By Sarah Brennan

Bright green fields gave way to dusty roadsides and simple buildings as the car I had hired made its way into the small town of Sargur, India.  As we turned off the highway the road narrowed, and the car wove its way through town.  The pavement all but disappeared and the road turned to hard packed dirt.  I saw streetside altars, and small family-run shops in front of homes lining the road. Some looked freshly painted while others appeared to crumble before my eyes. I stared out the window with a sense of “what have I done” growing in my mind.  The road widened into a plaza of sorts, then narrowed again as we drove over an irrigation canal.  

One final turn onto a wide dirt driveway and the car came to a stop in front of the Vivikenanda Memorial Hospital.  The heat and humidity of southern India returned as I stepped from the air-conditioned car.  I was ushered inside, my suitcases left near a registration kiosk, and into a small room filled with nursing students.  Dr. Jonathan Greene introduced me.  

“Sarah, welcome to Sargur.  Glad that you made it safely.” Turning back to the class he continued, “Sarah has been traveling around the country for the past two weeks, and she will be working at the school with Judith.  She is a teacher.”  

Curiosity and pride mingled as the students took turns asking me questions about my travels.  “What is your favorite city?  How did you like Mysore, the palace is beautiful, yes?  What is your favorite food?  How about spice, is it too hot for you?  What about idli and sambar (fermented rice cake and lentil soup), it is the best breakfast, you agree? Have you seen the dam on the Kabini?”  The questions came at me in quick succession. I answered them as best I could, careful to speak positively about everything I had seen and tasted and experienced.  

Later that afternoon I was shown my room in the back wing of the hospital.  It was simple, two metal framed beds, a built-in desk, a ceiling fan and light, a bathroom with a western style toilet, but no toilet paper, and a shower.  To get there we walked past the men’s ward, the women’s ward, corridors lined with anxiously waiting families, a line of village women waiting to get water, the canteen, and up a ramp whose railings were draped with drying hospital bed sheets.  

I was left to get settled and freshen up a bit before meeting Jon and Judith for dinner. I fastened my mosquito net to the bed, utilized my brand-new UV light to purify a few bottles of water, hung up my kurtis (long shirts) and salwar kameez (matching shirt and pants outfits) and tucked my suitcases away. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at the room in front of me. The hallway was quiet and I heard the sound of birds coming through the window.  Tears welled up in my eyes and my breath caught in my throat.  I wondered, yet again, if I had made the right decision.   

A few days later, in an airy window filled room, I sat in a circle amongst the staff of the school.  I introduced myself, spoke about my teaching career, and how excited I was to have the opportunity to be a part of the community.  I answered questions about my family and my life.  And I hid the truth from them.  In this rural village I knew that I would not be accepted if they knew the truth of what had led me to this place.  

I did not tell them that the previous September the man I loved and owned a home with woke up from a nap, told me he didn’t love me anymore, and left.  I did not tell them that we were never legally married.  I didn’t tell them that my home slipped into foreclosure and was lost to me.  I didn’t tell them that I had moved back in with my parents to save money.  I did not tell them that I was running away. 

Instead, I smiled and told them that I was a thirty-five-year-old spinster living with my parents. It was true, but not the truth.  Around me heads wobbled in that uniquely south Indian way, while looks of pity crossed the faces of older women. The facade was in place, and for the time being I let myself forget everything that had happened and embrace the version of me they all saw.  

Just a few days into my first week some of the girls from eighth standard English class approached me with concern. 

“Sarah Akka, you need the right clothes.” 

I looked down at my pants and the hip length kurti I was wearing.  The shirt was blue and yellow with a floral pattern embroidered on the front.  It had loose, wide sleeves that reached past my elbows, and had been purchased at one of the many Indian clothing stores in Santa Clara, California with the help of a mom in my classroom.  I wore black yoga style leggings underneath.  

“You need the right pants, and a scarf, always a scarf.  You will go shop in Mysore and then it will be better.”  They smiled proudly, confident in their advice and help.  

My body shrank in on itself as I thanked them.  My shoulders hunched as I tried to minimize the appearance of my breasts beneath my shirt, and I tugged on the hem as if I could somehow make it cover more of me.  I spoke with Judith, and she indicated that some of the women on staff were concerned about my appearance as well. They were worried that my clothes weren’t modest enough.  In the intervening days before our shopping trip to Mysore, I dug out my most conservative salwar kameez and wore it everywhere.  Never before had I felt so exposed while wearing so much.  

Friday afternoon Jon, Judith and I caught the bus to Mysore for the weekend.  It was a practical trip; clothes for me, staple groceries for Jon and Judith, fresh produce from the large open-air market, and the arrival of another American teacher.  The store had everything we needed. Piles of loose fitting, drawstring pants arranged by color lined a wall.  I selected two pairs of black, to hide the dirt, and a pair of creamy white pants to add to my collection.  As I picked out a few extra-large scarves I became lightheaded, dizzy and nauseous. While standing in line I became feverish, and weak in the knees.  The next twenty-four hours were spent in a fever induced delirium wishing I was back in California so my mom could take care of me.  

