Temple scene from my hometown in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

My mother and father were 29 and 32 respectively when we moved to Montana with just two suitcases. It was about the same time of year as it is now, and I was a couple weeks shy of my fourth birthday. This year marks 20 years that our family has called the United States home.

I never fully understood the limbo-state that my parents have always lived. We talk about settling down, we talk about citizenship, we talk about retirement plans. But over the course of 20 years the dialogue has shifted. It’s no longer about dreams of moving back to India, but rather how many months out of the year we would ideally spend there. Back in India, just a few rusty trunks contain what little remains from homes long bulldozed. Old photos could be all that we have of our former selves.

We left India for a chance at something new. In a place and time where paid work for so many was incredibly difficult to come by, employment within one’s field and course of study was truly a rare chance. Both of my parents had jobs within the fields they were trained in. Yet, when presented with the Opportunity to learn and to earn, to deepen one’s pond of existence, to see what else the world had in store– there was no choice but to take it. And never look back.

In Nairobi, we talk about the expat life. We talk about missing out on family milestones, we talk about loved ones moving on without us, we talk about a lonely existence in a foreign city.

But it’s sort of glamorous. We did something that not many have done; we congratulate ourselves. So it’s alright that during the two, perhaps three, years we spent as an expat we were uncomfortable. Yes, we were stretched across two continents (maybe three)—but it was worth whatever it was we each thought we’d gain by being away those years.

When I think of my parents and so many others like them, I think about what it’s like to be torn across two continents. As long as we are at home we cannot appreciate all that is familiar and comfortable that we attach ourselves to. Yet when we are away from home it is these things we never could appreciate that hurt us the most. Today I thought I smelled the distinctly tart aroma of dosa batter as it hits hot oil on a cast iron griddle, and it immediately put me at ease. It’s the aroma that wafted through my house every single morning of my childhood. My reaction was visceral. But my heart sank when I realized that I imagined it.

I think that in the long run, having to redefine ourselves, our identities in relation to our new homes is what hurts the most. In two or three short years, we sample that pain. But none of us can truly claim to know it.

The smells, the quiet, the noise, the spaces, the textures, the lights, the sights, the human beings we long for! It is not unique. The millions of immigrants who came before us, they too have mourned the loss of Things they left behind.

It is in this that I find solace.


One thought on “Immigrants

  1. Nila,
    You have captured the essence of our (yours, mine and moms) story very well, although a bit exaggerated in some places. It is not just a bulldozed rubble that is left, but a whole old fashioned house that was built by my great grandfather, which I could still claim as mine for us all. It has two rooms, a big room and a small room. The big room has a room with-in a room, for storage. The full house is not just that, it has another half, which is an exact replica of the first, on its side, like a Siamese twin and a separate stand alone thatched roof kitchen. My brother and I bulldozed the kitchen and built a modern house not too long before we (you, mom and I) left on a one way ticket to America. Thankfully the old house stands untouched.
    More than the modern house, it is the old thick walled house that stands strong as the rock of Gibraltar that I hold fond memories of. That house had a peculiar chimney, peculiar because it was too big for the house. In fact it was half the size of the small room, with its own tile roof. The roof of the house did not have a proper stairs or ladder so only the young and the vibrant could climb on top. When we were kinds our parents helped us get on top of the flat roof so we would dry the grains. During one such foray we discovered that a pair of pied wagtails had nested under the roof of the chimney. In fact just like my parents they were raising a family of three just hatched chicks.
    The plumes of some species of young chicks are nothing close to what you see as adults, which are spectacular in themselves in many cases. The young pied wagtails’ plumes had little golden forked fibers on top of their immature feathers. When we saw them fist we were ecstatic, we jumping up and down with joy. My brother, sister and I were so happy to be able to play with those young wagtails. Their parents were not happy to see us humans around but poor birds could not do anything. Our intentions were mostly good but not always in the best interest of the avian.
    As the birds got older we knew they would fly away. We were desperate to keep them with us that we decided to clip their wings so they can’t fly. Thus we extended their stay in our chimney for several more weeks. Then our routine changed and we did not go to the roof for weeks, we must have forgotten them a little too. Good for the birds, they grew their full wings and flew away.
    No doubt the birds never returned. But they would land on our chimney and run along the top and sing. Their call is long and musical and in time I became an expert at imitating it. I would stand and watch them sing with their long black and white tails wagging. Those days I wished I too was a bird so I too could fly and sing on roof tops. When no one was watching I would stand on the roof top, stretch my hands and mimic flying. Several times I have flown in my dreams, though they were pleasant trips it was never perfect as a birds, perhaps even in my dreams I knew I could never be a bird and fly as well as them.
    Trees, birds, squirrels, butterflies, dragon flies, ponds, wells, lakes and fishes and whole lot of people flood my memory. If they constitute my kingdom, then my throne would be the roof top of that old house.

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