The Long Way Home


A screeching sound reverberated into my ears when I felt the aeroplane wheels touch down on the tarmac, as my eyes were blinded by the sight of another world. This was a world of its own, one that I’d seen before, but never fully understood. I’d never felt distinctly Indian, even though its demonym appears on my passport, boldened and capitalised. A few houses that were my parents’ childhood homes were on this land, particularly, my mother’s house in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Upon touchdown, my mother heaved a sigh of relief. It was hard to tell if this relief came from a safe landing, or if it was because this was the very first land, the very first thing that she had known. I wasn’t sure if I felt as relaxed as she did – if anything, I felt nervous, the kind of nervousness you’d feel when expecting a surprise, an unexpected gift, or the nervousness before having to do something that you were afraid of. I knew what could happen, which was probably what would happen, the same old events similar to the previous trip, but this time I coveted for something different, for something unforgettable. 

It was a chilly winter night in November 2019, and the cold nibbed at my skin as I put my coat on. But the cold was always coming from somewhere else. Like the derisive stare from the durwan1 at the airport, who looked at me, and then looked back again at my mother, as he couldn’t quite put his finger on the difference. He told my mother “welcome back home” in Gujarati, but looked at me as if I was an alien, with my apparently unfamiliar features and the fair and lovely2 complexion that my father had given me. I tried to mutter a few words in Gujarati in the hope of proving my worth, to which the durwan seemed shocked and delighted at the same time. I’m still pretty sure that I did speak to him in an alien language anyway, because I didn’t fully understand the words I spoke and the weight they carried. 

During the ride back home from the airport, I looked at the street vendors selling chikoos, neem, paan and betel leaves, and then finally after seemingly hours of gazing we reached my nani3’s neighbourhood. We would often get those in Singapore too, but just looking at them from another angle, from another part of the world, I could swear that they were different. My mother paid the driver, and she took a walk and to smell the crisp air of her home again, the overpowering smell of dal, sabzi, and theplas. To her, it seemed that she was sensing all these things for the first time. To me, it all seemed ordinary, even the apparently incredible street food. I always thought that the pani puris and the jalebis4 were oily and bloaty. They never melted in my mouth like my mother said they would – they just stayed there, waiting for my tongue’s approval. I’d bitterly eat them for my mother’s pleasure instead of mine, waiting for the taste to wane and for the moment to slip away. Unlike the others, I wouldn’t drown away the spicy aftertaste with lassi or mango juice. Instead, I’d primitively ask for a glass of water. 

That was how we’d often spend our days and nights, the monotonous routine of meeting family and friends, both familiar and unfamiliar, visiting new places, and eating more Indian food every day. And this family I saw each time was only my family because my nani said so, because everyone in Ahmedabad was my family, because all Indians were my brothers and sisters5– a sentiment that I never truly understood, being a single child raised in Singapore. Each time I would meet a new relative, I felt that they would speak a new language. I’d nod my head here and there, speak a few broken sentences, and then glare at my mother as a cry for help. Everyone I met on that trip was from the land of a thousand mother tongues, with each border a new voice emerging, each new chapter a moving story. 

I certainly didn’t feel like I had the blood of the land of a thousand mother tongues in me. Maybe I was just growing up, getting more angsty, perhaps getting more percepient of reality. Thousand mother tongues felt like a thousand liabilities – the intricacies of the Devanagari script that made my pen dance around in circles, the effort it took my tongue and my lips to pronounce mere letters. How sometimes Hindi would intersect with Gujarati which would then have words from Marathi, how things were so complicated that my mother would speak in Hindi and receive replies in a whole other language. It was as if the people there slowly got bored with their tongue resting on the same language, let alone a whole other language group. All the languages seemed distant from each other, yet somehow close, bonded through Sanskrit. It was complex beyond belief, and back then I wouldn’t have replied back to anyone in any other language but English. I’d simply sit still, my mouth merely releasing breaths that just turned into air. I’d feel like running away, I’d feel like hiding. Because I was embarrassed beyond my own comprehension, because I didn’t have an answer for whatever they asked me. You would think that the meaning of what you’re saying wouldn’t change no matter the language, but for me it did. Because it was so much more about it than just being a language. It was about who spoke it, and when, and why. 

I had met so many masas and masis6, but today I still can’t remember some of their names, even though I remember their big houses and the number of cars some of them had. I’d smile weakly at the sight of the fafdas, dhoklas and faloodehs7that they made, reluctantly trying them and then quietly asking my mother to finish it up for me. 

It was in moments like these where I loathed my Indian heritage, where meeting relatives felt like a task of pleasantries and taking pictures rather than a warm embrace. Nothing about being Indian seemed to excite me, with every sip of dal becoming more bland, the spices souring, my mother tongue slowly becoming distasteful. Being Singaporean was so much easier and so much more tolerable. Just going with the flow, liking what my friends liked, appreciating the pristine streets and parks instead of having to tolerate street cows and dogs and noisy, bumpy roads. There was no need to take so much time dressing up to wear a lehenga, no need to take so much time pronouncing the word ‘paratha’ when I could just easily shorten it to ‘prata’ like the others did. I’d shamelessly do the latter in front of my mother, who would look away in disappointment. She and my father had tried so hard to bring me up in the best of both worlds, but I had chosen to ignore them, or not appreciate them enough. 

Yet at the same time, Singaporean life felt so ordinary when I was in Ahmedabad. Instead of being awakened by the morning Sun, the newspaper boy would send the whole neighbourhood into an uncomfortable yet unified consciousness from their sleep with his voice reverberating through the empty streets. My nani would make me chai8, and I would join my nana9 on the porch swing as the smoke from his cigarettes dissipated into the chilly air to give it an unwarranted warmth. But this was not a routine, for maybe another day, the cook would come early and start preparing lunch, resulting in me skipping breakfast, or maybe the adults decided to spend the night singing karaoke and smoking shisha. It was the kind of unexpectedness that I wanted from the minute I landed in Ahmedabad, the desperation for something new and something bold, something that would be worth remembering forever. 