I kept my fingers crossed that the Imodium would do its job during the hour-long bus ride back to Sargur Sunday afternoon.  Grateful to be home, I collapsed into my bed and slept through the night.  

Monday morning, I saw the same group of eighth grade girls approaching in the school hallway.  Their faces lit up in smiles.  

Namaskara Sarah Akka.  You look more like an Indian woman now,” they said while noting my appropriate pants, and adjusting my scarf so that it hung properly over my shoulders and draped across my chest.  With hands pressed together in front of me I nodded my head and smiled.  “Thank you.”  I released a breath and straightened my shoulders before continuing with the day.  

By the second week I was feeling more comfortable and ready to tackle the weekly market. After school one day I and another of the American volunteers walked into town in search of fresh bananas and mangoes. Woven mats of various sizes were arranged in haphazard fashion under blue tarps held up by rickety poles stuck in the ground.  Piles of vegetables, many that I couldn’t identify, were laid out on the mats while the seller sat cross-legged on the ground. One cart held reused plastic bottles filled with what I had been told was bootleg grain alcohol, while the one next to it sold small handheld scythes used for harvesting the marigolds that grew in massive fields nearby.  Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust.  

It felt like the eyes of everyone in the market, sellers and shoppers, followed our every move waiting to see what we would do. We headed straight for a cart piled high with palm-sized bananas.  Not sure of how to buy just a few, we pointed and smiled.  The man lifted a large bunch, a couple of pounds worth.  

“No.  A few.  Five,” I said, holding my hand to indicate how many I wanted to buy.  

“No. More.” the man responded in heavily accented English.  

“Ten.” This time I put up both hands, fingers extended.  

He smiled, nodded, and started speaking in Kanada, the local language.  I knew he was trying to tell us the cost as he weighed our bananas, but we couldn’t understand.  I didn’t want to overpay but didn’t want to be cheap either.  I took one shoulder strap of my backpack off my shoulder and swung the pack around to grab a piece of paper and a pen.  

A small crowd had gathered, watching to see what we would do, and how much we would pay.  My hand fumbled with the zipper in my growing unease.  Suddenly one foot was off the ground, the other was shoeless, and I struggled to stay upright and not fall to the ground as something pushed me out of the way.  Laughter rose from the crowd around me. 

Big, black, wet eyes looked at me as the head of a calf nudged my stomach one more time before walking away.  I stood there, as confused as the calf had been when it barged into me, for what felt like eternity.  

My companion tried hard not to laugh and held my arm as I put my shoe back on.  I smiled and laughed a bit, but I was trying to hide my embarrassment by going along with everyone else.  I still wanted my bananas and pulled out some rupees, handed them to the banana seller, and dumped the fruit in my backpack before hurriedly leaving the market to the sound of the town reliving my stumble. 

“How was your trip to the market?” Judith asked when I saw her later that day.  

“I got run over by a cow.”  

On a warm evening during my third week, I left my dorm armed with a flashlight, my key, and a rumbling in my stomach.  As I approached the walkway, I stopped to shine my light and peek over the side of the waist high wall designed to keep the cows out.  It’s ninety degree turns, and corners were a spot where snakes liked to curl up and rest.  No cobras this evening, and I continued across the road.  

The lights were on in Jon and Judith’s apartment, and I could hear English filtering down through the humid air.  The night was going to be special; we were going to learn to make chapati from scratch.  The Ayurvedic doctors who shared the apartment with Jon and Judith had agreed to be our teachers.  

Cooking and sharing a meal like this was something that I hadn’t realized I missed until the opportunity arose.  I took most of my meals in the hospital canteen, pulao (rice) for breakfast, chapati, more rice, cooked vegetables and sambar for lunch and dinner.  At the town market I purchased fresh fruit, and I had a stash of peanut butter brought all the way from California.  

The women began by going over the simple ingredients and their health benefits while combining them in a large bowl; whole wheat flour, ragi flour, water, a bit of ghee and a pinch of salt.  The women measured nothing, simply adjusted based on look and feel.  I was reminded of the stories my mom told of her mother, she never measured anything either.  Laughter erupted as a poof of flour rose from the bowl tickling my nose and making the front of my shirt a shade lighter.  

The goal, of course, was to create nice, neat circles of equal thickness to be cooked on a griddle.  A simple wooden dowel served as our rolling pin as we each attempted to roll out the perfect chapati.  I took a piece of dough and rolled it between my cupped hands, forming a small sphere. I flattened my palms and began to pat the dough flat into a circle.  So far so good.  I dusted the counter with flour, took up the dowel and began to roll.  After every other roll of the dowel, I picked up the dough, and turned it, just like we had been shown.  

