The Expat Epiphany
Armed with playground Hindi and the skin I was born into, I attempted to haggle with the unshaven man at the stall for a cheap kurti. It was well under the price I was prepared to pay but on principle I continued to bargain. Keenly aware that my cousins were standing behind me, I glared at the shop keeper, asking “What uncle? I’m a student no – how can you charge so much?” But his refusal to lower the price because I’m a ‘rich lady from America’ was enough to make me stop short in my tracks and take the kurti without further ado. And so the expat epiphany hits us all. Here I was, on ‘a trip back Home’ and someone for whom India was very much “home” had automatically questioned my mutual belonging to it. Whether it’s in the voice of a beggar on MG Road or a Cooley at the train station, the poor are denied the rose-tinted spectacles we allow ourselves to wear, and see us for what we are; strangers to our ‘homeland’.
Walking down Brigade Road, I’m suddenly conscious of the way I walk and everyone looks me up and down. I try to blend with the crowd, moving between the old lady carrying jasmine flowers on her head and a group of college girls. But even they shun me, turning to stare and giggle, like I am a rare commodity on their territory. Much as we try to fit into the well-worn niche of our past, it refuses to let us slip in as easily as we slipped out of it. Strangers to our homeland; we are amalgamating cultures and losing parts of both in the process. Why is the past so difficult to part with? Its traces linger here and there, in the way we use peculiar phrases that have long died out in our homeland itself, dressing for occasions in saris we bought years ago; stuck in a time warp of culture.
The gold bangles on my wrist and the bindi on my forehead feel suddenly strange and I sense the amused smiles of ‘real’ Indians walking past, as if I am playing at being one of them. Home. The word is flooded with meaning; Home is where the heart is. But if one’s heart is always inside you, we reach a tidy but kitsch conclusion that we all carry our home with us wherever we may be. Home becomes the motel you stay at for three days when you go up north, the school hostel, it is no more than a shelter from wind and rain; for you are your home. The auto-drivers waiting around the stands know instinctively that I am “not from here” and they immediately up their price. Now I don’t even try to bargain, I simply leave it to the locals, for this is India, and I am soon going back Home.
Carrying our home on our backs like a tortoise carrying its shell, home becomes a practicality. The rejection of one as a national of a country continues to sting but the freedom is exhilarating. After all, what else did you expect when you quit your job and packed up your life in cardboard boxes, another self seems to mock. Though you continue to visit back and forth, your children make the distance wider; even as they also try to claim the past they never knew. Yet you all continue to carry your homes on your backs and you know one day, that they too will crawl away from this Home, taking their shells with them.