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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Making sense of living in “misery city”

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The city I live in has been in the news for the last two weeks. First came the survey that pegged Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, more expensive than Paris! This week it has been tagged “misery city” by BBC freelance writer Charlotte Ashton for her experience on the Singapore metro where she wasn’t offered a seat or asked about her wellbeing as she struggled with pregnancy-related nausea. Both times, there has been public debate, several inches of newspaper columns devoted to discussions about reasons for and actions against such incidents respectively.

My reaction on both occasions began with a roll of the eyes and “What kind of a place have I come to?” I am still figuring out bus routes and the business district. Hawker centers and hang baos are terms I have newly added to my vocabulary. My Singlish stinks, so does durian. Such news doesn’t help quell my settling-down jitters. Its tough enough to plan for an impending college education while living in the most expensive city without feeling that we are inhabiting a society that suffers from a massive “compassion deficit” as the BBC article says.

The first time I left my home in urban India to move to the USA, I remember feeling forlorn. For one, I could hardly see people in suburban Washington DC, when compared to the millions I had grown up with Mumbai. The sheer vastness of the country made me feel trivial even though the density of the Mumbai population should have made me feel insignificant. But I was the outsider, looking in. My eyes were accustomed to the dust and haze of city life in a developing country. The expressways and cleanliness didn’t bring comfort; they only highlighted the differences. I worried about safety in deserted train compartments during the day and taking a cab alone at night. In Mumbai I roamed free, safe in the anonymity and presence of many strangers who milled around at all times of the day and night.

The few I encountered in America seemed pleasant, mouthing a “hello” as they walked past. A kind lady once dropped me home from the train station when my ride did not show up. The train conductor consoled me another evening when I woke up right after the train left my station. A young woman offered to pay for me at Taco Bell when I ordered a meal only to find out that I had left my wallet at home. But there was also the grumpy old man who loudly proclaimed, “we walk on the right side of the path in this country” to my mother and me as we pushed the stroller with DQ around the park in California. And the attendant at the gas station who saw me every week but spoke to me only once, the week after Sep 11, 2001, to ask where I was from.

Growing up in Mumbai, taking the public transport everywhere, I experienced fear when pushed into and out of crowded trains, shame when groped by strangers and anger when people boarded buses without standing in line. A benevolent man once brought my 11-year-old brother home after taking him to a doctor for first aid when he fell from a public bus. He refused to take money either for the medical treatment or taxi fare for returning him home safely. I have taken shelter under the umbrellas of strangers when caught in an unexpected downpour during the monsoons.  I have relied on fellow travelers to guide me to the correct bus routes when traveling to unfamiliar parts of the metropolis.

I didn’t think poorly of Indians when I lived there because that was my milieu. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Americans just because I was in an unfamiliar environment. The sum total of my experiences was merely a collective recollection of individual episodes, governed by random situations with a distinctive set of people in each instance. Perhaps if the people involved were different, I would have different stories to tell. No matter how accepting  we consider ourselves, how open we think we are to new people and places, we hold biases which may ride on the surface like a leaf on water or lurk beneath like a stingray. And depending on the stimulus, our belief surfaces, clouding our reading of a one-off situation, making us paint the rest of our stay with the same brush.

The value of an immersive experience in another country depends on our ability and the ease with which we see the people around us, not as representatives of preconceived stereotypes or statistical data to be verified but for what they are, fellow humans. We may not share the same skin color and racial characteristics but we are all united in humanness. And that includes the errors in judgment that we make, whether it is in not offering a seat to a fellow passenger on a train or in labeling every person in the country as lacking compassion for doing so. To set this right, someone has to take the higher moral ground. Who will rise first?


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Take the bus

Water bottle? Check.

Jacket? Check.

Smart phone? Check.

Umbrella? Check.

I am ready to step out into the Singapore sunshine. With my pretty pink umbrella, I walk the 300 meters to the nearest bus stop. I confer with my phone to figure out the arrival time of the bus I need to take. 3 minutes, it says. And it does. I squint into the cloudless sky as I take a sip of water, allowing the others to board. I am heading to the Arts House for a writing workshop. Bus number 961 will take me there in 1 hour and 5 minutes, as per Mytransport, the bus app that I use. I find a window seat at the rear. The cool blast of air that at first feels refreshing and then freezing, makes me pull out my jacket from my bag. I get comfortable and look around.

