the meaning of home

My grandmother’s domain – the gas burner and the sugar tin, shared with Maharaj.

I had the idea for this post for a while, and almost abandoned it in the rush of returning to life, school, work, grocery shopping, etc. in Los Angeles. But in my important business of scrolling through Tumblr, I stumbled upon some words from the pop culture icons that high-school educated dramatics love to quote in an effort to seem cultured: Fitzgerald. He said this:

‘It’s a funny thing coming home. Nothing changes. Everything looks the same, feels the same, even smells the same. You realize what’s changed, is you.’ — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Home to me is the Bay Area, with my nuclear family, but it is also the Indian and Marathi culture in which I grew up, and struggled with for many years. Therefore, home in a different way is the land to which my parents are inextricably tied, that I visited many times as a small, impressionable Shalaka; home is that place where I made countless really positive and really negative memories. It is the flat in Dadar, Hindu Colony (Mumbai) that belonged to my late grandparents since 1950, with its crumbling walls and third floor balcony locked by an actual iron lock that hangs, and Maharaj who has come every morning at 7:15 sharp to make a day’s worth of chapati for more than 20 years.

This is Maharaj
This is Maharaj

This past visit was my first in over 3 years, and I arrived with a new habit of looking to see, rather than just be. Walking through this flat, no longer 4 feet tall, and with observant eyes was the most unnerving experience: I saw the holes in the old walls, the decades-old-dirt that inevitably piles on windowsills that my infant father once stood on, the emptiness in the suddenly-clean kitchen where my grandmother once stood making messes and beautiful food.

But I also saw myself as a four-year-old being bathed by my mom in a bucket. As an eight-year-old, having a birthday party with a chocolate bunny cake in the living room and being allowed to unlock the balcony all by myself. As a ten-year-old, typing newsletters on my grandfather’s typewriter, tied to the computer in the front room, emailing my friends in Comic Sans and rainbow colors, and listening to Anna Nalick because she sang in English.

I vividly remember resenting being in a place that felt so foreign, in which people looked at me funny because I wore capris and t shirts and my hair was a little different, my Marathi a little accented. I remember resenting the oppressive pre-monsoon heat, the obligation to meet “family” whom I had never met in my young life, remember going through puberty with my filter-less relatives commenting on my changing visage, and being horrendously insecure. I also remember that the first time I considered myself beautiful was in the mirror of the huge half-century old iron cabinets in my aunt’s bedroom, while I was lying and writing in my green composition notebook journal, age 10.

Walking through the now much quieter, much emptier home, I sensed for the first time how much these experiences have made me, reliving my formative years through memories that have been preserved in the walls that haven’t changed. A little unsure, a lot introspective, hyper-aware of my accent, appearance, and acclimation skills wherever I go.

In weaker moments, I’ve found I’m neither here nor there – my upbringing too sheltered, conservative, Indian to feel complete camaraderie with American friends, but also my tastes, birthplace (Santa Cruz, CA), and intense desire to acclimate far too American for the comfort of my extended family. This is a frustration often expressed by dual-cultured kids, especially those raised by traditional parents. Only in retrospect can I express my truest gratitude in this upbringing, only in the relative protection of written word in a hidden post.

I think as I grow I find that which made me feel outside for so long, has allowed me to become my own demographic. No matter where I travel in the world, I always think “This is like India, but cleaner!” The familiarity I cling to away from home stems from memories of scoldings, weird vegetables, dusty floors, crisply starched saris, the smell of turmeric. Duality in culture has also let me question every perspective, dabble in empathy, and hold stories close to my heart, a warming comfort when I feel uncomfortable.

India is not my home. It has never been my home. But upon return there, I am grateful to believe I will always feel at home.


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