was out of the sun now, but the dry heat in the air had a sting as I waded through it.

I’d heard of many people in my situation who were forced to chase a dream that wasn’t theirs, failed, and returned home to face the scorn of their family. But that wasn’t what I had in front of me. I chose this life. It was my dream to leave. I found this job, applied for it, and gleefully left the first chance I could.

And when it didn’t work out, I forced myself to believe that this is what I wanted. It was a cruel exercise in self deception. I justified everything that was being done to me, that I forced myself to believe that this is part of the dream.

But there? Standing in the shade of my small hometown, watching the loose dust cling to my skin, it was dawning on me. I was wrong. My wildest dreams could never bridge the gap between what I wanted and what I was asked to do. But like an addict, I kept betting my own happiness to appease my past self.

It was only when I saw her sweeping the little porch outside her house that I realized that I was on the street that Shikha’s house was on.

Shikha was a couple of years older than me. Her family was really close to mine, and she used to come over to my house almost every weekend. I used to look forward to those weekends. She wouldn’t ever say when or if she was coming over, but as soon as Saturday morning broke through my window, I’d listen for the sound of the doorbell. She was the only person who would ever ring the doorbell. And, my parents knew too. I’d rush down the stairs to open the door to see her smiling at me. She’d always have Monopoly, Chess, Cluedo, or anything else she could convince her parents to buy at the store.

We grew up together. Despite the age difference, there wasn’t a single moment where I felt out of place. We fought against the summer sun dipping behind the horizon every night, rolling in the grass with sheer joy. In all the years I’d known her, I don’t think I’d ever seen her sweep.

I walked forward tentatively, desperately wanting her to notice me, so I wouldn’t have to initiate the conversation. Fortunately, she turned nonchalantly hearing my footsteps, and met her eyes to mine.

“Well, I’ll be damned, I’d heard you were coming back to town.” She rested the wooden broom against the wall. “Is everything to your liking, milord?” She said in a mocking tone with an accompanying curtsy.

I felt a lot more comfortable. The fragments of our childhood simmered to the top of my memory. I walked closer to her with my hands firmly planted in my pockets.

“Hi, Shikha. And hello to the broom as well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you hang around her before.”

“Well, we regular people don’t get to vanish for two years for our big gold standard job, do we? We can’t afford cleaning robots or maids or whatever you’ve got in your mansion up there.” There was a hint of venom when she said that, although I wasn’t sure whether it was meant to be malicious. She was the master of sass. The pristine control she had over her tone of voice was immaculate. Her wit had gotten her into a lot of trouble when we were younger, but over the years, she’d learned to hone it, use it as a weapon; to get anybody on her side, or shatter anybody’s sense of self worth.

And yet, I stood there unsure of how to take her sly response. It probably says more about how I felt, than what she did. Probably sensing my shame, she interjected quickly to cut through the silence.

“I’m just kidding, man,” she pushed my shoulder, “don’t tell me-”

She paused, and got closer, looking at me with an inquisitive gaze.

“Oh lord, don’t tell me you got hurt by that!” She laughed uproariously.

“Oh I’m not hurt, come on, you know me better than that,” I replied weakly.

“You would think so, but two years without me to toughen you up, who knows what happened to you,” she said, pulling my ear way too hard.

I shouted in pain and pulled back.

“See, exactly what I’m saying!”

She gestured to me to sit next to her on the stairs leading up to her house.

“Why didn’t you call? You became too good for us when you reached there?”

“Didn’t have your number.”

She turned towards me with a piercing glare. The sass.

“I was just busy, I had all this work, and I had to get used to everything, I-” I took a breath. “I’m sorry. I’ve got a lot to be sorry for, and a lot of people to be sorry to.” My voice weakened, and I felt a lot warmer. We’d sat on these steps as kids, throwing rocks at circles we’d marked on the ground with chalk. I had walked up and down these steps a good majority of my life, and for the first time, I felt completely wrong footed there. My feet had gotten bigger than the width of the step itself, and I didn’t know where to keep them.

“You don’t have to be sorry, I get it,” she said.

The pauses after every sentence she spoke punctuated the air of sheer awkwardness. I could hear birds shriek in the most unbearable tenor, coming from somewhere nearby. It was all around me. Like a slowly rising tide, marching its way into my ears.

