Home is where the heart is.
My heart is greedy. Not that it desires several homes at once, but it likes being everywhere. So by logical induction, “home is everywhere.” I’d instantaneously summoned Mahatma Gandhi, John Lennon and Naomi Klein when the curator asked during my fellowship orientation, “What does home mean to you?”
That question, asked thousands of miles away from my birth home, plopped like a pebble into the river of my mind. The ripples of thought spread far back and long, going beyond my initial three-word anchor.
* * *
“Roti, Kapda aur Makaan” (food, clothing and shelter) was the political cry of independent India’s socialism in the 1960s and ’70s (including a Hindi film with the same title). Politicians of the era wanted to guarantee basic necessities to every citizen of the country. My grandfather, a popular science writer, considered a nation-builder, had seen difficult times growing up. He was well acquainted with survival and the importance of fundamentals.
A twist of fate post-retirement put his hard-earned savings at stake, leading him to rally to get a stretch of land for a new residential area in Delhi. Given prevailing land mafia politics, goons from the opposing camp hunted down and beat up my bewildered grandfather. But his perseverance as the president of the new managing committee prevailed. With the help of an architect friend, my father and he built a simple house with a small garden and backyard, terrace, driveway, and a garage. But the cynical manipulation of the system by a select few dented his idealism. Stepping away from the post, he continued with the solitude of his intellectual life in the home he built.
When my parents married in 1979, the house was three years old and like a toddler, a big mess. My mother says she chose to scrub the floors and tend the flowers, despite the option to get an office job or study further and hire more help for housework. I remember there was usually a hot nutritious meal at dinner, a time when all four of us sat together (Mother ran behind my fussy, puny self to eat vegetables), or fancy spreads (fussiness magically vanished) when the family entertained guests.
But this was still The House My Grandfather Built. I just happened to be born into this family, and I was grateful to have a comfortable shelter over my head. The kind I was aware, by the time I hit teenage years, that the majority in my country couldn’t afford, even after 50 years of independence. For a long time, I carried the privilege of birth as an unresolved, uncomfortable fact.
One day I read that both guilt and pleasure activate the brain’s same reward center. (Ah, religion, opium and masses now clicked!) I decided because I couldn’t change history, I could try to make the future better. So I stopped questioning or lugging my birth around and accepted it for what it was. And perhaps importantly, what could I do with it?
Home is where the heart is. Secure.
* * *
At 22, I left home on a waitlisted ticket, making the overnight journey to Mumbai, locking myself in the train’s toilet because my ticket didn’t get confirmed. City of Dreams, they called it. India’s New York. The love of my life was with me. I would try for a mass communications program and the shortened distance would deepen our relationship. I made it to one of the two top colleges there and moved into its hostel on the fourth floor.
Home was now a room shared with two students from different cities. For someone who always had A Room of Her Own, this was uncomfortable. Rose-tinted glasses turned into ordinary lenses. Adjustments had to be made. One wanted the lights on to study late; the other wanted to chat long and hard with her family back home. Fights, tears, silences, hugs, treats became the norm. So this is what it would’ve been like to share space with siblings—I chalked it up to valuable experience. A new friend, who lived down the corridor and was to become akin to a sibling in the coming years, was routinely compelled by my hungry puppy expressions into cooking instant noodles during midnight pangs.
A year later, the course ended and it was time to move out. Staying with my boyfriend’s parents till I found a job seemed pragmatic because we would eventually be married. But he decided not to take any favors from them, especially when the relationship became strained on other counts. I agreed, and moved into the first paying guest accommodation we found. Haste makes hell. Home was now a tiny room shared with three girls in a one-bedroom apartment where the eccentric landlady slept on the kitchen counter in the day and terrorized us in the night. I got a job as a junior features writer with the Indian edition of a teen magazine on a monthly salary of Rs 6,000 (approximately $80), more than half of which went into rent. Dinners were skipped or consisted of a cheap street meal. This was Me Paying For My Own Living From My Own Earnings. Thankfully, my parents never saw how I lived. I’d have been immediately bundled back to Delhi. Amid the growing tension, weekends with the boyfriend and his family provided relief by way of home food and laundry. The retrospectively romanticized struggle phase lasted six months, as long as my job. After I interviewed Britney Spears over email—a story that made the cover—I was done. Having outgrown pop culture and travel listicles, this had been my most challenging assignment.
Home was also where the heart was. Broken.
* * *
I returned three years later to my City of Karma in a job with my then dream publication with four times the salary—with no love in tow. This time mom helped decorate my very own one-bedroom apartment with secondhand furniture. She chipped in for a coat of paint on the walls as a token of encouragement. I could now afford to pay the rent for my loneliness. The struggle included no AC, TV or personal transport. I’d either be out reporting or hankering for a hot meal at friends’ homes. Once, I invited the former love over to show How Far I Had Come In Life. The dependency for his approval lingered… Appreciation was conveyed with a pair of wall-hangings for my new home. But the spurned heart couldn’t rest its baggage. I put up the hangings on the wall, a subtle reminder to take him off my life.
