Khar, my birthplace, is a small patch of land along the coast where the Indian sub-continent slides into the waters of the Arabian Sea. It was likely a sleepy backwater for centuries, slumbering away from the mainland while cradling rice paddies and coconut palms. My family settled there in the thirties, my widowed grandmother unable to house her seven children anywhere else in the main city of Bombay after my grandfather’s death meant leaving the British police force staff quarters at Byculla. So my father grew up with muddy fields, the slither of snakes, the howling of wolves, and the occasional glimpse of famous movie stars who lived up in the fancier lanes on Pali Hill.
But come the seventies, Khar suddenly turned fashionable and gentrification followed rapidly. Now millionaires (lakhpati)* hog its once-quiet hillsides, SUVs parade up and down its clogged streets, and conspicuous consumption abounds. The sea-shell draped yard of my own home and the two mango trees my father had planted are merely a sepia memory.
This January, I spent a day there with my buddies from high school, wandering the alleys of Pali Hill, chowing down on meals that we loved as teenagers, cracking wise at each others’ expense, and marveling at the fact that it had been over twenty-years since graduation.
We even visited our old school, where some of my friends now send their progeny, while others avoid it like the plague. (Let’s just say some of us had a few interesting high school years.) The school has changed, too, of course. No longer the always-under-construction building where some of the classes were held in tin-roof rooms and the monsoon rain drummed out all other sound, it is now a polished mini-campus housing divisions for early childhood education and for students with disabilities.
To my delight (and eventually that of my friends), one of our old teachers, who is now the principal, greeted us with open arms.
Other teachers stopped to say hi and we even got an audience with the school’s founding board member, a woman of towering intellect despite her advancing years—many of them spent in the effort to improve access to education.
When our former principal, the one who saw me through graduation and other stressful times, died over a year ago, I wept at the loss of both her presence and what she represented of my childhood. To receive such affection on returning to school was thus a profound joy and relief, that reassurance that we all crave that our old selves exist, if only in someone’s memory.
So even though they say you can never go home again, I’ve always preferred Frost’s wry take—home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. And every once in a while, I get to go home, thanks to friends and my school,
both of which have been the steadfast keepers of a past that I would have otherwise had to walk away from many, many years ago.
*lakh=100,000, pati=husband (i.e., someone married to money)