How to Care for an Air Plant

On July 3rd, 2017, I moved to Austin. I started a new job a few months later. Started dating my current girlfriend a year later. And have been itching to leave since November 21st, 2018. A tumbleweed, that opportunistic dead diaspore of desert plants, could stay still, put down roots, find a lawn, white picket fence and a nice bush to attach itself to, but a faint gust of wind and it rolls and rolls by, how does one hold on when you haven’t been equipped to?

When I first sat down to write this, my hands would not cooperate. My fingers, doing their own, rather belated version of Satyagraha, wrote in Hindi (decent) and Tamil (needs work), with brief detours into other tongues of my past. What they did not do is write English — the language I am, fortunately or not, most proficient in. This is exactly my problem with writing personal essays — in fiction I’m observing and creating things outside of me, strangers to befriend. When I try to write about myself, my hands keep trying, inexplicably, to find their way home.

Home. Or, conversely, “Where are you from?” Or “So, did you grow up in Austin?” Tired questions that I give tired responses to, because it’s hard to explain that the homes of my present are not the homes of my past. Like many Defense kids, home was in eight cities, and three continents, and my mom’s arms.

I know that’s trite — there’s this story in Hindu mythology where Lord Shiva has a (magic) mango and doesn’t know which of his two sons he should give it to. So he challenges his sons to a contest: whoever manages to go around the world three times the fastest wins and gets the mango. Murugan, the eldest, is quite athletic, has a speedy peacock as his vehicle and takes off immediately. Ganesha, the chubby one with only a little mooshak (mouse) is stumped — how will he outpace his brother? He asks his parents to stand together, goes around them three times, and says, “You’re my world, I’ve completed the challenge, can I eat the mango?” He gets, it, of course; the gods are resistant to flattery least of all.

In all these cities, home was my parents, the where of it all incidental.

In one embarrassing episode, I was schooled by an ex of mine about how people usually apply for passports as adults, “They’re not really handing them out with your birth certificate, Ananyaa.” You learn to let go pretty easily, when you move that much. Of pressure cookers and heavy steel utensils, notebooks and keepsakes that didn’t make the cut, school friends and old teachers, all the parts of yourself that you weren’t able to pick up in time. Not everything fits in the 32 kg baggage allowance, not even when you’re eight.

Sometimes you leave with things you didn’t expect to: to-do’s that forgot to get thrown out, the smell of a flower that you add to the new backyard, an unexpected glottal stop in a word that’s now made new. Letters and phone calls that follow you to destinations you didn’t expect. One day, a week after you turn 26 — a week from the day Section 377 gets overturned by the Indian Supreme Court in a historic verdict that unfolded as you slept a continent away — you get a postcard. It’s from a girl you haven’t talked to since you were ten, who says she’s thinking of you and sends a scribbled congratulations, a “HBD” and a book recommendation.

Most of my traveling so far has been with my family.

It’s hard for me to explain then the difference in my experience between travel and displacement — when we travel I get to go as myself, itinerary checklist and return ticket in hand, coming back intact. We’ll find ourselves a good mountain range or cute hill station — fishes on a rock slope, my coastal ancestry is unequipped to deal with any elevation, but we try. For a Naval family, we sure do love going inland. I used to pack three books every time we traveled, one new author and two old ones, comfort backups. On the road, I was reading.

Or taking blurry photos of passing trees with my Kodak. Paying attention to where I’m going isn’t a skill I learnt until adulthood, and it’s still a struggle. My sense of direction is poor at best, and earning below minimum wage at most. Once when I tried to run from home, they found me in the parking lot of the neighbouring society’s building, and once when I was walking home from a close friend’s house four blocks away, I got lost in an unfamiliar mohalla at 2 p.m in the afternoon. I have a theory that I’m bad at maps because it’s impractical to get good at knowing a city when you know you need to leave, no?

Oh, but I do love cities, I love watching people who have made their home in these cities, whose lives and the city’s are inextricably intertwined, roots running deep below the streets, wrapping around subway tunnels and network dreams. I like to think that within me are stories from each city I’ve lived in, lives of strangers that rubbed off when I brushed past them on the rush to the train, sounds that sneakily tucked themselves behind my auricle as I waited by a street cart, a rhythmic foot tap I picked up accidentally off of a happy stroller.

My dad is from Bombay, a city no one ever leaves, not really. My uncle has been in Bombay for 55 years and will continue to be there for another eternity more. When these Mumbaikars visit other cities, they’ll say, “Uh this is just like Bombay, but smaller”; or, ‘Oh, this is just like Bombay, but bigger.” If you ask them where they’re from, they’ll look offended — couldn’t you tell? They’re from Bombay (Powai), or Mumbai (Matunga). Sometimes when people ask me where I’m from, I say Bombay (Chembur).

I want their strong sense of place.

I suppose the truth is my home, then, is in transition — in the in-between of leaving home, and finding another, in that bittersweet knowledge that nothing is forever.

Did you know airplants don’t need soil to stay alive? Tillandsia, like other Epiphytes, have adapted over the years to not need roots. You can put them in a vase or in your closet or on the palm of your hand and they will breathe and create and survive. I don’t know if a nice aerated potting soil would help or hinder, it’s not something I’ve ever tried. Maybe they’re just made for the elements. What I lack in stable foothold, I make up for with overeager emotion. Yeh dil beparvah (the heart is without care/ careless). Here are my attachments, a street vendor with the best goli bajjis, the way semi-sleeping rickshaw drivers would wave their hand “no,” a last minute Macca’s run, the road of Ashoka trees flushed red with bloom, a childhood sweetheart to pine over when I’m bored. Nora knows I’m restless, she holds my hand, keeps me still. 🗺️

Edited by Heather.

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13 Comments

  1. I had the title of the essay in the back of my mind while I was reading, eagerly waiting to see where air plants fit into your story. I audibly squealed when I read “Did you know airplants don’t need soil to stay alive?” So beautiful!

  2. Thank you all so, so much for your kind words and appreciation. It’s always been difficult for me to share personal experiences like this publicly, but I figured the Autostraddle community would be a welcoming, safe space to do so, and you’ve all proved that <3

  3. Beautiful. Made for a weekend morning with a cup of tea. Relatable for so many of us who yearn the feeling of belonging to a place, who miss the roots. Very well worded, very emotional and movie-like. You take us into your emotional happy-sad optimistic journey and also make us go down our memory lanes, and stir up our emotions. But teach us how to be okay with the emotions, feel them fully and yet keep moving on… leave us with courage and wisdom. I lovvved the analogy of the air plant. And the mention of your sweet relationship (the belonging) in the end is just <3. God bless y’all.

    I’m all nostalgic now and trying hard to again adult into the present. Time to call mommy.

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