Defining Belonging

Untangling the complex weaves of family and home

Photo by Md Mahdi on Unsplash

I walk across the plush paisley carpet of Mumbai’s Terminal 2, battling a strange sense of déjà vu. Of course, I have been here before. Mumbai is my hometown — town, a woefully inadequate term to define this thriving megapolis and home, if I count the first two decades of my life spent here with parents, siblings, and a large extended family stretched across the suburbs. I should be happy about this homecoming but I can’t.

Without parents, there is a house but no home in Mumbai.

Why did I agree to attend my college reunion? The question plays on a soundless loop in the background as I study the swanky new terminal, very different from the dreary Sahar airport from which I had departed for America three decades ago. My parents had sent me off with blessings and smiles, careful to not weigh down my new beginning with tears.

On my first few visits to Mumbai, I used to arrive homesick but happy to be back in the fold. Our home didn’t have air-conditioning, expensive artefacts, or enough space. We didn’t own a car. I had all this in the U.S. But upon every return, the ease with which I resumed my place in the family hierarchy was proof of my right to belong.

My parents would be waiting outside the terminal, Amma having spent the afternoon preparing a home-cooked meal and Dada with mawa cake from Ahura bakery. Enveloped in their unconditional love, free to sleep away the jetlag, snacking at odd hours of the night, homecoming was something I looked forward to with unbridled enthusiasm. Home meant food, family, and freedom to be myself.

Distance had turned out to be the magic ingredient that made the heart grow fonder.

But little in life stays the same. Much about the city has changed, including its name. So has my life.

The last time I was here, six years ago, my brothers and I completed the rituals to mark the first death anniversary of our father. Mother had passed on five years prior. I have been reluctant to make a return visit, unwilling to be a visitor to my hometown. The college reunion request struck a note that resonated with the need to connect with people from the past. I agreed. A gesture of reconciliation with Mumbai.

Tina is supposed to pick me up. If she doesn’t show, I decide to check into The Leela, with confidence that stems from age, and of course, financial security. No point interrupting the lives of relatives who still live here.

Comfort can be bought. Belonging, however, is something else.

Tina and I talk all night. For lunch, she makes her signature aamras, sourcing the best Alfonso mangoes the season has to offer.

The reunion begins with exclamations of “you look the same,” and “what happened to your hair,” on the bus trip to the resort. En route we stop for vada pav. Piping-hot, batter-fried spicy balls of potatoes smothered with garlic chutney, enclosed within soft melt-in-your-mouth buns transport me to my teenage years.

For three days, we share jokes, sing old Bollywood songs, and engage in nostalgia-laden reminiscences. The facilities and food are excellent. The true highlight is listening to everyone’s life story. Everyone’s definition of success is different. Everyone has faced challenges on health, finances, or career fronts. No one is a stranger to relationship struggles. Women have been particularly plagued by the beast of work-life balance. In response to each story, a spring of compassion erupts within me.

Seema, who could not attend the reunion, serves me homemade pav bhaji and Naturals ice-cream at her home. We fondly remember Shiv Sagar, our favorite pav bhaji haunt. I doze off mid-sentence in her bedroom. When I wake up feeling sheepish, she just smiles and brings me masala chai. From food to friendship to freedom to be myself, my amazing circle of friends have somehow managed to fulfil my unspoken wishes.

I feel full. Of food. Of emotions. Of gratitude.

Photo by Prerna Rajkumar on Unsplash

This fleeting, unpredictable life is valuable not just for my own experiences but for what I learn from others.

There is disappointment. There is loss. But there is also solidarity and strength in knowing that you are not alone. I am suffused with a lightness that I cannot name. Is it belonging?

I board my flight knowing that Mumbai may no longer be my hometown, but it will always be the place I belong.

This essay first appeared in Khabar, a magazine based in Atlanta, USA.

Ranjani Rao, scientist, writer, wife, and mother, originally from Bombay, now lives, reads, and works in Singapore. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and writes at www.ranjanirao.com

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I write insightful personal stories about my scientist, immigrant, travel life. 4 books http://bit.ly/RanjaniRao. Share memoir journey -www.ranjanirao.com

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