Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Mumbai on my mind

“Where are you from?’ they ask. People I have just met, wanting to place my origin, my accent, my personality. Mumbai. Bombay. Maximum City. I say this even as I feel a twinge of sadness because there is an apartment in Mumbai where I grew up but there is no home anymore.

Here is something I wrote on a visit to Bombay during the monsoon season, after making my home in other cities and countries.

I was in Mumbai last week. The sky reflected a profusion of dull moisture-laden clouds in the puddles that lined the streets outside terminal 2. The vigorous wind blew my hair across my face as I struggled to find my name on the signboard held by the chauffeur who would take me to the hotel that offered a complimentary airport pickup. The sky was the monochrome grey of freshly poured concrete, interspersed by frequent showers, drenching commuters who hurried to dry shelters. The view from my window was depressing, the under-construction metro flyover coming up within touching distance of the hotel did not do much to improve the ambience. I wondered if foreign business travelers would continue to patronize this hotel once metro trains roared outside their windows.

Monsoons in Mumbai have always been a time of pleasure and pain. The rains signaled the end of summer holidays that seemed to stretch endlessly and marked the beginning of a new school year. The skies poured liquid relief on the residents hassled by a long, unrelentingly humid summer. New books, uniforms, plastic shoes and slick raincoats. Catching up with friends, braving the lashing rain that made crisp book covers into soggy messes and ensured everyone had a bad hair day. Reaching college completely drenched and leaving the umbrella in the back of the classroom to dry. With 100% atmospheric humidity, neither the clothes nor umbrellas would dry and another deluge would accompany us on the bus ride home. Home would be a warm and welcome place where you could strip off your dripping clothes and unload unsuspecting creatures that had hitched a ride with you – earthworms, small frogs and gods other creatures that visited us annually.

My brothers and I would sit around enjoying hot food or steaming cups of tea, exchanging war stories about our day and how we scored a victory (or defeat) over the rain gods. The monsoon, like a crazed lover, has been a constant witness to the millions who make this maximum city their own. Learning to live with and in spite of the incessant rains, is a rite of passage that has shaped all of us who consider this place home, even when we do not live there.

I am not sure if I can become a resident of Mumbai once more. In its crazy growth the city seems to have forgotten me. Or is it me who has been banished for leaving its comfortable folds, I who once knew the bus routes and train stations on the western and central railway lines? Even as I observe new flyovers, connecting roads, buildings of glass and steel that were not around when I was a little girl, Mumbai still feels like home. And I continue to wonder at the feelings that come up when I witness the awe-inspiring Mumbai monsoon.

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Wish I had written that

Pico Iyer is a journalist, novelist and travel writer. His writing particularly resonates with immigrants. While his unique multi-cultural upbringing forms the lens for his writing, I have appreciated his honest reflections on “home” in today’s globalized world.

A few sentences from “The Global Soul – jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home.”

The country where people look like me is the one where I can’t speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all.

I’ve grown up, too, with a keen sense of the blessings of being unaffiliated; it has meant that almost everywhere is new and strange to me and nearly everywhere allows me to keep alive a sense of wonder and detachment.

I exult in the fact that I can see everywhere with a flexible eye; the very notion of home is foreign to me, as the state of foreignness is the closest thing I know to home.

The link to the TED talk:
Where is home? – Pico Iyer


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Immigrant angst

I waited in the immigration office for my number to be displayed on one of the many screens. The air buzzed with the muted hum of a hundred conversations in multiple languages as couples and families, newborns and the elderly hung around the crowded room. Around me were women in hijabs and saris, old men in wheelchairs, infants in strollers and uniformed staff member behind the tall counters. I sat stiffly beside HH, feeling the pinch of a promise I had made to myself more than a decade ago.

I had sworn I would never deal with immigration officials again. It was a pledge I made to myself one Halloween as I spent the afternoon at the INS office in San Francisco. The visit had been spurred by a previous interaction at Toronto airport where I was grilled by immigration officials about my green card. The matter was eventually resolved but not before I made the aforementioned pledge.

The immigrant experience is always an adventure. Ask anyone who has chosen to move to another country for any length of time. There are language and cultural barriers, food and festival differences, disparities in work ethic and social ethos. Having chosen to once again make my home in another country, I am exposed to the immigrant angst that I experienced in another continent almost half a lifetime ago. I grappled with waves of homesickness and issues of identity in a country where I looked different, spoke with an “accent” and chose to wear a bindi on my forehead to graduate school. Today I live in multicultural and multilingual Singapore; a country that is geographically closer to India and has a much larger Indian population. I do not feel isolated or suffer from bouts of nostalgia.

My angst this time around stems from the paperwork. Before you can adapt to your adopted country, you must first navigate the immigration system, its rules, nuances, and idiosyncrasies. Perhaps it was my youth and naiveté that helped me previously but now I have no patience to navigate bureaucratic maze. I am upset about having to wait for administrative procedures that allow me to live here, for the bureaucracy that requires me to produce certificates of my credentials to prove my “desirable” qualities, from the constant reiteration of my relationship to my husband, who has the required permit to live here.

There is comfort in living in your own country – a place where everyone looks like you, the language is familiar and life seems simpler somehow. In reality, life in your home country may require adjustment to unpredictable power cuts, unmanageable traffic woes, lack of personal space and excessive heat. But you don’t need to justify your presence and don’t have to produce documents to show that you deserve to stay there. There is a feeling of ease and sense of belonging that is conferred by your citizenship, your birthright if you will. Like a family name that you can claim by the mere fact of your birth, your passport allows you certain privileges in your home country “jus soli”.

