New Delhi, India: I am in Sarojini Nagar market, where the free space around me shrinks from little to none within seconds. I navigate narrow lanes flooded with people that look like me, and my decision to wear open-toed shoes is one I quickly come to regret. I’m nudged from both sides and pressed against others so tightly their ribcages skim mine. Small children weave swiftly in and out of the tangle of people. They aren’t panicked, or frightened—neither am I— this rather intimate situation is something we’re all accustomed to.
Cheltenham, England: A nine-hour flight away, I find myself amongst people who let out a “sorry,” an “excuse me” or both when they haven’t even bumped into me but have simply passed through the space they consider mine—or my “personal space bubble,” as we called it in junior school. A nine-hour flight away, I become one of them.
New Delhi, India:
Tires screech around us as cars swerve to the side of the motorway. From the window of my second-row seat—it’s an unsaid rule that on Bus 42, the younger you are, the closer you sit to the front—I watch as people climb out of their vehicles and assemble in the centre of the road, where they investigate the cause of this morning’s traffic.
The bus stands still. I check the time on my hot pink wristwatch. As usual, I am sitting next to my best friend, who now glares at her identical one. We should be at school by now. What is everyone looking at? We are barely taller than the row of seats in front of us, but a shared restlessness forces us to our feet anyway. The seniors who have been sitting in the back row make their way to the front of the bus, ignoring the driver, who unsuccessfully urges to them to “please stay seated.” Does he know? This is what I am thinking about when a heavy hand pushes me down by my shoulders, making my body snap backward into my seat. The senior responsible looks over his shoulder at me, smirking.
As we roll forward a few metres, an uncomfortable atmosphere settles over Bus 42. The seniors congregate in the aisle next to my seat. Some of them point. Some whisper. One makes a lazy attempt at covering my eyes by slapping his hand over my face.
Ahead of us a woman lies on her side, her body in an L-shape like it’s an exhibit—and like it’s an exhibit, a crowd gathers around it. People watch with their hands pressed to their mouths. I won’t remember much about the woman later, though the turquoise kurta she wears will become a familiar fixture in my nightmares. To her right a man sits on a motorcycle. He snatches a rumal, or handkerchief, offered to him by a hand from the crowd. He uses it to wipe his forehead. I’m too high up to see the expression on his face, but there is a frustration, an impatience that I can’t place in the way he goes about this.
The crowd thickens.
Please, give them some space
Please, stop taking photos.Please, call a doctor.Please, wipe up the blood.Please, cover her face with a dupatta.
As Indians, we are unaccustomed to requests like these, requests for personal space and privacy—so it isn’t until years later, when I replay this moment, that I finally understand the man’s frustration and find myself powerlessly repeating these words in my head.
I lock eyes with my best friend, and I can tell she’s seen it too. Her jaw works at her fingernails, and I slump down further into my seat. Hugging my knees to my chest, I press buttons on my wristwatch, click the “world clock” option, play pretend. Find out what time it is in London. Tell myself that next time I look up I’ll see the woman climbing onto the motorbike, the crowd dispersing, the turquoise kurta flapping in the wind as she speeds off into the distance.
I try to concentrate as my teacher hands out a set of subtraction word problems for homework, but in my head an image of this morning lingers like a fly trapped in a moving car.
As our bus manoeuvres out of the school’s parking lot, the morning’s deafening silence is replaced by the loud gossiping of seniors and playful shrieks of juniors. I’m overwhelmed by the fleet of paper planes cruising overhead and the pile of foil animals discarded on the floor. A wave of nausea hits me as I realise that bus number 42 has somehow regained its relaxed atmosphere. My hands fidget with the lid of the Tupperware tiffin box where my uneaten Nutella sandwiches wait.
The school won’t feel the need to inform my parents about this morning—as far as they’re concerned, today was an ordinary day—and neither will I. I decide I don’t want them to know; they would ask me about what happened, check in, make sure I was okay. They would say “I’m sorry you had to see that,” and I would say “thank you,” stealing sympathy I wasn’t entitled to.
I don’t need their consolation—or at least I convince myself I don’t.
When I’m asked where I come from, I say I’m Indian. On hearing this response, some smile and nod. Others say things like “Oh, but your English is so good,” as if being Indian and speaking good English are mutually exclusive. Dismissing the 15 years I’ve lived in Delhi, overlooking the way I claim India as home, implying I don’t belong—obliviously, in a sentence. They mean it as a compliment, of course.
Only sometimes I’ll be more specific, say I’m Gujarati. Not often though, probably because most people don’t know what being a Gujarati means. Maybe because I am one of those people.
I scroll through videos of myself as a toddler. Swipe, press play. A little girl makes up stories, recites songs, pretends to be a shopkeeper, then a teacher—words roll effortlessly off her tongue in Gujarati, the only language she knows. I was maybe five or six when I stopped speaking it and English took over. I like to think the process was accidental. I like to believe that I had no part in it. I like to imagine I just woke up one morning and opened my mouth to speak in Gujarati but no words came out.
