Returning home has always been an absolute joy for me. Howsoever fascinating and fruitful the sojourn abroad, the promise of retrieving my own customary space to reclaim myself, my own bed to dream in, my own land and sun and soil, happily lures me back every time.
I remember one morning on reaching home from the US, being immediately assailed by the unmistakable aroma of curry leaves sizzling in hot oil. Breakfast in my neighbour’s kitchen, all so comfortably familiar. I stood a moment longer at my door, debating, pohe or upama? And instantly wanting a plateful of both. It isn’t as if these options aren’t available outside India. But it is their alchemy with our own exclusive contexts, the unapologetic glare of the sun shining outside, the heat I typically sense on my skin, the sound of the fan whirring overhead, our voices raised in our speech with our own idiosyncratic intonations and accents, the jabbering of the mynahs and bulbuls in our champa and gulmohar and amaltas trees …. all of that and more that makes it so distinctively and uniquely ours.
On a lighter note, it’s a relief for me to again stash away those bulky jackets, sweaters and scarves, all that swathed my tropical-raised self while braving the bracing chill of the temperate lands I roamed. I remember wearying of the bleary blues and blacks that swamped the sartorial there, my eyes hungering for the unabashed riot of colours we have at home.
Of course, it isn’t just about the trappings, the sights and sounds and senses that I feel myself at home with. It is much much deeper. I am rooted here, completely and thoroughly. That is, I am not merely a sentimental or serendipitously patriotic Indian. Not that I would flaunt my patriotism on my sleeve even though it is the ruling flavour. But yes, I am utterly convinced that this is where I was and am meant to be.
I remember the time many years ago when I was mulling over some tricky choices. Whatever ambiguity I might have overlooked in other respects, there was one, among a few, that was categorically non-negotiable: I would never live elsewhere. I can be happy in any corner of this country, I averred, not abroad. I belonged here. All my people were here, all my contexts came from here, my music grew here, I was fulfilled here and imagined myself to continue being thus fulfilled in the years to come as well. Then why forsake this for any other?
Or, was I not brave enough, adventurous enough to pack my bags and try to make my life elsewhere? Test new waters, new climes? Was I playing it safe?
Maybe. But maybe not.
I was raised by parents who believed passionately in the concept of India, who themselves were raised in pre-Independence years dreaming of unfurling the tricolour one day. Raised by men and women who fought determinedly to free this land, to nurture and educate its children, to inculcate values of free and rational thought and expression. Growing up I would hear stories of my grandmother being battered in lathi-charges or being locked up in prison and my mother pining away for months on end without her. My other grandmother worked hard to rescue our women from their travails, to empower them, as also to help found a school for children. I heard about my grandfathers who supported their wives’ dreams with a dedication that did them proud, me too. I know how my maternal grandfather would step in to write editorials in his wife’s newspaper, sustaining her readers’ spirit and morale while she suffered incarceration. My other grandfather helped balance the women’s council’s books when his wife had torn her hair out in frustration at the unconquerable magnitude of the task. So many stories, so much pride in my clan, my people and my land, all that bound me to them. Why not revel in it for all time? Why play with loyalties?
And that is what I happily did all these years. Yes, there is plenty that ails my home, land and people, plenty that has gone awry from what had been imagined and dreamed of by my parents and theirs. This is not the India that they had fought for. Nor is this entirely the India I wish to wake up to every morning. Agreed. It is what it is. But that still never made me question where I had chosen to be. Migrate? Not for me. Not that I had any quarrel with those who did cross overseas, nor did I ever judge them their choices. They had their valid reasons to leave, I had mine to stay on.
And so, as and when those of the diaspora that I knew came visiting their old home, spending quality time with their ageing parents, hopping around to the corner for a batata wada, catching a night of music at Sawai or a home-grown natak, refreshing old memories, I knew that some of what they had left behind still called them back. And when we holidayed in locales abroad, soaking in their air and life and customs and systems, traipsing through their palaces and chateaus, museums and galleries, serenaded by their violins and cellos, forging connects with people there and breaking bread with them, we lived and did as them. All global humans for every happy while. But home was always where the heart finally was.