When your whole adult life stretches ahead of you, there is an openness to new experiences, even one as time-consuming and energy sapping as waiting in immigration offices. Your past is a tiny dot when you confront the large canvas of life that is available to you to paint as you will. At midlife, faced with the probability that you have fewer years ahead compared to the ones you have behind, there is an urgency to settle, to put roots, to leave a mark. Even a sheet of government paperwork takes on the dimensions of a mountain.

I empathize whole-heartedly with Meryl Streep who said “I no longer have patience for certain things, not because I’ve become arrogant, but simply because I reached a point in my life where I do not want to waste more time with what displeases me or hurts me.”

The memory of the pledge I made to myself that October afternoon in San Francisco and the fact that I have had to renege on that promise hurts and displeases me. In my youthful eyes, I saw my life as a linear series of events, assuming that certain milestones like marriage and immigration were once in a lifetime events. Today I know better.

I look around and see HH seated patiently besides me, having taken time away from work to ensure I stay legally in our adopted country. I remember why I chose to move here. To be with him; to build a new family; to create a new life together. I am doing all that. And if I need to wait here a little longer to enable the dreams we share, I decide to do it with a smile.


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Defining home

Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.
                                                                                         – Tad Williams

Perhaps it was the TED talk by Pico Iyer about “Where is home?” or was it the article in the Straits Times about modern day nomads that got me thinking about what defines home for me. Now.

Unlike Iyer who although of Indian heritage claims to have not spent a day in India and can’t speak any Indian language, largely due to his upbringing in UK, US and his more recent long stays in Japan, I look Indian, carry an Indian passport and can speak (read and write) some Indian languages. In an international setting, while he finds it hard to answer the question of “Where are you from” for me it is simple to respond that I am from India. But the deeper question of “Where is home?’ is the one that puzzles me now.

I used to know where home was. For a long time it was the cozy apartment in Bombay where I entered as an infant and left as an adult. The same place where I squabbled with my brothers, scraped my knees and studied for exams. My mother would be home when I returned from school eager to narrate tales about my day. My grandmother would comb out her shining silver hair in the little balcony. My father would return tired from a hard day at the office. The walls stored the sounds of our laughter and bore the marks of our childish scribbles. It was the place that gave us roots and wings. Our physical refuge as we came of age. After my siblings and I left home, my parents moved into a larger apartment with appliances and conveniences, a little farther from the congested old neighborhood. The new place then became home. It did not have any of the associations of our childhood but it still was my emotional refuge. I memorized the new phone number, the number to call to chat, to cry, to celebrate and commiserate. Invariably Dad would pick up and after a few pleasantries, hand it over to Mom for a full discussion. School holidays meant a trip to Mumbai (the city had changed its name by then), any business trip ended with a weekend extension to spend time with parents. Home was where my parents lived and that was Mumbai.

I now live in Singapore. As I try to create a safe and loving home for my new family, I meet new people. And they ask, where are you from? It’s not country coordinates they are looking for but a city. A locus for not just my origin but an address that can help them place my personality, check if I meet the stereotype, identify my mother tongue, place my accent. So I say, Hyderabad, the place from which I boarded the flight to Singapore. That is the city where I have lived for a decade – the city where I bought my first (and only) apartment and sold my car. I established my consulting business, found a supportive circle of friends, watched my daughter grow from 6 to 16 years of age. The years were a trial by fire. I learnt to forge a new identity, built a life from scratch and survived the loss of both parents within a short span. But does that make Hyderabad my home?

Prior to that I lived almost 14 years in the USA. I went to graduate school, learnt to drive a car, got my first job and became a mom. I made friends with young mothers who supported my working life by generously offering pick up services and play dates for my toddler. I acquired a Ph.D., discovered my passion for writing and started practicing yoga. Over the years I became a permanent resident and more comfortable living in a country so far away and different from my own. I was happy to visit India and equally thrilled to return to the USA. But like the proverbial salmon, I always counted the days to my visits to India. Then it was the lure of “going home”, to be with parents in the physical and emotional sanctuary that made everything all right.

It is strange now – once again I am in a new country but am not eager to visit India. Even if I do get on a flight, where will I go? A young family of four rent the Mumbai apartment where my parents spent their last days. Ever since Mom died, I have made only day trips for business, no longer lingering in a city which always seems intimately familiar despite the obvious substantial changes.  While there are bits and pieces of business that still need my attention in Hyderabad, I feel no urgency to settle them.  The USA, which was my home for the second largest chunk of life thus far does not beckon. How then do I define home? Not just to the curious acquaintances but to myself? Where would I go if I want to go home? The place that makes me feel safe and grounded yet propels me towards growth, emotional and spiritual. A place of quiet, peaceful companionship where I can be unselfconscious yet feel special.

I have moved around, lived in 3 countries, travelled to many more.  Its great to see the world with fresh eyes, meet people, attempt to set roots, knowing that this is what I need to do now, not knowing if I will uproot the same in the short or long term. I have to create a “home” wherever I set my intention to spend a period of my life. Perhaps I had it all wrong before. I used to set my mind’s compass back to my past, to my parents, to physical coordinates. What lies before me is what is true. “Home” has to be where I am now, not because I have nowhere else to call home but because as Pico Iyer says,  “home is in the end not just the place where you sleep, but the place where you stand.”