Father’s younger brother: Uncle
Father’s younger brother’s wife: Aunt
Father’s sister: Aunt
Father’s sister’s husband: Uncle
Father’s younger brother: Kaka
Father’s younger brother’s wife: Kaki
Father’s sister: Foi
Father’s sister’s husband: Fua
Note: If a relative is a generation above these, the honorific ‘mhota’ (meaning ‘big’) may be added before their title and their name dropped.
Even though she is technically our ‘Mhota Foi,’ my siblings and I copy the way our father addresses her—as Sharda Foi—with their connection held in one snug syllable.
We are sitting together in an empty bedroom. Sharda Foi has just arrived to stay with us in Delhi, and after we’ve caught up, she begins mumbling about how important it is for me to know Gujarati, my “mother tongue.” Later I won’t remember what language she spoke in, let alone her exact words, but for now I listen closely to her delicate voice. Even when the river of words streaming out of Sharda Foi’s mouth loses its logic, I don’t falter from my seat on the bed opposite her wheelchair. After a few minutes, her attendant suggests that I run along to lunch.
Months pass. It’s nine thirty in the evening and my parents are out to dinner. I wander up to Sharda Foi’s room with some leftover brownies and ice cream. I warm my brownie in the microwave; she likes hers cold. As I spoon Vanity Vanilla ice cream into our bowls, I tell her about my day. She asks about boarding school in England.
Attentive. Understanding. Talkative. Sharp. These are some of the words that will feature in the word collage from Sharda Foi’s prayer meeting two months later, so when her memory begins to deteriorate and her speech comes out muddled, we know something is wrong. She goes into Max, the hospital, following a fall one morning, returning with a diagnosis of lymphoma. I wake up to a string of texts from my mother—in English as usual:
Anika. We are at Max. We got a call at 3am
I am here with Papa and BK
Papa and BK coming home. I’ll wait and meet the doctors
Morning love. I am still here. I’ll come home in a couple of hours
In the evening we hold a quiet party for Sharda Foi. My parents, Kaka, and I sit on the floor around the raised hospital bed that has been installed in her room. Even as Hindus, we don’t celebrate Sharda Foi’s life according to the rules dictated by the textbook on Hinduism that they handed out at my English boarding school, where “world religions” are confined to the classroom while we all attend church on Sundays. We don’t celebrate her life because, as the textbook dictates, “Hindus believe in reincarnation.” We celebrate her life because it feels right to order her the sweetest jalebis from Nathus even though she isn’t allowed to eat. It feels right to feed her sips of brandy—which I’m later told was her favourite drink— from a spoon. And it feels right to say “see you tomorrow, Sharda Foi,” already living in the moment when, in the morning, she will be both here and not here.
During past Religious Studies classes, I’ve doodled in my planner and passed notes under my desk instead of listening to my white teacher lecture us about Hinduism. Now, the fact that I’m a Hindu is loud in my head, but the realisation that I probably know even less about this religion than my teacher does is louder. I don’t know much about death at all, let alone the Hindu traditions surrounding it. I recall the only thing I do know from having watched my parents leave the house to attend funerals—everyone wears white.
When Sharda Foi passes away, much of what we learn about the customs surrounding the loss of a family member comes from her attendants: the body should stay in the home until cremation, the ashes should be scattered in the Ganges. Death is followed by thirteen days of mourning.
Somewhat adhering to this thirteen-day structure, we still grieve in our own ways. For thirteen days, we follow no rituals other than observing fifteen minutes of silence in front of her picture before dinner. For thirteen days, I listen to people tell stories about her, stringing together parts of her life like flowers on the garland placed around the John Lewis frame in which her photo is kept. When the thirteen days are up, I continue feeling divorced from it all.
Can’t wait for this class to be over!!! I scribble these words on a yellow post-it and fold it into quarters. I ask the boy next to me to pass it to a friend sitting at the next table. I attend an Indian school, where Hindi lessons happen to be the part of my school day I look forward to least. I’m no good at Hindi either. Coincidence or choice?
We are maybe ten minutes away from the bus stop when a boy in the row behind me calls me “kali,” black. His voice laced with arsenic, he says it like an insult—like the colour of my skin is something I should be ashamed of. “Kali.” I turn around and look out the window, eyes watery. I don’t say anything back. What can I say? Who would I tell?
“How was your first day?”
The colour of my skin, so closely related with being Indian, has made me ashamed of that too. I want to hide from it; moving to Delhi’s American school hands me the opportunity.
As I scan my new class schedule, I find no Hindi lessons. It takes no more than a couple of months before I am unable to read and write in Hindi as confidently as I could before, though I rejoice at leaving behind this part of myself. I distance myself from the language completely—as far as everyone at my new school is concerned, I don’t even speak it.
