I’ve heard of people planting the umbilical cords of their children in their backyards. I think this is a beautiful, poetic idea, with just the right amount of the macabre to make it a well-rounded celebration of life. An umbilical cord in sacred soil – the soil of home, so the body never forgets. I wish my umbilical cord was planted somewhere – the only thing is, I have no clue where that place might have been.
I was born in Madras pretty much by accident, because my parents lived in Colombo at the time. The first home of my life belonged to the Sri Lankan government, as did the next few, because of my grandfather’s political career, which would lead to our eventual, regrettable move to a country I have very hostile feelings toward. We ate on crockery embossed with the lion emblem for years, and to this day when I see that emblem I think of childhood meals.
If my family had chosen to bury my birth matter, it would have been in a place they did not call home, a place they no longer call home, or a place that in spite of many years of residing there was never, not once, home.
I’ve been back in India for almost a year now, and I am happy. But I am in love with my passport-identified home with the same ferocity with which some atheists hate god. For a person to whom no home exists, I am vociferous in my loyalties.
There are, of course, many benefits to the nomad’s life. The ability to make friends, and sever attachments, quickly. Travel. Multilingualism. The chance to constantly reinvent oneself. The double-edged gift and curse of being able to see one’s “native” places with renewed, awestruck eyes on every always too long, and always too brief, holiday.
But to grow up belonging nowhere at all is not a fate I would wish on anyone.
The great Venezuelan poet Eugenio Montejo wrote of Caracas, “Its space is real, fearless, solid concrete./Only my history is false”. And this is what I feel of Chennai.
I write this sitting in the café in which I have co-curated a photo exhibit and reading series for Madras Week. I am surrounded by images of a city to which both my past and my destiny are irrevocably interlinked, but it has lived within me in a way that makes sense to no one else at all.
I have written this before, but if there is a better description for how I feel, I cannot come up with it myself: Chennai is my photo negative heart. It is my life flipped inside out. At times I feel as though there was one me living elsewhere, and one that grew up between Chennai and Colombo. My two hearts. My homes to which I am bound by invisible umbilical cords.
In company, I am the former. I don’t understand pop culture references, school cliques, certain slang, certain frustrations. I can’t tell you how much I resent this. I am constantly filled with envy at those who have lived in this city, and not had the city live in them, lingering, looming and all-consuming in its distance.
Only when I am alone can I forget this sobering fact: I did not grow up here. There is nothing I can do to reverse it, nothing that will give me back the childhood I should have had, but watch me try.
My umbilical cord was probably destroyed. I make up for it by putting all that’s left of me, body and soul, into the praise of this city.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.