A Narrative Essay
By Shubham Mehta
“Where are you from? Your accent, it’s different.”
Little did my 14-year-old self-know, when I first agreed to move to South Africa, that this question would plague the rest of his life.
Perhaps “plague” is a strong word. Having lived in many places and having a strange accent that people can’t quite place definitely has its perks. For one, you always get to stand out, if just a little. Those who have not had the privilege to travel certainly look at you differently, sometimes with awe, sometimes with jealousy, mostly with curiosity.
However, the whole shebang comes with some weird baggage that few relate to.
There is a saying in India, ‘Dhobi ka kutta na ghar ka na ghaat ka’. The translation goes, the washerman’s dog is not of the riverbank or of the home’. Translations suck. But broadly it refers to not fulfilling one role completely. Kind of like having your legs in two boats.
That’s me. I have my one leg in Johannesburg, South Africa, another in Mumbai, India and I’m stretching just to put my hand in Ahmedabad, India. The three places that I spent significant chunks of my life in. Which one is home? No Idea.
“Oh but there must be one place you love more than the other? That place is home!” Alas, no. I have found something to cherish in all three places. If I could, I would spend summers in Johannesburg, Winters in Ahmedabad, and visit Mumbai for the rains. If I could, I would have a Braai in South Africa, Vada Pav in Mumbai and Gulab Jamuns in Ahmedabad.
When I try to explain this, I sometimes, not always, get the question, “yes but where is your family from?” I resist a strong urge to punch people then. A bit aggressive, I know, I’m working on it.
But don’t you think it’s a bit reductive to assume that your parents’ pin code defines you? What do you say to 2nd generation immigrants? How long before that immigrant’s family can call a place home?
If you ask me, I think the answer might be five years. Five years before a place is truly home. Home Affairs will definitely agree. And both of us could be wrong. But I think it’s oddly five years. ’Cause even though I had started calling South Africa – Home, after maybe a year of staying there, it was in my fifth year that I made the country’s issues, my issues. I think it’s easy to fall in love with the plains and mountains of South Africa. They call to everyone’s soul. But it’s when you accept the problems, the racial tensions, the economy, the past, and care about solving it, that you have made it home. And yet, it’s not my only home.
Another five years later, I moved back to India. Ironically, I thought to myself, it’s about time I returned to tell stories about ‘home’. Once back, I remember travelling with some friends to visit an old haunt. The place was up some crooked alleyways, so on our way there, my friends insisted that we use Google Maps to find the spot. I confidently said it was fine. I, a person who sucks at directions, said that I knew the way. And then proceeded to find my way without blinking an eye. The roads ran through me. It was like I had woken up into a dream. Everything was familiar – different.
Six months later, as I tried to catch a train in Mumbai, a hell that locals are well used to, I swore in Hindi and I believe after that, Mumbai became home again.