When you grow up in Mumbai, the monsoons that drench the land leave an indelible impression on your heart. The sounds of the thunderous skies opening up, the sights of muddy rivulets carving their paths, and the smells of fried bhajiyas and hot pakoras make the monsoons unforgettable. After leaving Mumbai 23 years ago, I’ve watched many a downpour in different cities, and though it rains all over the world, the experience has never been the same.
Yet, this morning, as I sit on the patio of our apartment in Charlotte, North Carolina sipping my morning chai on a rainy day, I feel a sense of familiarity creep in. We have recently shifted into this space. In a move deemed Herculean, less than a month ago, we downsized from a three-story house (that was nothing short of palatial for a Mumbaikar with middle-class roots like me) to an apartment, in the vicinity, that is a third of its size. The transition, though stark, became imperative as my husband and I are empty nesters. Getting rid of belongings that held so many memories of the children was exhausting and at times, heartbreaking. Yet, ironically, though we live in a much smaller space with only the bare essentials now, the decluttering has created room in our lives to dwell on and pursue things we love.
And early this morning, as I sit on the patio enjoying the rain, there is a sense of deja vu – “This feels just like Mumbai,” I catch myself saying. But what is it about this rain that makes it so familiar? I delve deep into the feeling. I have to find out.
I look around my surroundings. Across my building in the patio, a young man is finishing his morning workout. Having watched him a few times, I know he is exactly halfway through his exercise routine. The scent of freshly baked waffles wafts from my neighbor’s kitchens. Above me, the wooden floors creak to signal the awakening of the boisterous toddler upstairs. When you live in a community of flats, you become unwittingly enmeshed in the lives of your neighbors. The ways, routines, temperaments of other families become a part of yours too. There is a sense of belonging, of being a part of the whole. This was an integral part of my childhood.
Growing up in a building of 60 flats, the aromas of the foods cooked by my neighbors and the emotions that rippled through the members of their families were entwined with mine. I didn’t have to ask Mrs. Dev in the opposite building what her favorite color was; I just knew it was yellow from the clothes she hung on the clothesline. Even if I didn’t care, I was keenly aware of my neighbor Rohan’s academic performance, as I often heard Sharma Aunty berate him on his below-average scores. And even if I didn’t want to, I was often a mute spectator to Neena’s practice sessions as she struggled to grasp the nuances of Hindustani classical music.
After all the years we have lived in our American single-family house, I have forgotten what it is like to share spaces with families so different from ours. It is a sense I am slowly reacquainting myself with these days.
There has also been another important learning. Amma and Appa have lived in the same flat for 47 years. The walls there have borne witness to the raising of children and grandchildren, to festivities and merriment, pain and turbulence, and have cocooned the family through it all. They’ve always exuded warmth and comfort. Amma and Appa also never filled the space with “stuff.” Just like every middle-class neighborhood in India, we only had what we needed (They didn’t need Marie Kondo to teach them that). There were no rare artifacts, collectibles, or expensive paintings but there was always enough love. And ever since I’ve moved to the apartment, every time I visit the store, I always ask myself if I really need what I want.
Maybe, it is a combination of it all – the rain, of being in shared spaces, of living with values I grew up with – that takes me back to being a young girl gazing out the window on a rainy day in Mumbai. A young girl whose experiences have taught her that a house is just as big or little as the hearts of the people in the family. There is a sense of deja vu and I revel in it and savor this experience of “coming home.”
Vidya Murlidhar is a children’s book author, essayist, and teacher based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Find her work at www.vidyawrites.com.