“Didn’t you ever want to…” I said, if only to break the still silence. She turned to look at me.

“I don’t know, make it out of here?”

She once again paused, as if she had no idea how to respond. I resigned myself to just sit in this silence further. But when I was just about to think of excuses to leave, she spoke, almost in a murmur: “I wanted to… and for a while I did. But…”

“What do you mean?” I replied.

“Right after you left, I… I looked for jobs. You know, out there.” She gestured outwardly with her head.

“Out where? In the city?”

“Yeah, I applied for… anything, literally anything. Cashiers, bank tellers, I was willing to do anything.”

I sat there, dumbfounded. The light filtered through the branches and leaves, and poured itself onto her face. Her eyes were still the same shade of dark brown. Even through the lens of her glasses, you could see her eyes clearly. No distortion, no change. There was never any kernel of dishonesty in them.

“I didn’t want to be left behind. I mean, you had left to do– whatever it is you do now– and I couldn’t possibly fathom what I was going to achieve here.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

She glared at me, barely turning her head, but shifting her eyes to me. I could feel my body tense. I felt this inkling of rage, the purest, most vile and unjustified rage, that was creeping. I put my hands on my knees.

“I’m sorry. What happened after that?” I said.

“What happened? Well, I found something. A little gardening store wanted someone to hand out fliers.” A sly smile came over her face. She looked relaxed again.

“Patel’s Petals. Ever heard of it?”

“No.” I responded.

“Yeah, so, I talked to the owner online. I didn’t need much convincing to be honest, I just wanted to make it out of here, like you said. So I told my parents I’m doing a three month internship in agricultural guerilla marketing, and I booked a cab out of here. No fanfare, no party.”

I chuckled sarcastically.

“And in a month, I realized it wasn’t for me. Or for anyone.” The space between us on the steps had shrunk. I adjusted myself to face her.

“The job?”

“No, the city. The people, the life out there. I–” She cut herself off. “You don’t want to hear it, trust me,” she said, still smiling, but without any guilt, or shame. It was the simple smile that greeted me at my doorstep all those years ago. It was what I remembered. It was my friend.

“I’ve got time.”

“How much time?”

I stopped for a second. “Just enough, go on.”

“There’s nothing to say, really. It was– well it was hardly a job– I stood around street corners and I handed fliers out. Different corners everyday; didn’t help though, they all looked the exact same.”

I let the silence hang in the air. She was drawing shapes on the concrete steps with her finger.

“People would take it from me, crumple it and throw it just a few yards ahead; they would look me in the eye with this– this sympathy. Like I was asking them for their internal organs. I did that for a week. And I left.”

“I mean…”, I began. I wanted to say you could’ve found me, but how could she have really? Even if she did, it would be to help me, not herself. I felt this vein of unjustified anger rising in my neck. I pushed it down before I said anything stupid.

“My day was so strange there,” she looked a lot more relaxed now, like she was getting a secret off her chest. “I woke up in this dingy flat right above the store. There were three other people. But they all worked completely different hours, so I never spoke more than a few sentences to any of them.

“I was the last to join the flat, so I slept on the floor. It didn’t matter really, I hardly got any sleep. I got up, got ready, went down to check where I’d be stationed, and then headed out. If I was lucky, 4 people would grab a flier, and actually hear me talk– I had this little sales pitch I’d memorized about soil and what not. 5 p.m., head back to the store, hand in the sheets of names and numbers I’d collected, some real, most not. And then it was some other poor guy’s job to call them and hope they buy something.”

“You did that for a week?”

“Yep. One week. And one Monday I was supposed to turn in, I just grabbed everything I had, dropped a letter off to my boss, and caught the bus back home. I told my parents it didn’t work out. And then, you know.” She pointed to the ring around her finger.

She turned away again, and looked ahead. The light that peered through the leaves above danced in unpredictable patterns.

“One thing was clear to me in that week– in a couple days even.”

“What’s that?”

“It breaks you. It breaks everyone. Broken people make up broken places and pretty soon, everything you know is in pieces.