On one of the more ordinary mornings, I sat on the porch swing with my nana, with a blanket around me and my chai nabat in my hands. Even though I almost gagged at everything I’d experienced in Ahmedabad, this felt oddly serendipitous. Perhaps because no one was expecting. No one was looking, caring, listening or whispering. It was just me and my family, my real family. This morning was particularly spectacular to me, as the sunny heat warmed my heart, yet the tiny hairs on my arms danced to the cool winter breeze. The sight of all the lemons growing in my nani’s garden, each one dazzling in a bright summery spirit, the minty aroma of the mint leaves cooling me, and the monarch butterflies fluttering around me. They reminded me of uttarayan10, and as the butterflies waltzed in the breeze, I remembered trying to fly my butterfly kite. 

I’m taken back to December 2015 in Ahmedabad, when my nani had opened up the terrace of my mother’s house to all my cousins and I for the first time. We were all gushing down mango juice as we flew our kites. Some of the kites were handmade and made to last forever. And they fluttered, my big yellow bee buzzing around, in front of an azure sky. It felt like a sensory overload, those times when you don’t know where, what, when to look. You would just sit there, hoping that the moment would never slip away. That same night, even though it grew colder, it still felt warm. My cousins and I huddled together in my nani’s handmade quilt, and it was the first time I had felt real warmth in a cold place, the kind of warmth that melted your heart and preserved all your memories in their air of innocence. 

It was that same memory which had reappeared in my mind when my parents had taken me to the West Coast in 2017 for the Singapore Gujarati Society’s uttarayan festival. I was so excited to see my kite frolic in the wind, to see a big butterfly stand out amongst all the other kites and to see it fly the highest, just like that day on the terrace. As I rolled the string over and over, hoping that the wind would set my butterfly free, I cut my finger against the sharp string, leading to my kite losing control just as it was about to soar. It came crashing down into the dewy green field, never to be flown again. It was the biggest kite, but it was also the weakest, for as I scaled my fingers against the kite, I noticed it to be plasticky and even torn from the inside. Just from that, I knew that uttarayan here was never the same as it was at my mother’s house. 

I appreciated how the Singapore Gujarati Society tried to recreate that memory for me, but nothing could emanate the presence of my family, my real family and I flying kites sewn with tears of joy and pain on that terrace. I was grateful to experience such things in both of my homes, even though sometimes they proved to be inadequate, sometimes in Singapore, sometimes in India. Singapore could never recreate some of my fond memories, and India could never feel like home sometimes, even though it was. There were only a few people in India who made me feel at home — my nana and nani, and before he passed away in 2021, my great-grandfather. 

My great-grandfather would describe himself as a one trick pony, but we all knew that he used to say such things to set a good example of humility for his great-grandchildren. My mother would tell me of the times that she got stuck in the rain, when her grandfather (my great-grandfather) would iron her books. He would buy my masi11 her first Vespa, he would follow my grandfather to West Germany, and then he would spend hours talking to me, someone who didn’t even speak his language, who didn’t even bother to care. He would narrate hours of stories about wars, about the Berlin Wall, about earthquakes (2001 was a bad year for everybody). We spoke about everything, and even though he would speak to me in Gujarati and I would reply back in bits and pieces of Hindi, we still knew what we were talking about. Those stories are still alive even though he isn’t anymore. 

Until I left Ahmedabad in 2019, I realised that this was how most of my relationships there were meant to be. Call it fate or call it karma, it was only once in a blue moon when I could have a genuine conversation with someone in Ahmedabad, without the uncomfortable air of expectation that made breathing difficult, without all the formalities and pleasantries. This kind of originality only came by rarely, and it came and went with my great-grandfather. 

So when I finally left Ahmedabad in 2019, I was determined to learn Gujarati so that I would be able to talk to him more often, so that I could show him how much I missed him when I was away. 

He passed away in 2021. He never got to hear me speak in Gujarati. He never got to listen to my elation, to feel my zeal. 

With his death came grief and vulnerability that I had never known before. At first I selfishly thought that there was no one left for me to talk to in Ahmedabad. I felt angry at him for leaving me hanging, for leaving me with nothing except stories and a few new words in Gujarati. But what I’m starting to understand is that he left me with something unforgettable, the same thing that I had coveted for the minute I landed in Ahmedabad in 2019. He left me with a home far away from home, and even though sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in both directions, I’m glad that I still have Ahmedabad as a reminder of him, as a reminder of my people, no matter how they were, and as a reminder of my memories. In the beginning I always used to compare India and Singapore together, and figure out which one I liked better, but now I’m learning to embrace both these halves of my heart. Sometimes I still avoid Ahmedabad because of all the intensity that comes with it, because of how unsure I sometimes am of my identity between India and Singapore, but the one thing I know for sure right now is that Ahmedabad is irreplaceable, and it comforts me knowing that it is always going to stay. 

1 Coolie/porter in Farsi-derived Hindi

2 Face creams marketed in India that claim to provide a fairer complexion 

3 Grandmother in Hindi and Gujarati 

4 Traditional Indian street food 

5 Referenced from the Indian National Pledge “all Indians are my brothers and sisters”

6 Uncles and aunts 

7 Dishes of South Asian and West Asian origin 

8 Tea in Hindi 

9 Grandfather in Hindi and Gujarati 

10 Kite flying festival in Gujarat 

11 Aunt in Hindi and Gujarati