“The hunger to belong is not merely a desire to be attached to something. It is rather sensing that great transformation and discovery become possible, when belonging is sheltered and true. “
The spice scented air of Mumbai enriched, encompassed and enveloped the people of India while diesel driven rickshaws honked through the day. Mumbai is a city of contradictions. Its busy narrow lanes filled with a blur of business and hurried voices. Beside the people towed by rags and soiled cotton, were crisp Amani’s and silk embroidered Indian dresses.
Sheer desperation perspired on the faces of ragged children running around like mongrels, with baskets of fish, fruits and other commodities. Envious black beady eyes followed my every move as I travelled the streets in a white singlet top that shorn in the sun like a morning star and Billabong black shorts. The mere thought of a girl wearing shorts here was anathema. Abruptly, a dark hand enclosed over my stiff shoulder. My Grandmother, my Dadi’s textured hands gripped mine tightly, the wrinkles on her skin woven over years of knowledge and wisdom, bringing up generations of my family’s women. Dadi was the rock of our family, the Uluru equivalent of my cultural ancestry.
Both dadi and I turned our heads; one with black shoulder length hair, the other a sea of white. A women stood before us, her sari frayed at the edges, sticking out like pins; an infant lay sleeping on her bony shoulders, bloated stomach the size of a balloon. Her face was smudged in black soot; her disgusting attire represented forbidden barriers, lines that she could never cross.
She pleaded in Hindi, “please. My child. She needs food. Please. Please give money.” Her voice was the weary voice of helplessness. Dadi turned her head towards me and her eyes seem to want to say something. Her disgruntled expression made evident that it was my fault that the woman approached us. Slowly, with great exasperation, her weathered brown hand withdrew five rupees and dumped it in the woman’s mud stained hands.
As the woman turned to leave a disabled man approached, his one good foot hobbing like a broken stick and his hand was filled with rotting mangoes. He too asked for money, putting forward his mashed mangoes and speaking in guttural Hindi ‘this is the only food I have to eat. Please help.’ Dadi once again had the same disgruntled expression. I felt as if though I had shrunk two inches shorter than what I was before, as a wave humiliation penetrated my body. Within five minutes time we were surrounded by a sea of people all of whom wanted and needed money. The weight of sheer harassment was dizzying as dadi and I became engulfed by a mass of hysteria.
I hate this place. This was not the India that I wanted to return to. My father spoke of spices, of exotic riches, of a land where I could find my cultural roots. Was this it? This sea of suffering? Mumbai was an ocean of poverty with only scant islands of prosperity. I wanted to go home, and go home to Australia. I wanted streets of performers and busy businessmen; I wanted to see my laughing friends. This was no home for me.
Dadi immediately ran for a rickshaw, her tiny legs pounding the clustered footpath as her sari flew like a sail. Her hands were firmly around my wrist as I was dragged along like a doll. Dadi yelled at the rickshaw driver to take us home. A great wave of disappointment echoed across the crowd that had us cornered.
We finally arrived at Dadi’s beautiful sunlit home. Large dainty palms lined its manicured garden. The building of the house was a mixture of emerald green and azure blue, like a manifest of the Barrier Reef on land. The path that lead through the trees and into the large private property reminded me of Daintree treks.
As we entered, the house reverberated with laughter, enjoyment and happiness. This was another world, so apart from the mere five minutes of our previous horror, that it was surreal and unbelievable.
Uncle came running. His lungi sash rippled behind him in a flutter. As he saw me a smile erupted on his old charismatic face. ”How are you child?” “How was the market?” he asked in fluent Hindi. My brain toiled as it tried to work out the English translation. “It was okay”, I stammered, unable to express my humiliation. Dadi took my uncle aside and spoke in a flurry Hindi so fast that I could not follow a single word. My uncle’s face broke into amusement at Dadi’s obvious distress.
He nodded understandably and called for my aunty. She brought out a folded blue dress. My heart leapt as she unfurled it. It was an azure silk churidaar, a traditional sari with golden beads that winked at me as if though it tempted me to wear it.
“Let me help you child.” My aunty said. However Dadi brushed her hand away and took the dress in her own. She was the matron, and she was to instruct me in how to wear the churidaar. The dress represented youth and chastity. The churidaar was a cultural garb that not only spoke of where you are from but who you are.
Half an hour later I was presented to the multitude of my family sitting in the lounge. My parents were there also, enjoying the company that was so sorely lacking in Australia.
“You look just like your mother! So beautiful!” My aunties exclaimed at once. Dadi stood back with an air of satisfaction. Another woman was made by her hands in this family. My mother stood and embraced me as my relatives cheered. She wore a traditional sari, a décor scarlet piece that sparkled with jewels. It was unthinkable to wear something so beautiful back home.
“Now you are just like a traditional Indian girl.” My mother clasped my hand, as through one of her long unrequited desires had come to fruition.
The terror of poverty was forgotten in the wave of appreciative and cheering relatives. Beside us Dadi nodded in approval. This was where ‘we’ belonged.