CHENNAI, India – Home is where the heart is, they say. If that is true, then I must say my heart has never truly approved of any of the places I’ve lived in so far.
For someone such as myself, and by that I mean someone who moves around a lot, the hardest thing would be putting down roots in a place and calling it home.
Why is it so hard? Because each place is only temporary. In 17 and a half years, I’ve lived in 11 different places in three separate countries. My time in each place lasted as short as six months and as long as more than 12 years.
I belong to all and none of them at once. Every place has given me something significant to remember. But in the end, none of them have ever truly stirred the feeling of ‘home’ within me. Of the 11, the three most significant places are a small town in India, the city-state of Singapore and the large Indian city of Chennai.
Trichy, my first home, is a small town in the state of Tamil Nadu in southern India. There I was born – in a small, dingy nursing home – and raised in the house of my maternal grandmother till the age of one.
There, among my loud, wonderful relatives that I learnt my first language, and took my first steps.
My early memories of Trichy aren’t as defined as I’d like them to be. What I do remember, however, are the little things that my world was made up of back then; my grandmother’s kind smile, strolling through the Ordnance Factory Estate and stomping all over the mimosa plants that littered the ground and that one incident that made me develop a life-long phobia of butterflies.
I remember the little girl from the house across the road who would play with me and then pinch me for reasons unknown. I remember the chatter of voices, the gardens filled with mango trees where snake attacks were frequent and all the sleepless nights in the tiny two-bedroom houses that followed after. I vividly remember my first memory: a large crow standing over the sari-hammock I used to sleep in as a baby.
Life was simple in Trichy, especially in the Trichy of 1997-98, when the town hadn’t yet known what malls and fast-food chains were, as it does today. There was little to entertain ourselves with besides the telly and there was little reason to venture out of the gated community where we lived.
Being smack dab in the middle of the state also ruled out any possibilities of beaches – a fact I still blame for my rather inept swimming skills.
In 1999 came a drastic change for one-year old me. That was the year my little nuclear family – consisting of my parents and myself – migrated to Singapore, where we would spend the majority of the next 13 years of our lives.
Singapore saw me through a huge part of my childhood and adolescence. It marked some of the best years of my life, spent with some of the best people I could ever hope to meet. Singapore was where my baby brother arrived into this world, where I discovered my love for the English language and where I met my best friend, a sister in all but blood.
My years in Singapore were something akin to watching a plant grow bigger and bigger.
During the early years of my childhood, prejudice was still apparent in Singapore.
As advanced as it was for a tiny island, it took a bit longer for everyone to be truly racially harmonious. I recall sitting on the train once beside a Chinese woman who, upon seeing that I was Indian, immediately turned the other way and visibly plugged her nose as though I smelled bad (which I didn’t). I was puzzled as any four-year old would be and it was only when my mother who was sitting next to me explained calmly in Tamil, that I understood that it wasn’t my smell that provoked the nose-plugging; it was the color of my skin.
Friends at Yishun Town Secondary School in Singapore in 2010. From left, Debby Lee, 13, Rebekah Peter, 13 and Adeline Ow, 13. (Najma Begum / YJI)
Such prejudices were gone by the time I started primary school where children of all races mixed freely together. I spent most of my life in Singapore having more Chinese and Malay friends than Indian ones.
We’d ride our bikes to a small shop under a flat and buy ourselves ‘mee-cups’ (which are actually just ready-made cup noodles) for $1.50 and the infamous bubble-teas we loved so much from another shop for $2. When we grew older and left our bikes
behind, we spent all our time roaming malls and pretending to do our homework in public libraries.
What I loved most about Singapore was its way of making everything unique. I loved how we were ‘in’ on the newest trends and still went to the roadside shops to buy drinks.
I loved how even those who scored A stars on their English papers spoke our uniquely broken Singlish in our free time. And I am not ashamed to admit that I loved the multi-lingual swear words we all learned and taught each other as well.
For me, becoming a citizen of Singapore was not just a piece of paper. My years there shaped everything about me as a person. It changed the way I thought and the way I behaved. It shaped my perception of the world.