Next to me Judith was rolling out her dough, while Jon stood behind us laughing as our little circles soon became misshapen oblong creations more closely resembling the continent of Europe than a circle.  

“Keep laughing, it’s your turn next.”  Judith said, looking over the bridge of her glasses.  

It turned into a game of “what do you see?” as more and more chapati made their way from the counter to the griddle to the plate waiting to be eaten.  Once they were cooked all of us moved to the floor of the front room.  We sat around a simple woven mat on the floor.  As each of us reached for a chapati to scoop up the vegetable sambar on our plate we would try to identify who had made it, and what it looked like.  

“A hippopotamus.”

“Africa or maybe South America?”  Laughter filled the spaces between easy silences as we ate.  I looked around this mismatched group; Ayurvedic doctors and nurses trained to balance traditional medicine with modern care, an American doctor, and a few American teachers sat together enjoying a family meal. Conversation came naturally and moved organically from one topic to the next.  My legs and feet had fallen asleep, and laughter started all over again as I tried to get up at the end of the night.  

In my final week at the school, we would be celebrating a festival day and I wanted to dress for the occasion.  The problem was I didn’t know how to dress myself in a sari.  The sari, iridescent blue, green, and brown silk with gold trim, was a puzzle that I had no hope of solving.  Lauren and I, another American teacher, enlisted the help of the aaya (caretaker) to help us get dressed.  I stood in front of her wearing a white cotton petticoat and tight-fitting blouse, painfully aware of my rounded belly and pale skin.  With confident and practiced movements, she untied and tightened the petticoat before beginning the process of wrapping me in yards of silk.  She tucked and folded fabric into the petticoat and moved around me as if I were a child.  Once completed she stepped back, twirled her finger in the air, and examined her work.  She gave me a curt nod of approval.   

Dhan’yavādagaḷu, thank you,” I said. 

At school kids rushed to my side to comment on my outfit.  A gaggle of girls steered me to the teacher’s room excited to show me off to the teachers.  They passed me off to the office manager, a woman in her late fifties, who took her role as matriarch of the young teachers very seriously.  She took one look at my sari, complimented me on the fabric, and then pulled me into a closet.  “I will wrap it better, more elegantly,” she said.   

For the second time that day I stood at the mercy of someone else in order to be dressed.  I was unnerved, but comforted.  The whole time she worked, she explained what she was doing, giving me a personal lesson on how to wrap a sari.  I barely kept track of the steps as she worked, but the feel of a mother’s hands was a sensation I hadn’t realized I missed.  

We emerged from the closet to a room full of teachers with expectation in their eyes.  A few of the women came over and made slight adjustments to the sari, while they talked about the fabric and how it matched my eyes.  A few of the men joked that now I was ready to be an Indian wife, while the group of girls stood just outside the door laughing and giggling.  

I smiled, even blushed a little, before the bell rang and we all headed off to morning assembly.  Standing outside with my class I could feel the eyes of my students on me as they snuck glances at me.  They had done the same thing on my first day at the school, but this time it felt different.  So much was still foreign, but in that moment, I felt like I belonged.  

A few days later I pulled my suitcase from under my bed, unhung my proper Indian clothes, gently folded the delicate silk of my sari and packed them.  My time in Sargur was ending.  In each class children gave me handmade cards, small tokens of appreciation and requests to return.  The teachers, so many of whom had opened their lives and homes to me, thanked me, and offered me a place in their classrooms. My heart was full as the tears welled up in my eyes and I wondered what I had just done. 

A year later

I once again found myself in the back of a hired car on the five-hour ride from Bangalore to Sargur.  As the miles and hours ticked by, I recalled the evening at the home of Dr. Shredevi when he spoke kindly about the work I did over the summer, and gave me an open invitation to return.  I thought about the afternoons when the young unmarried teachers would pop their heads into the classroom and pass the word that the canteen had made gobi manchuri (fried cauliflower in a sweet and sour sauce) telling me to hurry before it was all gone. I remembered hiking thousands of steps up an old stone temple while a troupe of monkeys followed us to the top. I thought of that one student who struggled so much in school but would come in early from recess and sit on the floor in front of my chair for story time. Time had softened the memories of feeling alone, confused, and out of place.  

Once again bright green fields turned to dusty roadsides as we turned off the highway into Sargur.  Outside the car window I saw familiar buildings that once seemed foreign and intimidating pass by.  My breath caught in my throat, I took a deep breath, and all the tension and nervousness I felt disappeared. I realized that the pull I felt to return wasn’t just about the memories, but it was about the work, and the people I had come to know.  

Word of my arrival traveled quickly through the school, and soon the hallway was filled with students, “Sarah Akka, you came back.”  

“Yes.  I am so happy to be here.”  And this time I wasn’t running away, but coming home.  

Sarah Brennan is an educator in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a deep love and appreciation for travel and the ability to encounter a myriad of stories and experiences. She is a novice writer who is exploring her own abilities with the written word.

One thought on “Finding Home in India

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