Anita Sethi begins her book I Belong Here with an account of racial abuse. Travelling on the TransPennine Express train, a man insults her, saying, amongst other things too vile to repeat, “to get back on the banana boat”. Sethi has the presence of mind to film part of the incident. With this evidence, she seeks out the guard and the man is later arrested by the police and prosecuted. Ironically, the incident occurred just after the train passed through Manchester, where Sethi was born and traverses a landscape that would otherwise be comfortingly familiar to her.
The emotional fallout from this event provides the impetus for this book. Weeks after the attack Sethi remains haunted by the experience. She decides to take herself off and walk across the backbone of England, along the Pennine Way. This trek is undertaken in defiance of the hate crime; it’s an attempt to claim her right to belong, to roam freely in the land of her birth and still her mind amidst the rugged landscapes she encounters.
As a small girl, Sethi’s family once had the opportunity to visit the Lake District – Asian families like hers didn’t often visit the countryside in those days. Here, amidst the mountains and lakes, Sethi responded to the awe of the wild.
Even from my one trip to the mountains and lakes, that landscape lived inside me. My heart had opened huge enough to be filled with those deep lakes and high mountains; my heart had opened up and fallen in love with the world all over again.
It is this sense of wonder and love of the world that Sethi hopes to rediscover on her walk across the Pennines. Emotions that she hopes will connect her with herself and anchor her in place.
Sethi freely admits that she is a novice at hiking long trails over challenging terrain and she is also inexperienced at walking alone. Early on she discovers the harshness of the journey. She recounts the challenge of climbing the 400 steps to Malham Cove in the rain, carrying her heavy backpack, wearing inadequate shoes that slip and slide and fill with water. Here, in the immediacy of her walking, she is like the soaring peregrine, she observes, living in the present moment, released from the hurt of her past.
As we accompany her on her journey, we share her frustration at getting lost, we feel the ache in her bones, and we understand how alone she feels at times. But we also watch her confidence grow and her anxiety decrease as she becomes more grounded. “Walking through such wild, ancient landscape brings a strong awareness of how we are all temporary guests on this earth. We take nothing with us.”
Towards the end of the book Sethi evaluates the “extent to which nature and walking can be ameliorative to symptoms of PTSD and trauma, and evolving notions of a so-called ‘nature cure’.”
Walking in nature seemed to make me more open and lessen that fear of trusting others, I say, and I also felt like it changed the neural pathways of my brain and made me more open to new experiences and to both remember and let go of the past.
Sethi spoke out on the train and she has spoken out in writing this book. “I will not stop speaking out”, she says, “and I will not stop walking through the world, my home.” It has to be hoped that along with asserting her right to belong, Sethi encourages more BAME and other disadvantaged British citizens to get out in nature and claim the countryside as their own.
Through the redemptive journey Sethi undertakes in I Belong Here, she finds connectivity with the land of her birth and the sense of belonging she craves. Her emotional turmoil is quietened and we, her readers, are left moved, enlightened and hopeful.
- I Belong Here, by Anita Sethi is published by Bloomsbury Books (£16.99). To order a copy go to www.bloomsbury.com