At Home with Kids

—Shefali Shah Choksi

Home is where the heart is.
—Pliny the Elder

A student walked into my classroom 45 minutes late, pleading, of all things, jetlag: she had just flown in from California, and passing through a couple of time zones had fried her nerves. This led to a discussion on how we all fight natural forces like time-space continuum and gravity, how we all willingly and deliberately discombobulate our comfortable routines, uproot our kids, all to go home for a few days or if we are luckier, a few weeks.

Very few of us who call South Florida our primary residence are native to it and this experience resonates with us. .

I was still thinking of the class discussion when later that day, I asked my teen what she felt about going to India, about her routine being messed up, about outings with friends she would miss, about visiting a country with many beggars and refuse heaps, and about having to go to a place where she doesn’t speak the language as fluently. Her suddenly brightening eyes and widening smile answered me more eloquently than her words could: she couldn’t wait!

What, then, is it about going home that makes this Odyssey such a necessity? How can a visit of 20 days during which we are going to travel harrowingly, get absolutely no rest, socialize around the clock, fight germs we no longer have immunity against, travel to a land we know offers no comfort of readily-available rest rooms and whose currency we no longer feel familiar with, revive our spirits and lost hearts?

There are many answers to this riddle, but the fact of the matter is, we all have this irrefutable need to visit our home land every so often.

And we recognize this need in ourselves and those we see around us.

A comment on this need to visit Des (nation) is an inevitable part of any exchange with one’s acquaintances of South Asian origin, and it immediately connects us with an intimate experience. When someone tells me that she hasn’t visited Des for 4 years, I instantly sympathize and wish her all the best for an imminent voyage. Every time I hear someone has just returned from a trip home, my envy is equally instant and heart-felt. This is assuaged only with extensive updates on the latest INOX theatres, coffee shops, and chudi shops that my kid and I can look forward to on our next visit.

I believe this need to go back home with our children has its roots in the choice we all made when we decided to immigrate; in archetypal terms, we decided against making our Janma Bhoomi our Karma Bhoomi. We also signed up for a spectrum of worries that come with forging a new self in a different world, and these worries have to do with the next generation, and the fear and absolute certainty that the land we call home has changed and continues to do so, without us.

I constantly worry about the many points of difference between me and the next generation, which are compounded because I am an immigrant. I worry my daughter will grow up without the intensely spiritual experience of lighting a clay diya, filled with ghee and a hand-made cotton wick. I am afraid she will never feel like a real woman because she won’t know how to wrap or feel comfortable in a sari. I am concerned that her critical thinking and analytical skills won’t sharpen because she didn’t have the Akbar-Birbal stories or the tales of Vikram-Vetal. She is growing up without Sattodiu, Kho, Kabbadi, even cricket! How do I infuse in her a modicum of who I am? I am afraid I shall be completely erased when she is an adult.

There is another concern central to this same gap between generations: the gap between what we remember of home, and the reality of it.

When we go back each time, we find that the world has changed almost beyond recognition. The hawkers who frequented our streets are no longer the same: they either retired or moved on; the sugarcane juice vendor near the campus has been replaced by an air-conditioned novelty shop; the paan-wallah at the street corner has moved in with his daughter and now his little hole-in-the wall has expanded to a restaurant attended by his son-in-law; the maidan where kids used to play cricket and khois no longer there: instead, there is a four-storey high mall; the familiar banyan tree that was known to be haunted has been replaced with a garden for the adjoining high-rise apartment complex. These are familiar sights, and while they are inevitable as the seasons and changing worlds, they rob us of our links with places that we grew up in. We feel uprooted again, like people trapped in a time-warp, who remember times and places that are far gone into the misty realms of memory.

However, a visit home with our kids somehow heals these gaps, both internal and the ones with the next generations. This healing starts even before the journey begins. In my house, it starts before the packing does, through the sparkle in my kid’s eyes and the spring in her step. Somehow, once the tickets to India are bought, it seems a new person emerges slowly from deep within my teen’s American-Eagle Hoodie clad shell.

She starts answering me in our mother tongue with more frequency; she is careful to finish all homework and keeps herself out of trouble for fear that she might be punished and be excluded from shopping trips to get small gifts for people back home; she spends time poring over memories of our previous visits; and most of all, she talks incessantly of the visit, I am sure, much to her friends’ frustration and boredom. She does not resent even the harrowing journey to reach home.

By the time she emerges from the last leg of the plane journey, her Indian self blossoms completely and it really doesn’t matter that she still has her American Eagle hoodie on: she is Home and she belongs here.

When I see these signs, I smile to myself and remember another time when I used to worry that she would not fit in with the people, and would have trouble in adjusting with the air, water and the atmosphere. During my first visit with her, I had promised myself that I would board the first flight if my baby caught a bad bug or sprouted mysterious allergies.

Now, I believe, had I acted on and given in to my fears then, my daughter would never have known the richness of belonging to two worlds at one time. I would have cheated her out of the complexity that defines who I have become because I belong to two different worlds. By taking her back on subsequent visits, in fact, instead of exposing her to new disease vectors, I might have actually done some good: I might have helped crystallize a truly global citizen, who is accepting differences between people and is respectful towards other ethnicities.

This realization is indeed healing, and I know I am not alone in feeling it. Our kids merge the different worlds with amazing, even enviable ease and grace. While they definitely belong to the place where they live, a sense of belonging that is reflected in their speech, music, dresses, and lifestyle, they are equally of our land of origin. This sense of belonging is also reflected during our visits home, when we see our kids mingle with their Desi peers, playing the newest version of Vyapaar, using the latest local slang, learning the popular Bollywood music and dance moves, watching the popular game shows, and humming to commercials on ZEE TV and Sony.

Our hectic routines in this world, though of our choosing, sometimes erode our internal compasses and we tend to lose touch with places that define us. In fact our routines can be so devouring that we have to make an extra effort to celebrate our festivals, go for an Indian movie, or treat ourselves to cuisine from home. Our kids, too, tend to get swallowed up by their own lives and obligations and we fear we might lose them in essential, really frightening ways. This sense of isolation can be further compounded when we go back to our Des and find that things changed there as well. Such experiences at times make us feel that we belong nowhere, like the proverbial washer man’s dog.

However, this uprooting, this sense of discomfiture that awaits all immigrants, is the very reason it is important to go back home with our children. Seeing our children find their own way in this land that is no longer ours, heals our sense of displacement and eases our spirit. When we see our kids owning the new landscape, riding their bikes through the new streets, confident in their kite-flying skills, greeting the new neighbours with familiarity, haranguing with the coconut-water man, arguing with the tailor, meeting friends at the Barista or Kwality, and begging us to take them to Crosswords, assure us that in spite of the fact that our kids are born in one place and we in another, we’ve given them the sense of belonging, their roots, and these roots go beyond their place of birth and find their way to what is generally understood as the concept of home, Des, where one associates with and in turn is associated with.

So, a visit home with the next generation strengthens our roots. It doesn’t displace us. Our inner compasses click and whirr into place. We are comforted that despite our fears, things have NOT fallen apart; the center still holds.

About the Author
Shefali Shah Choksi teaches Literature and Composition at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. She has an M.A. (English) and M.Phil (Women’s Studies) from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara (Gujarat, India) and has lived in Florida since 1988, when she first immigrated to the US from Mumbai.

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