My family follows many traditions. Some were passed down to them from their ancestors, and some they created on their own. One such tradition, which developed when we were living in India, was to visit a different city every year. When I was seven years old, my family and I visited the state of Himachal Pradesh. We drove to Rohtang Pass. Rohtang, literally meaning “pile of corpses”, is the destination made famous because of the numerous people who have died in bad weather trying to cross the pass. Perhaps the danger is what made it such a popular tourist destination. Nestled under the foot of the Himalayas, seven-year-old me was unable to enjoy the pass as much as I would have liked to. Little did my family know, high altitudes mixed in with cold Himalayan air reduced the availability of oxygen, making it particularly difficult for children to breathe. It was an exhilarating journey; it was the first time I saw snow in my life. But the real exuberance of the trip didn’t come for me till we descended down to Manali. Manali is a hill station settled under the mountain ranges of Himachal Pradesh.
Besides its surreal beauty, Manali is host to a variety of native species, like the long-haired yak. The yak is a member of the cattle family found throughout the Himalayan region of south Central Asia, the Tibetan Plateau, and as far north as Mongolia and Russia. A significant part of the Himachali world, the Manali tourist industry set up a Yak Riding field for visitors. I’m not sure if Yaks are culturally important to Himachili life, but they are certainly exotic, and thus make for a great way to attract tourists.
The yak-riding field we stopped at only had one yak, and was situated in an open field next to a coniferous forest. Covered in carpet-like hair, it looked like a hybrid between a cow and a giant bull. Its hump was covered in black shags while the majority of the body was pinkish white. It was like a soft, white throw with a black ink stain in the centre. The head had giant horns on each side and the corners of his eyes were dotted with black fur. His legs were the only thing not covered in fur and stuck out like the bone on a chicken tangri. It had a colourful blanket and saddle on top of the hump. There was a giant hoop in between his pink nose, and there was a thick rope tied to it that prevented him from leaving the field. Despite its large size, it looked like an odd, cute cow — a peaceful ball of fur that could be snuggled with.
I had ridden horses and even camels before, but never a yak. I’d never even heard of yaks, except for the little picture that accompanied the “Y-is for Yak” category in my ABC lessons. So being able to ride such a strange creature was certainly intriguing. Even at that age, there was something so phenomenal about the weird, the different. As I leapt onto its back with the help of my riding instructor and family, I was a little scared, but indefinitely excited.
When it took off, though, it no longer seemed like a cute and fuzzy ball of fur. His legs roared through the field as if he was looking to ram someone with his sharp horns. Holding onto the saddle, my breath froze. The peaceful cute animal ran faster than Shatabdi Express, the fastest train in the country. And that is when I realized why he was tied up: this animal could seriously injure someone. The field wasn’t that large, just a medium sized playground. The yak didn’t run more than a few seconds. But those few seconds felt like an eternity. The danger was so close yet so far. I don’t like to think of the danger as death, but more like an end; death has a very negative connotation to it. A scary, yet equally beautiful and enigmatic end.
The adrenaline rush was so clear, so alive in my body. This wasn’t the first thrill-packed moment of Himachal Pradesh, and it wouldn’t be the last. This trip was one of the most fascinating trips of my life and involved everything from meeting the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala to paragliding in the Solang Valley. But nothing captured the exhilarating and exquisite speed of this trip better than the yak. Though the yak stopped after two rounds across the field, the fast speed it showed me continued forever. The rush awakened a sense of vitality. The guide completed his job in leading the ride, but I just exclaimed, “Again!”
When I was ten years old, my family and I immigrated to Toronto. Landing in the midst of a bitter winter, the city was a shock I wasn’t ready for. My best friends were far away, the familiar classrooms and teachers were gone, even the TV shows were different. Canadians may be known for their nicety, but I was unable to find any warmth in the city’s people back then. Toronto was simply too cold.
In those early years, it wasn’t so much my travels in India I cared for, but rather the everyday life. Cambridge, my primary school and its white marble floors. The multi-coloured curtains in my room, painted with red monkeys, blue grass, and yellow trees. The hibiscus and bougainvillea flowers blooming on our veranda. My doll collection, board games, and set of Pokémon cards I spent an eternity collecting. I missed a world that wasn’t strange to me. I missed home.
But ten years later, Delhi life is a hazy image I can’t pin down. When I think about it today, it’s like I’m peering into a world in which I never lived. It’s not so much that I no longer miss my life in Delhi, but rather that I’ve come to accept that it no longer exists. I spent many years yearning for home, hoping every morning that I would wake up in my own world. But that was never the case. Every day, I woke up in this foreign country. And every day, I hated it a little more.
Three years after moving here, I finally went back. But there was nothing to be found. Friendships had changed, the city was unrecognizable, and the heat seemed no longer warm, but scalding. I remember once, we took a South Asian taxi to the market and the fare came to ₹50. I handed the driver a ₹20 bill, confusing the red of a Canadian $50 with the currency of my homeland. I argued with him for ten minutes before realizing I was wrong. I didn’t even know the simplest of Indian norms. During that visit, my mother and I spent a month in India. We spent a week in Batala, Punjab with my paternal grandparents, and three weeks in Delhi. Out of our time in Delhi, we spent a week at my aunt’s place, and the remaining two weeks at my maternal grandmother’s home. This entire month was made up of tiny little sojourns. We sold our old property before moving to Canada so we no longer had our “home”. We were just guests of our family members, constantly travelling from one spot to another. Often, my mom and I had to share an unfamiliar bed. I got next to no sleep during that month.
When I first moved to Canada, I spent three years hating this country, and longing to return home. But when we packed our bags to move to Toronto, we also packed up our lives. After visiting Delhi, I started to understand that belonging to one place is not that easy. I’ve come to realize that living in limbo – between two completely different worlds – defines the very core of immigrant life. So when I look back at my days in India, it is not so much the everyday life that I miss, but rather the moments that allowed me to explore my country’s terrain. Rohtang, Manali, and all the other cities in between. The little vacations I took with my family are like flashing light bulbs, illuminating memories of a life that is no longer mine.
I don’t think I even realized the magic these different cities endowed me with until quite recently. When I look back at all the photo albums, the memories come flooding back to me and I’m very grateful for all the experiences I was offered. I’m humbled to realize this beautiful country is where I come from. The cities I traveled to weren’t my home, but the moments they provided me with act like a shared source of belonging. Together they’ve come to create and shape who I am. For a really long time I struggled with the question of what is home. Is my home in India, is it in Toronto, or is it in that in-between-limbo? I don’t think I can ever move back to Delhi today, I can no longer recognize that city. But I also can’t imagine leaving Toronto because half my life unfolded here. I’ve unpacked all my suitcases and scattered so much of my stuff over this city that I would be unable to pack it up even if I tried. While Toronto is my residence, I’m not sure if the city itself is a permanent ‘home’ to me. When I’m asked “Where are you from?” I always find myself baffled. I’m not sure how I should ever answer that question. I live in Toronto, I was born in Delhi, but where am I from? What is this ‘from’ that I belong to? The more time I’ve spent thinking about this question though, I’ve come to realize I’m not a product of one place but rather of a multitude of places. Home for me lies in the move itself — the travel time between Delhi and Toronto. A good friend of mine once told me I have the “heart of a sojourner”. And perhaps that’s true. I’m a born traveller. And I can’t search for permanence in one place but must learn to weave it through numerous narratives. After all, life itself is ephemeral; how then, can I ever seek permanence?