Home is the sound of waves gently breaking on the shore,
surf susurrations soothing as a lullaby.
I repeat facts and stories all the time. One of my favorite facts-to-repeat of all time is that Oman’s coastline is 1500 km long (well, according to Wikipedia, it’s actually 2,0125 km). I trot out this fact to demonstrate that Oman has a lot of beaches and most of them are heart-achingly beautiful. I have become a devout beach-worshipper.
For me, home smells of sea; it is almost impossible for me to not feel home in any place which has it. When I arrived in my present home, Pittsburgh, and learnt about its three rivers, countless bridges, hills, and many beautiful churches, I mourned. I desperately missed the sea. Pittsburgh has grown on me and while I will miss it when I leave, the fact is it does not have the sea.
Oman’s capital city, Muscat, is situated on the Arabian Ocean. Sometimes when I would walk along the beach, I would squint at the horizon; I imagined the sea rolling and heaving, before it eventually merged with the waters of Bombay’s coastline. When we would fly into Bombay and drive on the sea-facing roads, I would repeat the same ritual. Imagining the waves convey my invisible bottled message of greeting across to the Muscat beaches.
Home is a fistful of objects, containing your
yesterday, today, and tomorrow
In the process of packing up my life and shipping it to India, I compulsively muse over what it will mean to move to a country whose language, music, culture, and food most dominantly permeate my thoughts. The country I have never inhabited essentially shapes the crux of who, and what, I am. It is the land of my passport, after all.
I think of all those times when I have questioned my Indian-ness, even to the extent of disputing it. As I get older, the disparity between my perception and that of the world’s keeps shrinking. If people mistake me for nationalities other than Indian, I am not as indignant, as startled, as I used to be. Grappling with the mental calisthenics of being Indian myself, I cannot challenge those who perceive me as otherwise.
How will India see me? How will I see India?
Home is not just a place: a nest of roots instead.
I am rootless though.
As I write, I am living in a country which has become my fifth home. It is in the United States that I have found myself interrogating the question of ‘home’ more than ever before. The proximity of India to Oman and indeed, Oman’s almost-India-but-not-quite atmosphere meant that I could safely put the question of my roots and belonging on the shelf. Over here, I can no longer dismiss the question of ‘home.’ I have been compelled to air and dust it off and examine its multiple layers.
Whenever someone asks me the inevitable, “Where are you from?” I take time to respond. Not only because I am trying to condense my autobiography into a few lines but first to address that existential question that consistently reverberates inside me: “Where are you from, Priyanka?”
The truth is I really don’t know. Home is no longer just skin-deep, the architecture of a face, as I glibly declared so many years ago.
Home is not a place.
My home, in fact, is my face.
“My face is my autobiography.” Begins an essay I wrote for a student magazine, Isis, when I was attending graduate school. Recollecting an essay from so long ago, I am bemused by what led me to make that declaration. I talked about the fact that I was from India, born in Australia, raised in Oman, and studying in United Kingdom. How I had been mistaken for Tibetan, Venezuelan, German, Bhutanese, Thai, and Filipino amongst several nationalities. In India itself, people rarely guessed that I was an Indian.
The essay also featured portraits of me dressed in a Mexican poncho, a Japanese kimono, a salwar-kameez, and regular jeans and a top (in a bid to presumably suggest that I could look like anyone). My face in other words represented the story of my life. This sense of belonging everywhere and nowhere.
I then presented a story which I felt aptly encapsulated my dilemma: I am 18 years old and accompanying my paternal grandmother and aunt, brother, and mother to a temple in Pushkar situated in the north-western Indian state of Rajasthan. We have stopped en route to Ajmer, the hometown of my paternal family. My father and uncle linger outside. No one thinks to pay any attention to the sign hung upon the temple entrance, declaring “Foreigners not permitted inside.” After all, why should we? We arrive in middle of an aarti and once it’s over and the hundred-strong crowd is beginning to disperse, a priest walks over to my aunt and kindly but firmly asks the foreigner with her to leave. But who’s the foreigner, she wants to know, bewildered. His eyes glance down at my face. In that split-second, I have become a foreigner.
At the time of the story and perhaps even when I was writing the essay, my notions of home and what it represented to me were stronger and more solidified. I could not be anything other than Indian – and yet here I was, in my own country, singled out as a foreigner.
When asked to define ‘home,’ I would have said without hesitation: India is where I come from and Oman is where I live. What intensely confounded me was the disparity between what I perceived myself to be (Indian) and others’ perception of me. No matter where I was in the world.
Home is not a place.
My home, in fact, is a space.
In that first awful month of numbing homesickness, I realised that my home was not just India. When I arrived in the United Kingdom for my undergraduate degree, I became aware that home was Oman’s relentless sunshine, its astringent, dry, hot, air. When I looked up into the blue skies, I imagined that I was staring into a replica of Oman’s skies. And yet, when my best friend described me as an Omani to another friend, I corrected her at once and told her no, I was Indian.
I listened to Indian friends and their stories about their respective Indias. I realised that the India I pronounced a belonging to, was severely circumscribed. It exclusively assumed the shape of Rajasthan. Their stories made me travel across the country. As a baby gradually begins to identify itself in the mirror, I learnt to recognise it.
Home is not a place:
A home is a story.
When I land in Bombay, it will be the first time I will be coming to India – and staying. I will not require a visa of any sort to allow myself to be considered a resident of that country. And that’s another thing. All my life I have been on a visa of some kind: resident, student, tourist or alien (the latter is not particularly flattering). The visa has made me a witness, rather than a participant.
Of all the national narratives I observed and examined in the places I have inhabited, I was unable to insert myself into the narrative itself. Perhaps it is what has led me to call these countries homes, rather than home.
When I go to India, this is the first time I can become part of the narrative—and a narrator herself.
Think of all those stories I have, to tell the waves.
Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in New Delhi, India. Educated at the Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka previously lived in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman and Pittsburgh, United States, where this piece was written. She has published articles and essays in various publications and journals such as Gulf News, Brownbook, and Khaleejesque, with a special focus on art, gender, and identity. She’s author of three poetry volumes, co-authored an English-language instruction publication and two of her short stories have been published in international anthologies celebrating Indian immigrant writing. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography on her blog and Instagram.