Learning to Welcome the Stranger Within
When you began in a different world than the one you’re supposed to call home
When I was three, my family lived in a house in New Delhi with a rooftop terrace where we slept out in the open on hot summer nights. My first memories are filled with that Indian ocean of stars overhead, the desert sky stretching wide and deep and uncannily quiet around us, and the darkness pungent with dung smoke, threaded with night-blooming jasmine.
In the beginning of these memories, my parents and older brother form a ring of protective shadows. But then, as if by the flick of a switch, the wind erupts and the ring dissolves. Dust howls out of nowhere, whipping us into motion. We rise in a panic of flapping sheets and hoisted cots, making for the stairwell and down to our white, sweltering flat, where the sand beats savagely against the shutters, like a stranger demanding to be let in.
I was not born in India, but as far as memory is concerned, Delhi was my first home. There my mind and senses awoke, chasing snails into pools of shade, hiding under the garden’s frangipani, or rising on tiptoes to watch the daily parade of cows and elephants and sadhus trudging the unpaved road below our balcony. I loved the long-lashed camels dressed in tassels and bright-colored blankets. Who knew where they were going, where they’d traveled from? One of these strange creatures would carry me on high, its desert breath fouling the party where I, stubborn child, was the only guest not costumed.
Instead of dressing up that day as the angel my mother had in mind, I insisted, quite logically, on my green and white smocked party dress. More than sixty years later, I still remember the fight I put up, the righteousness of my logic, the stamp of my foot, the fold of my arms, the imperative need to make sense. What was a party dress for, if not a birthday party? My recalcitrance made us so late that my mother finally surrendered, but not without warning me that I’d be sorry.
I wasn’t. I was bewildered by the sight of all those expat children running around as pirates, clowns, witches, and pilots. In the photograph that persists to this day, I share the bejeweled howdah on the camel’s…