Variations on home

Graphic by Shelby Redman

Mantralayam, India, 2012

These streets—lined with cows and crushed flower garlands—lead to places I don’t know and will never know. My parents walked here and felt the concrete below their feet, but I am not the child of this place.

My mother tells me to wear a sari so that I will blend into the crowd and seem less like a foreigner. My grandmother tells me that I have lost my native tongue. This is where you’re from, she tells me in Kannada, and I respond to her with a nod and a broken yes. The silk of my sari seeps into the fabric of my being and I feel at once part of something and separate from it, a stranger in my own skin.

We take a train to Mantralayam, where people go to pray. Outside the temple, I see a man peeing on the exterior of the holy dwelling. People’s shoes—dusty and unraveling—lie on the steps of the temple, scattered and forlorn. Inside, the people are insects, scavenging on the sweetness of the priestly, sacred honey. Put your hand out like this to receive the payasam, my mother tells me. I put out the wrong hand. Someone in the background laughs, and pushes me to the side. I don’t know where I am. The people here push each other to get to God. I don’t want to push anyone to get to God. If God wants people to push each other to receive a blessing, then I don’t want it. The people here are insects. This place is foreign. I am detached, growing out of my old skin.

If you zoomed out, I’d seem an insect like everyone else. I’d be indistinguishable from the crowd, cloaked in the safety of my sari. If you looked closer, though, you’d see me in an act of disappearance, an insect trampled beneath human feet, lost and aching for home.

Portland, Oregon, 2015

The walls of this house remind me of the skin on my palm—soft and yet tarnished, evolving through the years. I know this house like my palm. The outside is blue and every time I drive into the driveway I say I am home.

Today, after school, I park my car in the driveway and step outside. I sit for a while on the grass outside my house, close my eyes, and try to recreate its architecture in my mind. If I didn’t live here for many years, would I start to forget the ridged blue exterior or the wisteria draping the garage door?

It is strange the way we build our houses until they feel like home. It is strange how the architecture of a place parallels the architecture of one’s insides—and when the place crumbles, the same rupturing occurs within.

I step into my house and wonder what it would be like if I was stepping into it for the first time. I wouldn’t expect to see the rocking chair there, freshly washed clothes strewn all over it, or the red and yellow carpet, the right corner touching the fireplace. I wouldn’t expect anything, but would see with new eyes, tasting every detail for the first time.

I don’t think about it when I call this house my home. I don’t consider the possibility that the word home itself is limited and transitory.

New Haven, August, 2016

It’s move-in day and I feel as I did in Mantralayam: tiny, an insect, displaced. I don’t know the language of this place; I hope I’ll eventually learn it. People spread across the campus like jelly lathered on a piece of bread. They seem wonderful and nice, but I don’t know them.

Everything is beautiful here. Even the ground seems to glisten, alive with the stories of new students. I wonder if it can hold all the stories or if it will ever crumble, unable to shoulder the incredible weight.

When I enter my new room, it is empty. The walls bleed white and they too exude a kind of emptiness. It is a hopeful emptiness, though, for I can fill them with color. I shake hands with my roommate and her mother, ask them about their lives and where they came from. I meet my suitemates and their parents and shake their hands mechanically. I know one day it will not feel mechanical.

I throw my comforter onto the bones of my bed. I try to make all my clothes fit in my closet, but I don’t know if everything will fit, if I can make everything fit.

Now, this is an act of construction, of fitting, but maybe one day, it won’t be. One day, I won’t have to act and I won’t have to build. One day, I’ll call this place home without a second thought, and the walls and faces of people I’ll know will seep into my skin. I will not remember the emptiness, although the home I’ve left behind will lose color, beginning to seem empty in my mind.

New Haven, October, 2016

“Here’s where my class is,” I tell my mom, and she follows me, as if I know where I’m going.

“Here’s where I eat. This is my dining hall.”

My mother is a foreigner in this place, this place I’ve now started to call my home. She flinches when I tell her, here’s my home, as we enter my suite.

Maybe I’m forgetting something.

I call this my home now and it’s true in a way. Already, I’ve grown to know the trees on this campus and its geography, the people, my classes, the libraries, and the buildings, but something is missing. This is not entirely my home. When I call it home, I choke a little bit, and my throat closes, unable to believe the words. This is one of my homes, but it is not my only one.

I am a collection of homes, for in my wild and frizzy hair I contain the streets of Portland, Oregon, and the blue architecture of my house. In my lips, I hold the imperfect prayer of Mantralayam, while the bottoms of my feet hold a map to Welch B. When I feel my tongue sloshing around in my mouth, I can taste the remnants of so many different languages and places. On my palms, I see a world: a conglomeration of my homes, enmeshed into one another. Maybe I can never be fully home in one place. But when I look at my palms, I can be everywhere for one instant—on the train to Mantralayam, in my blue house, and sitting on a bench on Old Campus, looking out.

Once, someone asked me where I was from. I remember saying something ordinary, like, I’m from Oregon and my parents are from India. Now, if I could respond again, I’d just hold out my palms for a while without saying a word.

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