October 17, 2016
Not everyone wants to be an urban nomad, passport in hand and hair fluttering in the breeze.
Everywhere, it seems, people these days are born with a perpetual wanderlust, filled with a desire to be somewhere else, other than where they are. You see them getting off planes, flagging down cabs, jumping on trains and buses, as they set off for their next destination. Eternal travellers. Nomads. Adventurers.
None of these people are me. I do not want to go anywhere, in general, or even during my vacations. I just want to stay home. This is not a “staycation”, this is just life – as I know it, and as I have painstakingly built it.
A state of permanent departure
In the three decades of my life, I have roamed the earth aplenty, but in my heart, all I have ever really wanted is to hang up my hat, take off my coat, put my suitcase on the floor and say, “Honey, I am home.” (Usually, in response, my honey reminds me to put my shoes in the shoe-cabinet and sends me right back out to throw out the trash. But despite the unenthusiastic welcome, the joys of staying put far outweigh the pleasures of gallivanting. At least for me).
Allow me to explain my resistance to becoming that creature you see on magazine covers and billboards everywhere: an urban nomad. When I was a child, my parents had transferable jobs that required us to pack our bags and move every three years. The kind of traveling I had to do all my life, did not involve short scenic stays in exotic locales with comforting returns to an unchanging home. My experience of travel involved gut-wrenching goodbyes, no returns and a never-ending search for home and friends. Travel, to me, meant a permanent going away.
Travel meant leaving behind school, friends, surroundings, but above all, it meant leaving a secure place within a familiar social group. It meant, for instance, moving to posh and prim South Mumbai from a childhood spent in hot, dusty Chandrapur, Maharashtra, with mosquitoes and lush forests. It meant having to learn an entirely new code of interacting with the children of the nouveau riche. It meant learning how to speak English in a fancy new accent so as not to be ridiculed for my Maharashtrian one. At times, it meant learning an entirely new language altogether. Worst of all, it meant forgoing knocking on doors every evening after school and assembling a crowd of ragged kids, ages six to sixteen, to play lagori (seven tiles).
I complained to my parents that the constant transfers meant I had no friends, but my father countered this by pointing out, that if I counted all the friends I had in places we had left behind, I would have more friends than most little girls of my age. According to his logic, frequent moves meant I had a net gain in friendship, even if I had no friends in the next place we moved to.
Even as a child, I knew instantly that this was a consolation prize, an exercise in breadth that would never quite match the depth of actually knowing a single person or place completely, in every way they could be known.
It is not that I am entirely without a curiosity for the rest of the world. As a child, I too dreamed of distant lands. I read Jules Vernes’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and HG Wells’s Time Machine. I wanted to travel outwards into space, and to the earth’s core. I read history textbooks before school, and spent hours thinking about the lost civilisations of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. The first video game I ever played was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and every night I dreamed of discovering Atlantis, the fictional island that sank without a trace.
So I was ready, to become a sophisticated lady traveller, a female Indiana Jones, with the enviable ability to think on her feet, and walk with her mind. It is not that I never tried. I even began learning a foreign language, German, to get a head start on all the adventures I was going to have (halfway through my PhD in German Studies, I am still light years from understanding the German Volk and their ways).
But while I grew to love books in a real and enduring way, I soon discovered, much like the fable of the blind men groping an elephant, that the real world of travel was a completely different animal than the one I had encountered in my imagination.
Leaving home to study abroad, was ironically, a sure sign of having “arrived”. Our family never went on family vacations. Our household was run on principles of frugality and simplicity. If you didn’t need it, you couldn’t possibly want it. Come summer, we were packed up and deposited at our grandmother’s place in Mumbai, free to do whatever we wanted. Once there, we dug holes for no apparent purpose, chasing a perpetually pregnant cat, Bunty, all over the place. When feeling particularly devious, we stole my Aaji’s (grandmother’s) old newspapers and magazines, gleefully setting them ablaze.
As an adult, I am no longer permitted these simple pleasures. But even when I studied and worked in the world’s greatest cities, London and Vienna, already so far away from home, friends would ask me, “Are you going to travel this summer?”
Here I was, already miles away from home, why should I go want to go anywhere? What will I do once I get there? Just to get away for a bit, they would say. But from whom and from what? I do not want to get away. I spent all my time and effort trying to get here, doing the things I want, with the people I want. I think I will stay put, I would say politely, and leave.
Staycations vs real life
The truth is, I am interested in the opposite of travel – I am interested in the familiar. I want to delve deeper into all that surrounds me. I do not know what it is like to know the same person closely and intimately for twenty years, and I want to learn how to do this now. I want to walk down familiar streets, greet the same faces. I want to study my backyard with a magnifying glass, because there is so much I still do not understand, even about the building I live in. Who built it? Why? Why are they taking it apart? Where does all the garbage go?
The world I live in is already so full of mysteries, I could spend a lifetime trying to figure it all out.
I once came close to knowing a place the way I would like to know a person, when I lived in Mumbai. I found myself there for an extended sojourn after some time abroad, and I threw myself into Mumbai’s life with vigour. I undertook daily explorations, and could eventually tell when a street dog or a homeless person had changed their usual spot.
I learnt that many of homeless folk would go back to their villages during monsoons only to return in winter. I knew when stray cats had a new litter, and I’d worry if the litter vanished overnight. I learnt that the street bookseller I frequented worked as a watchman at night, because fewer and fewer people bought books.
Knowing all these stories made me appreciate my surroundings more. I vaguely considered writing my PhD on the colony I lived in, but abandoned the idea when I thought it unlikely that the University of Mumbai would understand my deep and abiding love for the place I called home.
But it is not just the neighbourhood. There are times, when the light casts an unfamiliar shadow, when even my loved ones strike me as being complete strangers. I cannot help but think to myself: who is this person? How have they become who they are? Do I really know them? I wonder about the thoughts in their head. As much as I try, I know I cannot fully understand them. And I love them all the more for their unknowability.
I do not think I need to go anywhere, just yet. Right here at home is all the adventure I need.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own