My father agreed to my Mexico City birth on the one condition that my mother and I permanently reside in New Delhi. But we ended up returning to Mexico shortly thereafter to see Bis Margarita, my great-grandmother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Though her thick, unwavering legs demanded respect, her frail white hair would sit unsure on her head. After a day’s worth of chemotherapy, Bis Margarita used to get me pastel-colored lagrimitas, sugary candy that would melt slowly on my tongue. This gift of tears, sold outside a hospital, is my earliest memory of Mexico.
I attended elementary school in New Delhi, clad in itchy gray stockings and a wool coat in the winters. In school, the extreme boredom of Hindi class was avoided with notes my friends and I passed to one another, hoping to not get caught. The thrill of escaping detection intensified with the knowledge that if we got caught, we would feel the tight snap of a wooden ruler on our hands. The discomfort of my uniform would disappear when I entered the cool lightness of my home. I loved nothing more than lying between my grandparents and hearing stories of the struggle for independence in India. The smell of coconut oil on my grandmother’s hair infused the room with a sweet, sticky aroma. When it came time to sleep, my aunt would cradle me in her lap and I still find nothing more beautiful than the yellow Banaras silk of saris.
My mother and I boarded a plane headed to Mexico when I turned 12, and all I did was cry—missing one-third of my familiar equation. I missed my friends and their Hindi, and my father and his English, because I knew that they would disappear in my mother’s Mexican surroundings. My memories of home in el Distrito Federal, the capital, are filled with scenes from the four Christmases I spent there, when my abuelita (grandma) erected a large plastic tree early in December while my cousins and I crowded around her, decorations in hand. On Christmas day we all sat around my grandmother’s dinner table and savored the mole and bacalao she prepared. There was a safety I felt in seeing my mother, her sisters, and her mother talk all night; there was a comfort their voices provided.
When I was 16, we moved back home to India. I arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport after a 26-hour journey. The humid air seemed to suffocate me. I didn’t recognize my surroundings, the streets appearing both unfamiliar and strange. I tried to find an anchor—a house, a street that would have told me I was back home—but was left feeling disappointed. I fell asleep that first night in discomfort, troubled by not knowing where I was. The next morning I walked to the market, making my way through emaciated white cows that crossed the busy street with greater ease than I did. I bought vegetables from a fat man perched high above the bell peppers and violet onions, weighing cucumbers on an old scale by carefully placing metal weights on one side of the balance. Slowly, I began to feel at home again.
When I left India to come to college in the U.S., I had to stand in an interminable immigration line at SFO. Immediately, I missed the heat and the holy river that flowed near our house in India. A couple of weeks later, as the U.S. recovered from the shock of having seen two towers fall, I remember riding the bus in an unsuspecting daze and being asked if I wore my head wrap for “religious” purposes. I quickly stuttered a reply, not knowing what would be appropriate.
Now, I work, study, and live in Oakland where the definition of a home has shifted again. Perhaps one day this home will be marked by these memories: the sight of my friend’s 3-year-old daughter, waiting for bus 58 with $1.50 in my hand, and the earthy scent of redwoods.
As a child I never fully understood the reasons behind my nomadic lifestyle, yet I knew that it prevented me from fully establishing a point of origin. I have only recently begun to appreciate the tranquility and sense of belonging I have eventually felt in all these places, and realize that my definition of “home” will constantly be redefined as I travel on through life.
Sharada Balachandran-Orihuela, 20, is a junior at Mills College in Oakland. This article first appeared in YO! Youth Outlook. www.youthoutlook.org.