It’s the most innocent of questions, and yet, I am almost always stumped by it: ‘Where are you from?’
Do I say, ‘Just outside London’ (where I have lived for almost two decades and which is now my home)? Or ‘South India’ (which is where I grew up)?
I suppose this is why I write, why my characters tend to have the carpet pulled out from under them, why they grapple with identity, who they are. I am trying to answer this fundamental question of who I am, where I belong, what is home, via my books.
I had an idyllic childhood, growing up in a picturesque village nestling by the Arabian sea, spending the endless, sugarcane scented summer afternoons playing cricket and lagori in the fields, running amok among the fruit orchards, stealing mangoes and guavas from neighbourhood gardens, getting bitten by ants and hounded by the posse of stray dogs that roamed the village. I suppose those torpid, lazy days have been branded in my memory as they make their presence felt while I am writing my books and an echo of those somnolent, carefree afternoons weave a thread of nostalgia into the prose I am composing.
The village where I spent my childhood was a hotbed for gossip and secrets. I used to eavesdrop on conversations and discover intrigue, snippets of gossip thrumming with undercurrents which I never fully understood until I was an adult. And, as I grew older, I also began to comprehend that secrets are most prevalent in families, that we tend to keep confidences from the people we love the most, fired by the misplaced conviction that we are protecting them.
When I sat down to write my first novel, I looked up all the advice that new writers are given. The one which stuck with me was, ‘Write about what you know.’
Okay, I mused. I can do that.
I spent a few days pondering and finally decided to address the strange ailment that strikes me mute when people ask: ‘Where are you from?’
And this is how my first novel, Monsoon Memories came into play. Shirin, the protagonist of Monsoon Memories, wants to answer the question, ‘Where are you from?’ with India, but she cannot, for she is no longer welcome there. For her, home will always be the one place which has shunned her, which she has run away from and yearned for ever since.
We all do things we regret, but the choice Shirin has to make is one that changes the course of her life forever, alienating her from almost everyone she holds dear and the country she loves.
Home, I have come to understand is where you feel comfortable, rooted. Where your family is; your loved ones, all those who matter to you. Home is where you are happiest, where you are most yourself, the place you keep returning to in your memories. Shirin, the protagonist in my debut, Monsoon Memories doesn’t have that luxury. She is bereft floating in a no-man’s land, denied the memories that are rightly hers because to access them she has to face the thing she did, the thing she cannot get past.
Home, for me, is in one sense, the wind-battered, rain-kissed house in the suburbs of London where I live now. It is also, in a wider sense a sun-warmed, bustling, multi-hued, multi-faceted country of contrasts, the constant warmth of a benevolent sun matched only by its sunnier people.
Both these places have shaped me, India in growing me up and London in forming the adult I have become.
Where are you from? What do you think of when you think of ‘home’?
This post is brought to you by Renita D’Silva.