Until our daughter left for the US. And made her own home there with her husband. The years rolled from one to the next and we watched closely as she made her life there, studying, working, living, growing. Rooting herself in another land. Building her own tribe around her. Melding all that she had carried from here with all that she chose to embrace there.
Then we predictably and routinely juggled with time zones, picking convenient hours to call and chat, imagining her comfortably asleep while we worked through our days, praying that her days were productive with zero glitches while we slept. And that she stayed safe, happy and healthy. I suppose she did the same, but I’m guessing not with my intense fervour. She might have outgrown her umbilical attachment, but I’m still holding tight.
Many parents do the same, worldwide, we are not unique in that. They all do it bravely, some easily, some less so. They swallow their concerns and their worries so that their children don’t feel weighed down by them. It is how it is. But it feels all the more challenging when the physical distance that separates us is so punishingly vast that we need to travel long hours and days just to be together again. Yet I would gladly do it every single time. I did, through those rolling years.
Now when I look at the hills that surround the suburb she lives in, when I stroll through the spacious park close by, see the brilliantly blue skies overhead, spy the tiny hummingbirds flitting through her garden, see her neighbours stop and say hello when she is walking her dog, hear their music playing in their cars and malls, drive by their majestic evergreens lining their wide roads or their southern magnolia flowering magnificently in their summers, it also feels reassuringly familiar. And when I see her happy face in the midst of all of that, it feels right.
I make my pohe and upama in her kitchen and she smiles her satisfied smile that says, Just like home. I know it isn’t, her selective nostalgia notwithstanding, but how does that even matter? Isn’t home where the heart is?
So, what holds me back in my land today, I ask myself. My parents have passed, many of my tribe too, yet their history remains. I know in my gut that I still nurture myself and my life here. Much of me is still anchored here. I still despair at the grim stories that crowd our headlines. I still cheer when our young raise our flag in sporting arenas. My ears perk up with interest when I hear spicy chatter in colloquial Hindi and Marathi. I smile when the koel calls from the kamini blossoms in our garden. I luxuriantly inhale the petrichor from the first monsoon showers on our parched soil. My heart warms when my bai celebrates her children’s school grades with me, popping a pedha in my mouth.
And yet all the while my treacherous heart feels perversely and wretchedly torn between this home and our daughter’s, longing for them to somehow coincide. Knowing they won’t.
And then, when we came back from our recent visit to the US, after I thought I had well recovered from my moping and missing our daughter and was again glorying in my life here, I caught myself suddenly longing for another glimpse of those Californian hills. My eyes began to wander through her neighbourhood, going through its corners and turns as if they were my own. My ears pick up the sounds of a familiar western number from a passing car, my head beginning to bob in rhythm and I am washed with a brand-new nostalgia. My hands now long to cradle an ice-cold margarita, pair it with some chips and guacamole, and immerse myself in that idyllically lingering twilight. My fingers always itch to call her, hear her voice, see her face, see my son-in-law’s head nestled beside hers. Watch as she stirs her coffee in the mug we had bought together. Ache to be there again.
And I think, heck! There are loves and longings and loyalties, aren’t there? I know that what I feel for her transcends everything else, it is how it is. That makes me adopt what she has claimed as hers, that makes me want to join in on some of her adventures, that makes her new contexts mine as well, that makes my heart happy when my mind and memory conjure her familiar surroundings again, no longer as foreign.
Then am I no longer as loyally Indian, are my roots breaking loose? Or am I being clingingly maternal? Neither. I still love my land, my people and I believe I am as fiercely respectful of her space as I am of mine. I guess I’ve only now realised what many already have before me: that there can be another wonderful place to call home. It need not coincide with the one here. That I would be just as full of joy to return there. For the heart is just as happy there.