I watched the nation grow in all aspects and as Singapore grew, I grew with it. Sure, it had its negatives. Racial prejudice still played a part, especially in areas where the pro-Chinese government played a key role, and the cost of living was terribly overpriced. There were nearly enough cons to equal the pros. But I didn’t care, not really.
In some ways, I even began to consider Singapore my homeland and, in complete contrast, developed a deep sense of disregard for the country where I was born.
The rooftop garden of VivoCity Mall in Singapore in 2012. (Rebekah Peter / YJI)
When I left Singapore in 2012, it was due to my mother’s illness. I barely had time to say my goodbyes.
Moving back to India did not sit well with me. I hated it instantly. Short holiday trips to check in with our many relatives was all well and good, but settling down here? No way.
I went through troubling times after that, trying to adapt. Even after my mother recovered, I couldn’t bring myself to recover from the daze I had fallen into after moving. I fell into chronic depression.
And yet, despite all that, life goes on.
It has been nearly two years now since I’ve called Chennai City my hometown. It is, I would say, a much better place compared to the small town where I was born. The roads are less dangerous, the malls are bigger (and better) and the people are better educated.
Chennai, much like Singapore, is multi-cultural. People from all over India and the world live here and hence, it isn’t as behind on the latest happenings around the world as other cities in the state are.
But no matter how much I have grown these past two years and how much my experiences here have taught me, my complete distaste for this country only grows with every day that I spend here.
For me, living here totally and utterly stinks.
Despite being the capital city of the state of Tamil Nadu, Chennai is nowhere near clean. More than that, it is severely unclean. Every street is covered in some form of defacement.
In some areas, you can still find open sewers, flaunting their smell to the 10 boroughs. Every wall in the city will be covered in a) urine or b) red ‘paan masala’ spit.
The only consolation? It’s cleaner than the rest of the state.
The view in 2015, outside Rebekah Peter’s apartment on First School Street, Sholinanallur, Chennai. (Rebeka Peter / YJI)
Traffic rules are nonexistent here, despite the constant patrolling of the traffic police. And instead of re-enforcing the rules, you will find them trying to nab as many fines as they can from the most gullible-looking people. On the roads, you will come across speeding motorcyclists and car drivers who feel that every journey is a race, extremely unsafe vehicles that might cause a pileup, and pedestrians who walk into the middle of oncoming traffic expecting the drivers and riders not to kill them as they cross the road.
As a girl, Chennai imposes even more of its unreasonable rules on me, one of them being that I can’t go 10 paces from my flat by myself unless I want the rapists – who somehow exist everywhere around here – to find me.
Rapists aside, the ‘roadside Romeos’ who are, in actuality, not just limited to roadsides but are also widely present in malls, restaurants and in places of public transportation, will not let any female pass by without making them feel severely uncomfortable in some way. And then, there are the pickpockets, who are a whole other story.
Living here has made me a hermit of sorts.
I no longer feel inclined to venture out of my house unless I really have to. And when I do so, I am plagued by anxiety. This, as I’m aware, is definitely not a healthy way to be.
Not only does it impact me socially and emotionally, it destroys whatever little independence I should be able to enjoy as a 17-year-old. It has kept me dependent on my parents for every little thing; from going places to buying my favorite cereal.
If all that isn’t enough, there is the terribly hypocritical upper class society with its loose morals that I am unfortunately compelled to mix with and the barbaric political parties who disrupt everyday life with their rowdy behavior. And last but certainly not least, the loud, bi-weekly celebrations held in the tiny 50-square-foot temple near my apartment. They crank up devotional songs to the maximum volume on their loudspeakers all day and night, heedless of their neighbors who need their eight hours of sleep to function normally at work or school the following day.
With all of that, I don’t find my displeasure at my current hometown at all surprising.
But hey, if there are any perks to being somebody who moves around a lot, it’s the fact that there’s always a way out. And sure enough, in another two years, it’ll be time for me to move yet again, this time to somewhere out west.
Home is where the heart is, they say. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally find the home that my heart is looking for there.
Rebekah Peter is a Junior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
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