Slowly, work turned nightmarish with a boss behaving strangely. No matter how hard I tried, suddenly nothing seemed good enough. The welcoming white walls of my house started to close in. The drawn colorful curtains bought from a local seller shielded my anxiety from the outside world; on other days the dark shadows reflected what I was going through inside. Triggered by a story being pulled out to avoid upsetting Influential Folks, I resigned a year later on the pretext of giving up journalism for an inexplicable, overwhelming desire to “learn the piano.”
“Learn the what…?” the editor nearly spat into the phone. Using a polite metaphor for art subsuming my angst instead of an angry “I quit” was left unsaid. I didn’t bother explaining, and hung up. The 5-mile walk back seemed to last forever. I returned home, to leave again.
Home is where the heart is. Toughened.
* * *
Sounds of spluttering and loud sighs like a grumpy granny filled the kitchen as I slowly poured the hot water into its sleek blue belly. I had to be careful with my online-ordered rubber bottle that bestowed warmth like a soothing parent every night—a comforting nightly ritual that helped with sleep.
Ten years passed. I had moved 8,000 miles away to the United States. The country I’d been curious to visit since I was a child. We had family in this land from where, on their annual visits, they brought us shiny, robust bars of chocolates and extra sharp cheddar cheese at a time when India’s economy hadn’t liberalized.
Here I was, all the major environment reporting awards in India under my belt, and possibly on the most coveted journalism fellowship worldwide. From the 500-square-yard home of my family to a 55-square-yard rented apartment of my own in another country. I walked in with two bags of clothes and an open mind, ready for new ideas. A big bottle of body lotion, a new black diary and a handwritten note from the previous tenant, a female journalist, welcomed my arrival.
Acquainting yourself with a new home is like going on a first date. I slowly opened the smooth kitchen shelves and examined the contents. There was some of her black tea and spices left behind… We’d already exchanged messages about our similar palettes. Seeing those textual descriptions come to life was different, comforting.
Nearly everything was opposite here—from the electric switches, driving side of the road, social interactions (we nearly never smile at strangers on the road in India). On my first night, I settled for a bowl of instant noodles my cousin had packed. When everything is new, a familiar element helps. Memories of the hostel days in Mumbai flowed. The friend who prepped those noodles was partly responsible for my current place.
And a place it was. The light near the coffee machine took a few seconds longer than the rest to come on, like a hidden quirk you discover when getting to know someone. I’d never used a dishwasher before; efficient! I soaked in every nook and cranny of my new home. Move over mobile maps, there was a fun walking guide on the city in the bookshelf, and a paper map with the college and other key areas marked out, hanging on the wall.
In less than six months, it became the home where new friendships were launched over cups of turmeric tea. A home where I learned to cook khichdi, an easy comfort meal of lentils and rice, with a doting young nephew as a tester. It was the home where I was brave enough to have a date over for an afternoon of wine-in-a-tin-can and chatter, and my classmates for a supper of chicken curry, rice and vegetables. A home that with its blinds drawn offered a refuge to recharge spent intellectual energies. A home where I could spend hours looking out of the window on a rainy day, over hot coffee and cold pizza, or stay warmly huddled during a snowy weekend listening to classical music and scarfing lamb gravy and roti. A home where the kettle whistled loud and bold when the water was done boiling. A home where the sunshine wasn’t shy.
The street I lived on had historic significance. It was also a 1-mile walk to the country’s oldest university, where, in its main library, among the several million books, I found my grandfather’s autobiography. India’s famous economist lived two lanes away. We got friendly as I offered to help him pick out cereal and milk when we ran into each other on campus. I didn’t need to drive a car; I learned to cycle again after 25 years, feeling solidarity with a group of rural women in one of India’s poorest districts who’d used the two wheels as a social movement. A reflective ride along the neighboring river at midnight or on a bright morning lugging groceries in a backpack or stopping to take photos of ducks and sunsets during exercise was a new hue of independence. I updated my mother over our weekly call, the only member of my family now. We exchanged a moment of quiet gratitude. I still didn’t have a significant other’s love, but this time my love for me felt significant enough.
Home is where the heart is. Healing.
* * *
Months later at the airport, ready to go back via a new stopover, I opened the parting note from a new friend of the host land: “Never stop being greedy. It enriches us all.”
“You’ve come a long way, baby—to the home that’s inside you,” I mused, as the boarding call came.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos courtesy of Shalini Singh.