I have never been sure which place I belong to. My idea of ‘home’ was not attached to any city in particular as my family moved around a lot. My grandparents had lived in one state for years but they too were migrants from a city I have yet to visit.
The places we belong to often become a huge part of our identities. Whenever someone asked me where I came from, I would find myself caught in a spiral of existential questions. Sometimes, I named the city I had last lived in, but then they would follow up with more questions like ‘Oh, do you speak the language?’, or ‘Do you know about this food and that culture?’
I often didn’t know the answers and would tell them so, which would lead to the conclusion that I was not really from that city and had just lived there.
Seven years is a long time, and I am just 20. But I still cannot name the roads and localities where I made my memories. All the moments of my life that have been worth remembering are divided in bits and pieces, but most of them happened in Kolkata.
In the city itself, we had shifted houses thrice. I learnt the language, dressed up for Durga puja, wrote poetry and performed plays and danced. I remember being happy, and yet, there was always a voice, constantly repeating, ‘You do not belong here, you are a foreigner’.
This was not home, I was told.
Eventually my parents moved again, and again, and then I moved away for college. Cliques were formed, the questions became more frequent and I became the loneliest I had ever been. I started avoiding people because they would make assumptions about me on the basis of the last city I had lived in – which was Ahmedabad – and I did not identify with that place.
Nevertheless, I tried to fit in and explored the city because I knew that this too would not last. As a teenager, I had been extremely attached to my parents, yet always felt like they never understood my emotions and longing for a permanent place. “You get to live multiple lives and make so many friends! Is it not better this way?” they always asked rhetorically.
From childhood on, I was shy and never made friends easily. I had always imagined home to be a place of peace and acceptance. So, I concluded, home was not about people. Permanence slowly became a filthy word in my head. Sticking with something for too long, I thought, stopped people from moving ahead and making progress.
Despite everything, I missed Kolkata deeply. So I applied for an internship there. A month later, I found out that I had got it. Suddenly, nostalgia hit me and I couldn’t sleep that night in excitement.
It was difficult, but somehow I convinced my parents to let me live alone for this one month. The hostel in my college had a warden and a curfew time, hence, they had to trust me more during this one month period.
I remember walking out of the airport with eager anticipation to that warm and humid air. I was to live a month in a hostel owned by a family acquaintance. My office was in the older part of the city, which was completely new to me and quite different from where I had grown up.
Little by little, memories came back as I heard people on roads talking in the same old dialect. The roads smelt of the same delicious street food. I had never travelled in public buses before and was specifically forbidden to do the same because they were “unsafe and filled with strange men”, and I was a kid who found it difficult to even cross a road alone.
I promised my father that I would take a cab every day.
I cried like a baby all throughout my first week. I wanted to visit my old friends, but I had a lot of work and my mother had instructed the landlady to not allow me out on the weekends. I had come all the way here and still felt restricted and isolated so I decided to do something about it because an opportunity like this would not come so soon again.
The next Monday, I lied to my parents and decided to take a metro train, but as they had predicted, I boarded the wrong train and got lost. I could not call my parents. I knew a girl from college who lived in that area, but she also did not pick up my call. I was dejected but in no way was I going to call a cab. I followed the GPS and started walking. When I reached the hostel, I told the landlady that I got late because I had extra work.
From the next day on, I decided that I was going to take the public bus. Nearly every day, I would get on the same crowded bus and even missed my stop some days, but I was genuinely happy.
I learned the city better in that one month that I had in those seven years. I felt joy in being invisible and ended up saving a lot of money. On one regular weekday, I skipped office and instead visited a friend’s home. Her mother cooked lunch, and my friend and I watched our favourite cartoons together. Also, I went to one of the oldest temples in the city. With a string of red hibiscus in my hands, I prayed. The idol of the goddess talked to me, she told me I was home.
In retrospect I realise how important the trip was. In life, not everything requires permission, and in all our moments of love, we belong.
On my last night in the city, I cried again. Because now I could cross the streets alone.
Akshita Himatsingka is a law student and writer currently living in Delhi. Her work has also appeared in Beetle Magazine (Delhi Poetry Slam).