You know that feeling when you walk down the street and people call you by your name?
As a city-dweller, I’m not used to it. I consider myself lucky that my neighbourhood grocer and cornershop proprietor recognize me enough to smile at me. In the anonymous space of a city teeming with the steady in-flow and out-flow of strangers, familiarity dribbles in a thin trickle. With averted eyes, we urbanites draw boundaries around us so that even though we share physical space with our neighbours, we are distinct, separate units socially.
Not so in Ambajogai, a tiny town in the heart of Marathwada. It’s my hometown, where my roots lie. It’s a place where, even though I have not spent a lot of time there, the enduring legacy of prior generations marks me as one of their own. There, I am not a stranger.
I experienced this over the last several days, when I had returned to Ambajogai after a few years’ gap. As I wandered through the side streets with my aunt and cousins, I saw people looking intently at me, breaking into a smile and calling out.
“Is she Vasantrao’s daughter? I thought so.”
“Ramabai, when did you come back? And did you bring your daughter in tow this time? Very good!”
“Do you recognize me? It’s been many years, you may have forgotten. I’m XYZ’s son.”
Some spoke to my mother, exchanging warm pleasantries while casting friendly, curious glances at me. Others approached me directly, like old friends expecting to be embraced. When I failed to place one of them, they felt wounded. I felt ashamed, as if I had broken a deep bond.
As I made my way deeper into the old bylanes, I experienced a growing sense of belonging. In the dusk hour, people were drawing rangoli outside their homes. From their crouched positions, they turned and greeted me like they had known me for years. Every home’s door was open, revealing an endearing innocence; the world was not big, bad and scary to these folks. Conversations carried in the air, the words floating in a carefree way towards anyone that was ready to receive them. Old men and women sat on the long stone benches along their homes, contentedly watching the world go by, including me. I felt like I could walk into any home I wanted, and I would be greeted with warmth and openness. I felt accepted, without having asked for it.
It is a nice feeling, to be accepted. So much of modern living seems to be a struggle to find our place. It is understandable and even rightful – the modern struggle is aimed at ensuring we carve a spot that fits our unique contours. And still, it was a welcome reprieve to go to my native place and realize there was a place already waiting for me. I slipped into it easily and with relief.