A Wanderer's Retreat

By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Photograph: Stella Swan

My father was a footloose man, so as a child I was shunted from town to town in India, a different one almost every year. Our houses blur in my mind. What I remember most is the smell of new paint and the nervousness in my stomach as I got ready to attend yet another school where I knew no one. Home to me was my grandfather’s house in our ancestral village of Gurap, in the eastern part of India. To my child’s eye, it was the biggest house in the world and the best (though on returning as a young woman, I realized that it was, in fact, quite ordinary).
The two-story brick house had a long veranda that looked out on jasmine trees and gardenia bushes. My grandfather, a retired doctor, was an avid gardener, and whenever I visited him, I helped enthusiastically. Behind the house was a mango orchard that was exciting and scary. Rumor was, people had seen cobras there—and ghosts. My days at my grandfather’s were filled with freedom and wonder. I went with him for long walks in fields of mustard flowers and listened at night, in his cool, tiled bedroom lit by a kerosene lamp, to stories of gods, heroes, and demons with the snarling heads of animals.
My family left for the United States when I was 19. My entire first year in my new country, I wept for that house, knowing instinctively that by the time I went back to visit, it would not be the same. And it wasn’t. When I was 22, my grandfather died, and with him much of the house’s magic passed out of this world.
I must have inherited my father’s footloose nature, because I too have moved around, sometimes for my husband’s career, sometimes for my own, to Illinois, Ohio and a succession of cities in California. Now we live in Texas. Perhaps my willingness to relocate comes from being an immigrant: Once you give up your first home, once you suffer through that initial heartache, giving up one more house doesn’t seem to matter so much. I lost faith in man-made structures and became attached to landscapes: the windy expanse of Lake Michigan, the wide flowering of buckwheat trees, the ancient redwoods and the curve of the Pacific, the water oaks bordering shady bayous that harbored egrets. Yet I couldn’t hold on to them, either.
As I grew older, I began to yearn for a permanent home. Even after we’d been in Texas for seven years, I still wondered if permanence could exist in this sublunary world.
One day, by fortunate blessing, I discovered meditation. Through it, I began to feel the quiet center within, filled with light and the deep comfort of belonging and being loved. This is what I’d always been searching for, in all those houses and gardens and all the illuminated beauties of nature. And all this time it had been in my heart, waiting patiently for me to turn to it: the home of all homes.

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel,
One Amazing Thing, is just out.

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