I am coming home soon. Even though I am supposed to be home here in India, I am anticipating my return to Rockville. As a person who, now more than ever, lives in limbo between two cultures, I ascribe no concrete sense of belonging or comfort to either of the two countries between which I vacillate. In fact, although I’ve lived there my entire life, the overwhelming majority of the United States is as foreign to me as the subcontinent.
When I think of America and the sense of “home” it evokes, naturally I think of my neighborhood. Completely unremarkable, ensconced on the fringes of D.C., its more refined and worldly cousin, Rockville can boast of nothing besides the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife are buried in St. Mary’s cemetery up the road.
But I have grown up there. I am acquainted with the streets, the street corners, the landmarks, the parks, the park benches. I have spoken with the Albanian barista in the town center about his favorite black and white films, and the neighborhood drunkard, a native Aborigine, about his long-lost wife in France.
Perhaps I have such an affinity for the place because it is the one place I’ve truly explored firsthand. Of course, one could say there’s hardly much to explore, and they would be right. By “Rockville,” a city of about thirty-five kilometers squared, I mean the Town Center, the Metro, St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Glenview Mansion, and the handful of streets that make up my neighborhood.
My grandmother sometimes sees me sitting quietly, deep in thought, and comes up to reassure me: “Don’t worry,” she says, “You’ll be back in America soon. I know you miss home.” But she’s mistaken. It’s not America I miss. Even “missing” it seems like a stretch, an indulgence. I try to tell her, to explain my relationship with my hometown, but to no avail. “No, no, don’t worry,” she insists, “ I understand. I had to leave India for three years once to live in England. It was miserable.” She can’t grasp what I feel, perhaps because her sentimental notions and reflections have so long been shunted aside in favor of real, practical concerns; “the meat and potatoes of life.”
I am a little galled. I’m not pining for America, as a whole, and all that it represents: its almost offensive cleanliness, its insularity disguised under the names of “independence” and “privacy.” No. Of course it is a human thing to yearn for the opposite of something when that something can become overwhelming, like how I do sometimes yearn for the clean marble of the twin sinks in our upstairs bathroom, when I stumble into the bathroom here and see streaks of mud on the tiles and a cockroach darting from wall to wall. Yet, there are times when I wish for the eclectic noise of the unwashed, unnamed masses on the streets to fill our Rockville house when it is sunk in silence during the winters.
But I am not an All-American woman. America, unadulterated, amorphous, isn’t what makes my heart tick.
A sense of belonging, particularly to a place, I believe is overrated. One never truly belongs anywhere; indeed we do not even belong on earth for longer than a few decades, until we return to the dust. If everybody truly belonged where they ought to, wholly and without anguish, the world would be organized like a filing cabinet. What’s more, is that we probably would not have art, as the best art, the creative impulse is largely born out of a sense of displacement and dissatisfaction with the state of the world as it is; there is a desire for more. That is why I no longer cleave to either India or America, in their vast, individual sense. I love them for what they’ve taught me, for the light they cast on each other. Bangalore is mine, India is not. I do not mean to limit myself; I am sure that as I grow I will become better acquainted with both of these countries, but it is unlikely that any place be ever be so close to my heart as these two cities.
Rockville has held my family in its hand for nearly twenty years. Bangalore for fifty. That is no small thing.