I stare at the clothes in my cupboard and realise I don’t own a single kurta or lehenga. I have to leave for a Diwali dinner in ten minutes, so I throw on a pair of striped paperbag pants with a tight black off-the-shoulder. I arrive to see my friends in kurtas and jutis and churis that jingle as they walk. Before food is served, they pose for pictures. I watch them through my phone screen as they bunch together. Click. Put their arms around each other. Click. Turn slightly to the side and look over their shoulders. Click. Throw their heads back as they laugh. Click. I don’t ask to be in the photos.
A few days later, I am back at Sarojini market, sifting through an impossible stack of clothes that nearly touches the ceiling. Another woman in the stall bargains fiercely with a vendor to reduce the price of a denim skirt by fifty rupees, or less than £1. Their back-and-forth has me wishing I could speak—and understand—Hindi at that speed.
I am part of two cultures and I am part of none; I start my first year of boarding school in Cheltenham. Each day I find myself missing the city that has been my home for as long as I can remember. On some nights when I talk to my parents, the homesickness that invades my stomach during the day rises, creeping out of my eyes and spilling down my cheeks.
When I’m in Delhi, I miss the parts of myself that feel at home in Cheltenham. There, I know my way around better than I do in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I miss going to the Indian restaurant on Montpellier Street with my friends, where I’m always the one to order food because they can’t pronounce the dishes on the menu. I miss the Hindi exchanges with the only other Indian girl in my grade, exchanges that take place in crowded corridors or on the walk to school. I miss feeling like we can claim the language, feeling like it’s ours—feelings I paradoxically don’t encounter when I’m home, even though Delhi is the place I speak Hindi the most.
Despite these brief conversations, my Hindi words become a series of photos. Tucked away in the innermost corners of a dusty cardboard box, left unsorted, the photos fade.
When I visit Delhi, I am confronted by broken sentences; words that have been sitting idle in my head have slipped out of my vocabulary. So I fill in the blanks with English.
I attend sessions to improve my Hindi conversation. Why? Because I have decided I want to revive this part of my identity. Why? Because I see my brother, a reflection of myself in Grade 3, trying to reject it the way I did. During my visits home from boarding school I wonder: if I spoke perfect Hindi, if I could share their language—our language—would I belong?
The answer: sometimes. But I’m not sure I’ll ever be good enough, so I press pause on the conversation lessons, having been to maybe three.
When the electrician asks me how old I am, I reply before stopping to think, asking him to guess before I remember: it’s somewhere between ten and twenty that Hindi numbers begin to lie beyond the reach of my comprehension. I sigh, knowing this isn’t the first time I’ve started a conversation I’ll be painfully unable to keep up with. I start translating numbers in my head, but he catches me off guard with a story of someone he knows, a story that goes beyond the words I’ve been silently reciting. When he bursts out laughing, I follow his example, hoping my laugh says everything I can’t. I wonder if he knows, or if I’ve covered the glitch quickly enough to salvage some chance at belonging.
True or False
If Gujarati is a language I’ve forgotten and English is a language I speak, is Hindi both or is Hindi none?
1. I can still speak Hindi.
2. I haven’t forgotten any.
I belong when I wear the uniform with pride: brown skin, long eyelashes, thick eyebrows that my mother warns me I should never get shaped too thin. I belong when I dismiss what I saw from Bus 42’s windshield and convince myself it’s not worth talking about—because that’s what everyone else did. But not when the image still persists in my head the same way it did in my second grade math class. Not when the turquoise hue of the woman’s kurta hasn’t dulled with time.
I belong when my answer to “Where are you from?” remains India, even though I’ve been told my English is too good or my accent too foreign. I belong the day after Sharda Foi dies when I dress in white and cover her body with flowers like I’m supposed to, though I can’t ignore the numbness, the feeling of detachment from it all.
I belong when I’m away in Cheltenham and can claim India as the country I belong to, Hindi as a language I share. I belong when I speak in Hindi—until I don’t, until I am betrayed by my mouth, my ears, or both. I belong when we’re around others and my parents tell me off in Gujarati instead of English. But how about when I can’t respond? In both these instances—with Hindi and Gujarati—can I still claim belonging if the way I stumble over my words has shown that I don’t?
I suppose I belong when I walk into the house carrying a shopping bag full of kurtas, though I’d be lying if I said I don’t question how much belonging a loose black shirt with red embroidery can restore after my three years (and counting) spent living abroad.
I belong when I don’t lose sight of where I’ve come from, when I allow myself to be proud of it instead of hiding the way I did years ago. I belong when my desire for this feeling is louder than everything that suggests the opposite. Then, the parts of me that do fit in feel stronger than the parts that don’t.
Anika Somaia is an Indian-American student and writer. She is currently co-director at EmpowerHer*Voice, where she runs the annual creative writing contest. In her free time, she enjoys working on public art projects in urban spaces.