If I have one warning for young people out there, it is, be careful what you wish for. Growing up in a small town in India, it always felt like I lived in a fishbowl. Everybody knew you. Anything you did out of the ordinary would get a) reported back to your parents and b) gossiped and discussed. Or so it seemed to me then. Fueled by incessant reading and a rich inner world of the imagination, I dreamed of escaping Mangalore. Yes, I thought in terms of jailbreaks and Escape to Victory. Ironically enough, I lived on a street named, wait for it…Jail Road. I wanted out. I wanted to see the world, to travel the world and twice around.
In truth, life was great. I lived in a home, where even all those years ago, we had lots of freedom. My parents were liberal and rather easygoing, in an age when India was a very conservative, conventional society. My sister and I enjoyed freedoms very few girls of our generation enjoyed in the rather uptight Hindu society of the times. No one ever told us we had to learn to cook and sew, sing and dance and be ready to be the perfect wives for the husbands who would eventually and inevitably come. Instead, we read widely and played cricket and lagori with the boys. We avoided the kitchen as if it were plagued by rats. Our extra-curricular activities gave us a nice escape from academic drudgery. No one had experienced the joys of television or computers or video games yet, so we all had lots of fun stuff to do. Anything could count as a toy, an empty shoe box or the used shell of a coconut. We even traveled regularly with my parents and had seen a large swathe of South India and quite a bit of North India, before we even left for college.
There was nothing I could point to and claim as missing from my life. But my eagerness to travel knew no bounds. I knew the earth was big and round and I wanted to see a lot of it. We used to play an odd little game with our atlases, where we’d turn to a random page, close our eyes and place our fingers on any part of the map therein, and say “I want to go there”, or “I want to live here”. It was a great game, you might land on Timbuktu or Teheran, London or Luanda. The possibilities were endless. Life was a game then.
There came a time in our lives when the joyful, easy days of school were over and we headed off to college, away from the comfortable confines of home, the sheltering shadow of doting parents and little Mangalore. Those were heady and exciting times. I headed for the big city, Madras, as it was then known (and will ever be to me). After college, it was on to jobs. My sister headed to the US and I to Bangalore. And in my 24th year, I began to travel, on my own. I am turning 50 in just a few short weeks and I can’t seem to stop. It has been over a quarter of a century, and now I find myself nostalgic for Mangalore, or home, as I shall always think of it.
Life since then has been a series of moves across the world. From the antipodes to the United States of America, and a few other countries in between, I have lived in and visited several cities across the world. And yet, with almost half a century of life under my ample belt, I have not found my place in the sun. This is the question that niggles at the periphery of my thoughts, where do I belong? Where is my place in the world?
I know lots of people who have been outside of India for as long as, or longer, than I have been. Most people are settled and happy in the foreign lands where they have made their homes. They have bought homes and cars, sent kids to college and fully intend to have a contented retirement in the future. Why is that, I wonder? Is it because most of these people have moved only once, or perhaps twice, since they left home? Many of my friends have been in one city for well over a decade and a half and that must be plenty of time for a place to feel like home. Right? I don’t know. I have never lived in any one place for that long.
It has always been 3 years here, 4 years there and before we knew it, two and a half decades of life have passed. We delayed everything in our lives, including starting a family, until we had at least a sense of a settled feeling. And one day, suddenly, we realized, a lot of time had passed and we weren’t that young anymore. Having a child has been a grounding experience, to an extent. We have moved only 3 times in the 14 years since our daughter was born. Of course the moves were all the way across the world and back, but hey, we survived.
Now don’t get me wrong, the nomadic life makes for colorful stories.There’s an upside to it. Our lives have been exciting and always filled with new possibilities. Every new country and every new city has thrown up a different challenge and we have surmounted them all. We are strong and vibrant people because of it and we can boast of friends in many little corners of the world. So many people to visit, so little time. I have enjoyed every moment of the journey as well the experience of life in various cultures. I have picked up a smattering of languages, like Bahasa Melayu and whatever it is that Australians speak. I have visited many of those places I inadvertently placed my finger on all those years ago, playing the atlas game. I have met so many interesting people, from terribly important ones to ordinary people in little towns across the world, real ‘characters’ in their own right. It has been a full, fulfilled and happy life.
But things seem to have come full circle for me recently. As I write these words (that I never dreamed I’d ever say), “I miss Mangalore”, I am assailed by the smells, tastes and experiences of the little town I grew up in. Piping hot goli bajes from Mohini Vilas, kaane fry from Anupam, mallige in fragrant bloom everywhere, long walks in the cool breezes of Kadri Hills on Sundays (as the girls and boys surreptitiously checked out one another), frolicking like dolphins at Panambur beach, the overpowering stench of dried fish floating from the docks, tender coconut water fresh off the trees, running up and down steep tiled roofs, Chinese food from Nanking restaurant, the ice candy melting in the heat, mutton puffs from Vas Bakery, stealing mangoes from someone’s trees as we walked home from school and so many more memories linger.
I have now lived away from Mangalore for far longer than I ever lived there, but the strongest memories are still those childhood ones, overlaid with a unique taste and smell. I have been back enough times to know that many of those places I so fondly remember don’t even exist anymore, except in a thousand memories. The tiled roofs have been torn down to make way for high rises, which present gorgeous ocean views many of us Mangaloreans hadn’t even suspected were there. Kadri Hills is unrecognizable but all is forgiven, because they built a Cochin Bakery there. Much has changed but it is still Mangalore in its essence. And my heart will always belong there. Not least because, that is where my mum still lives.