“When those people looked at me with that pity in their eyes, I hated it at first. But on the second, third, fourth day, it became this silent conversation. I felt bad for them too. And I got used to it. It was terrifying. I just picked up this method of exchanging sympathy for people I’d never met or ever meet again. It was almost a competition. If I’d out-pity them, they’d talk to me. If they’d out-pity me, I’d stop my speech, let them walk. That’s no life.”

The hum of shame reached its resonant frequency. We sat there for another minute not understanding how to proceed. The things I wanted to say were barging to the forefront of my mind and the tip of my tongue, and neither were in any position to speak.

Perhaps if I still had a job, I would’ve debated with her, defended the life that she despised and I was forced to live.

She got up after that.

“I have to go, it’s getting late. I’ve got plans in the evening,” she said.

“Oh yeah, no. I’ve got to go, too. God, I haven’t even been home yet,” I blurted out.

“What? You haven’t seen your parents?”

“Yeah, well…”, I muttered, “my bags are still out on the road, too.”

She looked at me dumbfounded.

“Well then, you better go home, your majesty,” she said.

I simply nodded and gave her a weak smile. I was afraid that if I’d opened my mouth, another stream of truth would spill out of it. I turned around, and began walking home.

I walked in this unconscious haze where my legs were moving almost independently. I shoved my hands in my pockets and headed back to my home. Thankfully, no one had taken my suitcase, although, there was absolutely nothing worth stealing in there.

I went inside, and met my parents. They moved quickly to bring me in, and almost immediately, there was a plate of food in my hands. They sat me down and asked me so many questions. I answered in vague, nondescript answers. It seemed to satisfy them anyway. They had bright smiles beaming across their faces with this infectious energy I couldn’t avoid. We spoke for a little bit, I made some excuse about wanting to see my room again, and I made my way up the stairs.

It was immaculate. The bookshelf, the bed, the windowsill, it was pristine. No doubt my parents had been cleaning it every single day. I’m not sure why they did. Force of habit? My room was still just about small and plain as I remembered it. The paint had cracked in places, and those cracks crept up and down the walls, branching out into waning meanders. When I was young, Shikha and I would try painting in these cracks with strange colors we’d mix up with coarse brushes. Those nights I’d fall asleep by following those colors along the walls till my eyes felt tired. Those colors had been painted over now.

I sat down, stared at those cracks in the paint again. The heat was still sweltering from downstairs, and I couldn’t smother the feeling in my chest that life had passed me by. I had dragged myself out chasing something. I won’t say I was chasing my dreams, although there is no better word for it. But as those dreams slowly dissolved, I still couldn’t let go. I tried to hold the fraying edges of my self image with nothing but those stale dreams. That’s not what dreams are meant for. It wasn’t what I was meant for. Maybe someone braver than me could have made it, but it was clear to me then that I wouldn’t have ever made it.

I walked back down, finally ready to have a conversation with my parents; probably the first real conversation with them I’d have in over three years. But when I went down, I couldn’t find them. There was just a note on the fridge that said “Come to Sunrise Cafe once you’ve changed, party for you!”. I looked down at my watch: it was almost four.

The Sunrise Cafe was a small diner a few hundred meters from Shikha’s house. I walked there quickly. After I’d walked halfway, I realized that I hadn’t even put my shoes on. That didn’t stop me, I walked over, even quicker, with my toes learning to avoid the sharp edges of the road; my heels lifting smoothly to minimize the contact with the hot asphalt. It felt incredible.

I won’t tell you what happened when I walked into The Sunrise Cafe. All I will tell you is that all my friends were there. My parents too. There was a cake, party hats, and bright smiles across everyone’s face. I can not put to words what I felt. I saw a little slice of a life worth living.

I did tell everyone what happened, eventually. Not on the same night, or even the same week. But I did. Some people gave me that pity, which was the exact reaction I was dreading. But for the most part, I was shown the warm compassion that I’d forgotten about in the city. The humor, the pat on the back, and the ruffling of hair. The more I felt it, the more apparent it became: Facing that humiliation was my rebirth. It’s pulling the faded curtains open and finding the view that I thought I’d lost ages ago. It is the closest I will ever get to true euphoria.

It was soul crushing, it was misery, courage, and pain. And I was better for having felt it.