The Expat Epiphany

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.


I am more
Than the coffee- brown in my skin
The lustre in my hair
Anklets tinkling on my ankles
Peeping out of sheer harem pants
You fantasize about.
I am more than my high cheekbones
More than the kajal in my eyes
More than the mehndi on my hands
And the poise of my arched eyebrows
I am more than your conjuring
of acrobatics in bed
Getting horizontal on satin sheets
Over a worn out copy of the Kamasutra

I am more than a mirage
An exotic pot pouri
Of turmeric and cardamom
Spices that arouse your senses
And leave you mesmerised
I am more than my dark lidded eyes
And the delicate sway of my hips
More than what is beneath my clothes
More than your fascination of the east
And your desire for the Other
I am more than what you reduce me to.


If the static between us
Makes the hairs on your arm bristle
Uncomfortable with the electricity
That courses through our veins
Current running deep like a riptide
Maybe its you who are an insulator
To this spark of mercury
Darting quick as silver and fire hot.

If you cannot look with wonder
At love in all its forms
However great or small
With all its names and definitions
Or lack thereof
Then maybe this connection
Is too magnetic. Too electric.
Conducting like tungsten in our souls
is too unfathomable
For you to handle.


I am entitled
to this escapade
a friendship that’s broken out
of it’s neat wooden pen
and gambled out in greener pastures
like a frolicking lamb
high on helium balloons

I am entitled
to indulge in my feelings
in every raw seed of wonder
the germ of a thought
blossoming in your eyes and mine
and grow in the warmth
between our fingertips

For I am not her keeper
nor your latest cause to save
from my depravity that only you see.
This friendship has set sail
on a course with no one steering
there is no map or compass
that guides our hearts
so leave us be
smooth sailing

Anger in her Fingertips

I feel the anger of hundreds of other girls sitting on my shoulder like a heavy bundle of hate and injustice that weighs down on my bones leaving them brittle. Why do you want me to make that statement that reassures you that you did your job. I am not a reward at the end of your labour though labour you might have – crowning early, holding me tenderly. But I am not a reward; a jewel to adorn your neck or reassure you of your own capability. I am not a bridge to arch between antipodes, a needle to stitch the seams of this fragment. I am not a bridge to fuse the fractures to glue those fissures that splint of their own accord. I am not a bridge, born to do a girls duty to her family and home. I am not a bridge. The girls always serve a purpose. Usually the short end of the stick they beat you with. Servitude, gratitude…multitudes of reasons to do ones duty. There is more to life than just you. We were not born to create. We are just created for that purpose.

The carpet under me is ragged and threadbare after countless generations took their first steps on it. I press my face against the hard stone floors and am soothed by its cool comfort. The afternoon lull of silence is deceiving. It appears to be mellow, old and yellowed with age, but in it stirs the germ of a plan, hatched by a culture with unchecked passion. Evoking all the rage inside me, I try my best to stand the test of generations of power that permeate under my feet, tiny shock waves that send my words flying. Just one voice against her own descent. And much as I try, brazen mouth, short hair, lips that conceal nothing in their fullness – wanting more to live and laugh and drink in solemn wonder of the word. Some fail miserably at recognising this strength and see only madness. I am not a voice without a body, an elusive whisper of a word. A nameless cat I am not. Tiffany’s has no claim over this body for I do have a name. I do have a body. I do have a voice, so listen.

“Fine then. Only think of yourself”, I am told with a look that means I have fallen short of your expectations. It works. As it always does. But inside me a small ball of anger grows and swells like a tumour in the pit of my stomach and presses at my ribs. Thinking of myself, is surely, surely not such a bad thing but from my mouth it’s the equivalent of a cardinal sin. “Thinking of yourself – oh the shame in it!” each look says with silent disapproval. “You must make everyone else happy” sounds in my ears, a resounding echo like a ghostly preacher holding my childhood by a single thread in his fat thick fingers. “You must make everyone happy”. What about me, I wonder, pleading for me, what about me? Fine then. Only think of yourself. This fight is a cycle that never ends; a circle with no beginning. I give up.

I am not as selfish as you make me out to be. I’d like a slice, of my own life if you please. Why life, eat cake instead. I imagine her mocking with condescension, hair piled high like a French aristocrat. I breathe in and make angel wings with my hands, taking comfort in relics of the past. The clocks tick persistently, all four of them assuring me that time does go on and I am losing it lying here on the floor. I could be any girl, with no future, no claim to a dream, no kite to fly. I cannot see my future; I cannot hold it in the palm of my hands. My future is not mine to plan. These dreams are too big for this girl.

Maya Angelou, do you know why the caged bird sings? How did you find the voice, the strength, to lift it up and rise above? Do you know why you sang, when you could have cried? Did you lift your voice and surprise yourself, jumping out of your skin when it betrayed you with the notes of a melody and not the pain of your clipped wings and plea for freedom? Why did you sing, and not scream? Why did you sing, and not cry? Please. Teach me how to sing, let me fly just once.

The future stretches out before me like an unattainable dream and I stretch my fingers out to grasp it, lying on the stone floor and staring up at the spinning of the ceiling fan. I grit my teeth and I am grateful for the anger, the itch in my fingertips. The need to slap someone hard and enjoy the sting on their face; the resounding echo an immense satisfaction. I am grateful for the anger for it keeps the hurt at bay; a distant sailboat on tumultuous seas that threatens to bring waves of disappointment and wounded pride with the incoming tide. At times I feel invincible, like being careful is not an alternative I could ever consider. Independence is the first notch that’s going on my belt, the first golden star in my little black book. Independence comes before everything and lets me bask in my own wanting.

You should be glad I don’t see today as the be all and end all you make it out to be. You should be glad that my tomorrow is filled with hope like yellow like daisy chains in a nine year olds hair, pre-pubescent face freckled, smile wide with missing teeth. You should be glad that you do not define me, that I am bigger than that, glad that I dream bigger dreams than you thought possible in your life time or mine.