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Redefining home and belonging

Mills College Weekly

I was born to a Mexican mother and an Indian father and over the
20 years of my life I have moved a total of seven times. I know
that moving from house to house is pretty normal but I have spent
my life commuting between two continents.

My father agreed to my Mexico City birth on the one condition
that my mother and I permanently reside in New Delhi. But, we ended
up returning to Mexico shortly thereafter to see my great
grandmother who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Though her
thick unwavering legs demanded respect, her frail white hair would
sit unsure on her head. After a day’s worth of chemotherapy, my
Bis Margarita used to get me pastel colored
lagrimitas, sugary candy that would melt slowly on my
tongue. This gift of tears sold outside a hospital is my earliest
memory of Mexico.

I attended elementary school in New Delhi, clad in itchy gray
stockings and a wool coat in the winters. In school, the extreme
boredom of Hindi class was avoided with notes my friends and I
passed to one another, hoping to not get caught. The thrill of
escaping detection intensified knowing that if we got caught, we
would feel the tight snap of a wooden ruler on our hands. The
discomfort of my uniform would disappear when I entered the cool
lightness of my home. I loved nothing more than lying between my
grandparents and hearing stories of the struggle for independence
in India. The smell of coconut oil from my grandmother’s hair
infused the room with a sweet sticky aroma. When it came time to
sleep, my aunt would cradle me in her lap and I still find nothing
more beautiful than the yellow Banaras silk of saris.

My mother and I boarded a plane headed to Mexico when I turned
12, and all I did was cry – missing one-third of my familiar
equation. I missed my friends and their Hindi, and my father and
his English, because I knew that they would disappear in my
mother’s Mexican surroundings. My memories of home in el DF
are filled with scenes from the four Christmases I spent there,
when my abuelita erected a large plastic tree early in
December while my cousins and I crowded around her decorations in
hand. On Christmas Day, we all sat around my grandmother’s dinner
table and savored the mole and bacalao she prepared. There was a
safety I felt in seeing my mother, her sisters and her mother talk
all night, there was a comfort their voices provided.

When I was 16, we moved back home to India. I arrived in Indira
Gandhi International Airport after a 26-hour journey. The humid air
seemed to suffocate me. I didn’t recognize my surroundings, the
streets both unfamiliar and strange. I tried to find an anchor – a
house, a street that would have told me I was back home – but was
left feeling disappointed. I fell asleep that first night in
discomfort, troubled by not knowing where I was.

The next morning I walked to the market, making my way through
emaciated white cows that crossed the busy street with greater ease
than I did.

I bought vegetables from a fat man perched high above the bell
peppers and violet onions, weighing cucumbers on an old scale by
carefully placing metal weights on one side of the balance. Slowly,
I began to feel at home again.

When I left India to come to college in the U.S., I had to stand
in an interminable immigration line at SFO.

Immediately, I missed the heat and the holy river that flowed
near our house in India. A couple of weeks later, as the US
recovered from the shock of having seen two towers fall, I remember
riding the bus in an unsuspecting daze and being asked if I wore my
head wrap for ‘religious’ purposes. I quickly stuttered a reply not
knowing what would be appropriate.

Now, I work, study, and live in Oakland, where the definition of
a home has shifted again. Perhaps one day this home will be marked
by these memories: the sight of my friend’s three-year-old
daughter, waiting for bus 58 with $1.50 in my hand and the earthy
scent of Redwoods.

As a child, I never fully understood the reasons behind my
nomadic lifestyle, yet I knew that it prevented me from fully
establishing a point of origin. I have only recently begun to
appreciate the tranquility and sense of belonging I have eventually
felt in all these places, and realized that my definition of ‘home’
will constantly be redefined as I travel on through life.