Tiny kids in uniforms, carrying bulging backpacks; teenagers with weird haircuts; young men and women with flashy phones; many age groups, races and nationalities ride side by side, focused on getting to their destination. They all enter from the front, tapping their EZ link cards and move politely to the rear. The auntie with grocery bags sit next to the young man who dozes off but miraculously stops short of putting his drooping head into her lap. A young woman gets down with her foldable bicycle. The baby in his mother’s arms looks around observantly, as if preparing for his own turn to ride the bus independently. There is a low hum of conversation, people whispering into their mobile phones in Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, sometimes Hindi too. Those infatuated with their phones watch movies or play Candy Crush. The ones with scarlet headphones marked with “b” have their eyes closed, music meditation I presume. Outside, the lanes are filled with cars, inching along in the rush hour, unlike the bus that zips across secure in its own lane.

I was 13 when I started taking the public bus to school. A bright red bus with “BEST” painted in white, route 333 that covered the distance between Sahar Village and Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai. “How much is your bus ticket?” my grandfather would ask. “Why don’t you buy a half ticket?” he would persist. “I am more than 12 years old. Half-ticket is for little kids” I would reply seriously. In my home, being allowed to take the public bus to school was a coming of age milestone. My brothers had been given the go ahead when they turned 11, a fact they never failed to mention, to emphasize the special treatment I was given ‘because you are a GIRL”.  I didn’t mind. I was happy waiting in the line to board the bus, chatting with classmates, looking out for boys from the neighboring boys school. The buses ran frequently and I usually got a seat. The conductor moved through the aisle issuing tickets. I liked sit by the window, watching other kids get into their respective school buses, in yellow raincoats and gumboots.

Riding a bus in Mumbai meant arriving at your destination either drenched in sweat or monsoon rains. And with each season, I graduated from pimply teenager to diffident college girl. I took route 312 to Santa Cruz, a bus that went into the airport, in an era free of terrorist threats. A quick stop at Vakola church, a swing around the army cantonment and I would be at my college. Sometimes a group of students would venture out further, to “town”, to watch an English movie at Eros theatre. Or take another bus to Juhu beach to eat pani puris at sunset. The bus was always full of people. We asked for directions. We felt safe. And surprisingly, so did our parents, even though they couldn’t track us once we left home because phones were a luxury in those days.

My girls take the public bus to school in Singapore now. “Hats off to you guys for allowing your children to take public transport. And you just got here!” says the mother of Princess’ friend at school. HH and I decided early on that we would encourage the girls to be independent and travel alone. I agreed because I had done the same at that age. HH was reassured by the reputed safety of this city-state. We both were glad we didn’t have to drive them around as we were doing in India. Did I mention we don’t own a car here? That made the choice pretty easy for us. We send them out with water bottles for hydration and phones for connectivity. They always have enough money to take a cab in an emergency.

As parents we tell them to be careful, look before they cross the road and call us if they need help. But they will learn more from their own travels on these buses. Like the time Princess slept off on her way back from school and found herself far away from home. It was a day she had chosen to not take her phone to school. She panicked but found her way back fairly easily. She is the one who tells this story proudly now; a huge leap in self-confidence for a child who had been cared for extremely protectively till recently.

Or the time when DQ took her eyes off her Samsung S4 long enough to notice the pregnant woman who didn’t have a seat and got up for her; a kind gesture by a self-obsessed teenager.

One day they reached late. It helped them plan their morning routine better. Another day they got drenched in a sudden downpour. Now they take umbrellas. Everyday they carry their heavy backpacks but still have not learnt the art of taking only the minimum books!

I know that traveling alone but together with strangers on a bus will shape future experiences for them, like it has done for me. I feel at home in Rome when I try to figure out my way to the Vatican. I am alert in Paris as I take the metro. I love riding on the upper deck of the double decker red buses in London which remind me of my childhood. What better way to allow the personality of the city to rub off on you as you share the joint journey on a public bus? An immersive experience which grounds them while building a foundation for future travels in strange places.

Today they travel to school without us; tomorrow the world.


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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.”