(I wrote this for a writing class at Uni, quite some years ago. I stumbled upon it while sorting some old documents on my laptop, and thought it’d be nice to post it here. Hope you enjoy it!)
The fan on the ceiling is still turning slowly, pushing hot air around the room. The air conditioning stopped a few minutes ago. Power cut. They usually last a few hours. From my bed I can see the tall, leafy tree in front of my window. Its flowers are an almost unnatural pink, as if the colours outside are slightly out of tune. Flies buzz in through the holes in the fly screen. Unable to find their way back, they fly around my room. My thoughts wander—though as slow as syrup—to my other home. Images of rows and rows of bicycles, yellow trains and bare trees come to the surface as night falls in New Delhi.
For my parents, home is still Surinam. Their families travelled from some rural district in India to settle down in a country far away from their own. My parents did the same, but went from Surinam to the Netherlands. When they talk about their childhood, they talk about Surinam. Nostalgia for their youth is triggered by the smell of rain in the summer, mangoes and Hindi film music. I never understood this until I moved away from the Netherlands, my home since birth. Suddenly, parcels from Holland became little treasure chests, containing not only the love of relatives and friends far away, but treats like liquorice and peanut butter (only Calvé, of course).
Though I was born and raised in the Netherlands, I never forgot that I was foreign. That’s a bit hard when people ask where I’m from at every opportunity—some have even used it as a pick up line. When I say: “I’m from the Netherlands”, they tend to ask me (laughing, as though I just made a hilarious joke): “No, for real, where’re you from?” I’ve lectured a lot of people about migration this way, some quick in their understanding (“Surinam… that’s where Gullit’s from, right?”), others still in the dark (“But, you don’t look Surinamese!”)
So, when I got the chance to spend some time in India, I grabbed the opportunity. I would complete the circle; go to the country my grandparents came from; India, from the place where my parents went some thirty years ago: the Netherlands. I felt like I was going back to my roots, to a place where I would feel at home. At first, the sight of so many things so familiar—music, food and people—made me believe I was right.
So there I was, waiting for this great, big feeling of coming home. But, living between people that looked like me, and had, to some extent, the same habits, that feeling didn’t come. I couldn’t relate to the giggling girls I saw in the markets, dressed in traditional Indian clothes. They often didn’t speak English very well, rocking their heads from side to side at everything I said.
The trendy high society girls of Indian nightlife didn’t so much as glance at me. The conversations they had with each other were a lot more entertaining though: “But Sila, all your sunglasses are Gucci, why didn’t you get something a bit more classy, like Chanel?” “I know, but these will go so well with my Armani handbag!”
I felt different, and like in the Netherlands, I had to explain where I was from again and again. Not because I looked foreign, but because my ideas and behaviour were. I talked about sex during an English literature lecture, wore a bikini in the pool and I didn’t wax my arms. People questioned my accent: “No, no, I know where you’re from, Russia! No? Iran? America?” I did start to love India, but as a new and strange country, not as a long lost home.
An old saying goes that home is where the heart is. I know my parents could never live in Surinam now, though they might have left their hearts there. The Surinam they remember is a country long gone; like the Netherlands of thirty years ago. For them, it is the country where they became adults. I used to listen to their stories about it impatiently and slightly bored. I couldn’t imagine the thrill when the local grocery shop started to sell salted Surinamese fish. Or the need to receive Indian films through a dish antenna. I had to go all the way to India to understand how these things ease the pain of being away from home.