I grew up in a desert country, Oman, where I would pretend that the flowers I saw in gardens were primroses I read about in Enid Blyton novels; when leaves of the almond tree which grew behind my house turned a dusty red, I told myself that it was autumn. Yet, it was not until I moved to the United Kingdom to pursue my undergraduate studies that I actually saw autumnal trees for the first time outside of books.
However, during that first home-sick month, I found myself desperately yearning for Oman, realizing that for me, Oman was home; contrary to what my Indian passport told me. Oblivious to the trees on stunning visual fire, I only saw Oman’s cerulean blue skies, the minimal, mountain-lined desert landscape, and the cobalt sea. I subsequently returned to Oman once my studies concluded, but I soon realized that I had always been and would be permanently enmeshed in a specifically immigrant dilemma: living in one place, but yearning for another.
“I had always been and would be permanently enmeshed in a specifically immigrant dilemma: living in one place, but yearning for another.”
Many years later, I got married and moved from Oman to Pittsburgh, United States just before Christmas. My first night in the city, I met my next-door neighbor, an Indian girl from Delhi, who told me that I had arrived in arguably one of America’s ugliest cities. However, in my eyes, as time passed, the city became more and more beautiful, disproving my neighbor’s gloomy words.
From my apartment balcony, I watched the seasons’ theater unfurl: the tabula rasas of winterscapes transitioned into spring’s gorgeous bloom-laden apple, cherry, and dogwood trees, their feathery white blossoms coincidentally resembling un-melted snowflakes. Spring metamorphosed into summer, making me privy to tree dancing during charcoal-hued thunderstorms. At the peak of summer, you thought that it would last forever, and that winter was a nightmare you had dreamed up — and then, overnight, the leaves on the tree outside your apartment would turn crimson, as if you had complimented it on being unbearably beautiful, and its entire body blushed in response.
I found myself visually documenting nature’s cycles through my newly acquired iPhone at a period in my life when I was questioning my hyphenated cultural identity more than ever. Living in America, experiencing seasons that had so far been mythical stories, I once again felt displaced from the country I called home, but was not my homeland: Oman.
I constantly grappled with the truth that my homeland was India; when I was especially feeling cynical and confused about my identity, I called it my passport-land. The more pictures I accumulated on my camera roll, I found myself simultaneously more anchored and displaced than ever in Pittsburgh. Home was wherever I happened to be, I told myself, but I wasn’t really convinced.
“Home was wherever I happened to be, I told myself, but I wasn’t really convinced.”
A year and half later, my husband and I decided to move to India. “Priyanka’s moving back to India,” a friend introduced me to her colleague, before correcting herself: “Actually, you aren’t moving back, are you? You’re moving to India.” It wasn’t just a question of precise semantics: it was the truth.
I had never lived in India apart from annual summer vacations spent there; I loved those holidays but I longed to return to Oman as they neared their conclusion. India was the fifth country I would reside in all these years, and it was the one that perhaps unsurprisingly seemed the most foreign to me.
I fell sick the night I moved to Delhi in October 2014; I burned with high fever the next day and subsequently developed allergic bronchitis, a gift from the city that has been anointed as the world’s most polluted one. I moved to a house with eye-cooling mint green walls and found myself laid up in bed for a week, observing leaves from two large, spreading trees that bracketed our bedroom windows dappling the walls throughout the day.
For the longest time, all of these trees were nameless, as were many of the birds, insects, and squirrels that populated them; I simply observed and photographed them on my phone, but I did not have any inclination whatsoever to discover their names, to liberate them from their facelessness. I was so accustomed to a nomadic existence that I didn’t think I would stay long enough to make this knowledge gathering worthwhile — and so, how did it matter if I knew their names or not? There were many occasions when I found myself desperately yearning for Oman or the States; I felt extremely resentful of India, exhausted by how overwhelming it was and from confronting its multiple challenges.
My resentment translated into a refusal to consider India as home — and I subsequently once more saw through the trees or plants or birds that quietly existed and did consider this country as their home. Yet, as circumstances compelled us to stay longer in Delhi, I gradually found myself wanting to learn the names of the flora and fauna surrounding me — I no longer wanted to live in an unfamiliar world, I no longer wanted to be an alien stranger amongst them.
“I no longer wanted to live in an unfamiliar world, I no longer wanted to be an alien stranger amongst them.”
I read in the newspaper the other day that our neighborhood is the greenest one in New Delhi, and I must agree as I observe the sheer wealth of the flora surrounding me. There is a massive peepal tree behind my house, which simultaneously functions as a pop-up shrine; seen from my study window, the first tree to bloom during spring, the appearance of the silk cotton tree’s fat monstrously beautiful crimson or orange flowers herald winter’s end. The gulmohar tree’s bare branches which had otherwise sported earrings of long chocolate brown seed pods (incidentally, they also make excellent rattles) are currently ablaze with crimson blooms.
If you stroll through adjoining by-lanes, you will encounter baby green mango-laden trees, creamy white neem bloom, laburnum dripping with chandeliers of gloriously yellow flowers, and a garden earlier violently violet with blooming jacaranda trees. Even though trees may send away bits of themselves to the world through their fallen leaves, flowers, and seeds, they are ultimately rooted to where they are, their one and only home.
The more I learned about the flora surrounding me, the less I found myself becoming a detached observer and more of an intimate inhabitant in the place I was living in. Just as one defines and associates a place with its people, the trees too were shaping and adding personality to my immediate world; one that I was finding myself becoming a participant in: I knew them, and they knew me.
“When we leave this place, I am really going to miss its nature,” I told my husband the other day; I was referring to my natural surroundings, but perhaps, my faux-pas actually meant that I was referring to the character of the place? Was I actually considering it home, after all?
A few days ago, I opened my living room window to find a web that a spider had fashioned for itself between the grill. It was the size of my palm, gossamer-thin, exquisitely beautiful — and the architect, designer, and builder still diligently at work. I was concerned that a breeze would blow it away, so fragile a thing it was; yet, the spider resolutely continued spinning its home, secure in its belief that it had created its home and would not be plucked away. And even if it did, he would make another one for himself.
That’s how it is: you don’t just create your homes; you actually live inside them, no matter where you go. It took me a spider and a tree to teach me that.
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Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in New Delhi, India, who has authored three poetry volumes, and written two short stories included in international anthologies. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, UK, Priyanka previously lived in the Sultanate of Oman and the United States and has written for Gulf News, Brownbook, Khaleejesque, The State, Brown Girl, and India Currents amongst others with a focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography at her blog and on Instagram.