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Sweta Srivastava Vikram

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Sweta Vikram: Homeless in My Thirties

The other day, over homemade poha, cheese toast (Not grilled cheese), and adrak ki chai (Not spiced Indian masala tea), I said to a friend, "When I was in my twenties, I viewed immigration very differently compared to today." It was an ambiguous statement at best or not.

See, my husband and I recently returned from a delightful two-week trip to India. It was hectic, as always, but it was also heart-warming. But ever since we have come back, I can't shake off this overwhelming feeling of homesickness - the way I felt when I was a teenager being dropped off at my boarding school in Mussoorie, India. Maybe worse. I continue to get emotional (Okay, whine) about the people and life there. Once when I said to my husband, "I miss home. I want to go back," he calmly said, "But this is home."

I thought about his words and conceded that he was right. I mean, I have lived in the US for over a decade. It's not like I am a newly wed dealing with separation syndrome. And this wasn't the first time we visited India. We try and make a trip at least once a year. So, home is New York City - the place he and I bought together. It's been for the longest time. And I have always enjoyed knowing that. I have always appreciated coming back to it from any trip - be it India or Paris. So what was it this time?

When I was in my twenties, all ready to conquer the world, my mother would often say, "With age, your roots call out to you." I didn't make much of her words then, but somewhere in my subconscious, her wisdom permeated. See, not that long ago when I was twenty something, I believe, I was different as a person. Too eager to please even when I was internally displeased. My aspirations and dreams were kind of "I—centric." And I wasn't an anomaly. I represented the thought process of majority of people from my generation. I have been talking to my other friends, who are all in their early thirties now, and they feel the same way - something has changed after they turned thirty. We are all still ambitious, but our priorities have changed. In my case, I have recognized and embraced my real self.

When you are younger, you tend to emulate others because you lack a sense of self. To quote one of my dearest friends, "Twenties are about mob-mentality. We do what others around us are doing." Truer words have never been spoken. Especially for people who grew up in South Asia, you spend your twenties trying to prove you are an adult with legal permission to make your own decisions and live life on your own terms. Often times, you don't even know what you want, so you end up in the rat race constantly seeking approval. Be that with friends or family. I see that in youth of India today. They speak American slangs and adorn a western persona as they flip through "Non-Indian" channels. The question is do they really want to be western or are they doing it because everyone else is? Do they believe using words like, "Dude" and "Awesome!" or rolling their "Rs" would make them more desirable in the eyes of the opposite sex? Or they haven't yet figured out who they are?

Up until a few years ago, when someone asked me, "Where are you from?" my default answer would be, "New York." I wasn't lying. I live in New York. There were times when people would confuse me for Hispanic or Russian, but I wouldn't take the effort to correct them. In my defense, I wasn't pretentious; I was trying to fit in. It helped that I didn't look like an outsider in a "foreign" country.

I liked how everything in New York was about making dreams come true. I couldn't imagine ever leaving the Big Apple. But then, something changed. In fall of 2009, I was at a writer's residency in Martha's Vineyard. At one of the public readings, I was introduced as an American writer. I should have been happy that I wasn't singled out as an "alien," but a part of me died on hearing the announcement. I accepted that I was getting old and my roots were calling out to me—just as my mother had predicted. That evening, before I started reading my work, I proudly told the audience that I was "Indian." An Indian writer living in America. I felt inexplicably peaceful with my defined identity.

I have noticed that in the last few years, whether people ask or not, I like to inform them about my Indian roots. Every time I do so, my heart swells with a warm feeling. We have elaborate Holi and Diwali parties at home for our non-South Asian friends, so they can familiarize themselves with our culture. Of course, I still celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. The thirties have taught me to keep a sane balance between the eastern and western influences on my life.

My perspective has altered with time. I have embraced that no place is perfect. The things that annoyed me about India, when I was younger, don't bother me any longer. If there is noise in India, there are also people who make sure you aren't lonely. If there is zero sense of privacy, it also means there is affection accompanying the gesture. A friend, who is emotionally in a similar place said to me, "I think we reconciled it by admitting that we really have two homes now and should really just enjoy each one."

But having analyzed my behavior and emotions, I am still left wondering. Does the vulnerability of not being able to specifically define one home, increase with age? Was I more blissful in my twenties living away, metaphorically, from everyone? John Ed Pearce once said, "Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to." Do the thirties initiate that process?

(Publishing language: "Homeless in my thirties," a personal essay, originally appeared in Sweta Vikram's nonfiction book: Mouth full (J Publishing Company Limited: October 15, 2012. ISBN-13: 978-1907989032)).


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