There is a place in this world I knew to be home. That place is still what it used to be. But I have changed.
A little over five years ago, I stepped out of Terminal 5 at O'Hare International Airport, into a chilly September morning that had barely stirred awake. I was sleepy, hungry, and grimy, and a part of me hadn't fully comprehended that I had just arrived in a country thousands of miles away from my own, a country in which I would spend the next few years of my life.
As I looked around me, however, there was also a part of my heart that sank deep into itself. My cousin drove me first to his home in the suburbs of Chicago, and then to the graduate housing building at Northwestern University. As we drove down what I later came to know as the I-94, all I saw around me were the benign flatlands of the midwest. This was not how it was supposed to be, this moment of entry into America. It was supposed to be grand and magnificent. It was supposed to be a sensory attack, an experience that would shake me, shock me, reach through to the core of my being, clench its fingers around it, and twist it into a shape I had seen for the very first time.
As we drove along the I-94, though, I felt nothing. The flatness of the terrain, although picturesque in the slowly dissipating mist, did not touch me like I had thought it would. The monstrous office buildings in the suburbs close to the airport did not inspire me. Given my expectations, I may even have been disappointed that the air just felt like air.
Over the next few days, as I unpacked my suitcases, bought groceries, tried to get used to the idea that I could drink tap water without first having to pump it through a complex filtration system, and woke up at strange, lonely hours of the night because my body still thought it was in India, my conviction that I would return home after my PhD was as strong as it had always been. I listened obsessively to the music DVDs my uncle made for me before I left, and the words from one song kept rhythm with every step I took in those first few days here.
"Na yeh chand hoga, na taare rahenge,
Magar hum hamesha tumhare rahenge."
The moon will cease to exist, the stars will be gone too
But I will forever belong to you.
I thought of my parents' house in Hyderabad, when I heard this song. I thought of the crowded streets I loved to drive on, the University campus I had spent the best years of my life at, the two cats I had left behind, my desk at the office where I worked as a writer-editor, the friends I had left behind with the promise that the distance would change nothing. I thought of the days and nights spent watching cricket with the family, of the heat that usually made me sick, but was comfortable in its familiarity, and of the long walks with my best friends, talking about school, work, sex, men, music, films...
And while I was busy looking the other way, my new life grew on me. Just like that.
The beauty and grandness of Chicago had me in awe, at first - for a person who can get lost inside an art gallery if it has more than two rooms, I never believed that a city like Chicago could really be mine. How would I ever learn all the street names, how would I ever navigate through it, how would I ever know which El stop to get off at?
But I did learn, and the vast, amorphous idea I had of that city slowly turned into a manageable, navigable, and familiar map in my head. I embraced the violent, bone chilling snowstorms just like I did the gentle beauty of an autumn snowfall. I liked that people smiled at me when I walked down the streets. I made space in my life and in my heart for new people and new experiences. I grew to love my campus, the Carbon and Carbide building (which really isn't black), the Pilsen, Lookingglass Theater, Logan Square, and - I'll admit it - even Millenium Park. Chicago became mine, and I became hers.
Na yeh chand hoga, na taare rahenge,
Magar hum hamesha tumhare rahenge.
This past October, when I returned to Chicago after having been away for four months, little had changed except for the fact that in place of the giant, sculptural rendition of American Gothic on Michigan Avenue, there was a giant, sculptural rendition of Marilyn Monroe in her famous pose from Seven Year Itch. This time, when I stepped out of O'Hare airport, and drove down the I-94, I was excited to see the flat terrain, the buildings, and the skyline of downtown Chicago that was hidden behind the fog but I knew was there. It felt like going home.
I continue to think of India as home as well. For the past six months I have lived in Berkeley, and as I grow to love this place just like I grew to love Chicago, the fog reminds me of winter mornings in Delhi, spent wrapped in a blanket, drinking tea on my aunt's terrace. The eucalyptus grove on the Cal campus reminds me of the forests that were a part of the campus of the University of Hyderabad. And when I realize how much I think of India, it saddens me that my resolve to go back there as soon as I finish with grad school has greatly weakened.
I think to myself sometimes that I'm one of those people who can no longer name a place that is entirely home. But I never say it out loud, because I am embarrassed at how thoroughly imbricated such a dilemma is, with the issue of class. That I feel the need to choose between Chicago and Hyderabad, or between the US and India is not unfortunate. It is, on the contrary, the result of great fortune.
But the sadness is real. And the guilt, when I think of what - and whom - I have left behind. Last year was a particularly rough year for my mother. It began with the loss of her sister, and then a dear friend, and then an awful upheavel in my sister's life. Through all this, the most I can do is be there for my mother on the phone. I think of how, and how much, she must have aged since the last time I saw her. I think of her body becoming frailer, the cataract in her eye, the itch in her throat that won't go away.
But when I'm not thinking of that, I think of getting on the BART, getting off at Civic Center, and walking around San Francisco. This place - this life - has reached through to the core of my being, clenched its fingers around it, and twisted it into a shape I have never seen before. But I couldn't tell you when that happened, or how, because all this time, I've been looking the other way.