Belonging as a Perpetual Outsider

By Diksha Singh

There was one thing about informal gatherings that constantly bugged me, irrespective of where I lived or the people with whom I hung out. It was the conversation trails that traced our families and native places, the routes that elicited stories of belonging and personal culture. My friends would often narrate how a bride was decorated, how people ate during a wedding in their hometown, or how their grandma dressed distinctly and told stories.  With these narrations, they would sometimes add the pinch of nostalgia that relayed their connection to their homelands. The coconut tree that grew in their backyard or the chai-biscuit stall that developed with them over the years. 

These conversations made me feel distant, as I never had many stories about hometowns and cousins. I never had stories about one place, rather small stories of the many homes that I inhabited. My father had a transferable job, and thus we shifted living spaces every three to five years until my father retired. It appeared as if my friends had an anchor, a port, a comfortable home from where they had sailed for higher education and work. And I? Whenever I looked back at my past, all I had was a blurred set of multiple temporary homes. No anchor. 

Now, it isn’t true that I don’t have a hometown. Because I do; technically, it is the native where my parents were brought up. So, I supposedly belong there. But really, only my parents do. 

Growing up, I always threw a tantrum when we moved to another city in India. As a person with an introverted personality, the possibility of uprooting life in one city and planting it in another appeared impossible. How on earth was I to make new friends in a new school and a new classroom? 

It was not that I despised change and new beginnings. It was the abrupt endings that irked me. A life devoid of life-long friendships. Every time, it felt as if something invaluable was lost prematurely, as if there was more potential left, as if there were more corners to explore in the old city, as if there were more jokes to be cracked between friends. 

There were two other consequences of moving periodically – one, I lived in other states more than my “own”, and, two, I mostly surrounded myself with people of different cultures. The second consequence caused me more heartbreak and mental trauma. Towards the last decade of my father’s service, surrounding myself with friends from other cultures was not a choice anymore. It was a given for ten long years—my ages through thirteen and twenty-three. The catch in the last place was that everybody else was localised except for me. All of them had the same language and culture. All of them belonged to the same, single state. Now, this is where I became a perpetual outsider for ten years. 

After the initial shock that everyone in school was from Kerala, I made a few friends and interacted with them in English, which was difficult for me. I always had pictured English as an academic subject that I had to learn as part of the syllabus. I never thought I could use it to converse with friends. Gradually, I improved my language and even enjoyed spending time with my new friends, learning a new language and their culture slowly. 

Over the next ten years, I made many friends in school, college, hostel, and workplace. I learned Malayalam to an acceptable, I-can-live-and-travel-on-my-own-here level. In fact, I was even proud of myself until 2019, to have spent so many years as a non-Keralite in Kerala. I thought I did a good job, notwithstanding how a few people had discriminated against me, how few friends had kept secrets from me, and how some men had treated me differently and less respectfully. While some incidents were intentional, some others were unintentional.

In 2019, I commenced higher studies at a national institute established in Kerala. Here, Keralites were no longer in the majority. Naturally, I was excited at the prospect of meeting people from other cultures, and I wrongly assessed myself as being perfectly capable of handling the transition. After two years, I realised that I was so wrong. In this new place, I interacted with Keralites and non-Keralites simultaneously. I soon found that neither was I a hardcore Keralite, despite knowing well the language, people, movies, and culture, nor was I a “proper” non-Keralite, because, hey, I had not interacted with one in the past ten years, except for my family. 

I was neither here nor there. I was a little here and a little there.

With time and some disagreements and conflicts, I reckoned I was harbouring insecurities and a desperate “need to belong”. When I was with Keralites, I tried to fit in by being as good as I could be. I never considered treating them different, but my trust was broken a few times.  When trust is broken because people think you are not one of them, it leaves an indelible scar on your psyche.  

When I interacted with non-Keralites, I expected to belong to this category as well quickly. But I hadn’t lived in North India for most of my life, a few conversations in, and I soon realised that I was different here and the hint that even they considered me out of place left me a bit shaken. I didn’t realise that falling into a category mattered to me. I was even ashamed that I bothered being part of any one of the communities. Why? Because everybody else belonged to one? I don’t know.

The realization struck me heavily, and I remembered each chaotic incident where I was mistreated. I realised I wanted to fit in, how a jigsaw puzzle piece fit with another in a picture, but I wanted to become a piece that could fit in multiple images. I realised I was insecure about being an outsider and insecure about being left out. But despite all the efforts, I was still left out by some individuals. And thus, I realised I probably didn’t belong anywhere. 

At first, these realisations troubled me immensely. But with time, and with more conflicts and interactions with both Keralites and non-Keralites, and a little help from books like “Belonging” by Umi Sinha, I understood that perhaps it isn’t necessary to belong anywhere. I can freely be what I am. I should remember that these incidents are only a few, and many have treated me exceptionally well. I shouldn’t let such incidents cause heartache and trigger the insecurities as and when they like. 

Belonging” by Umi Sinha was an overwhelming and much-needed embrace that I forgot about my insecurities. The story travels through three generations of a family which lived in India and Britain during colonial times. The complexities and feelings that arise when you spend your childhood in one place and adulthood elsewhere are brilliantly portrayed in the book. The author doesn’t shy away from displaying affectionate feelings for people of another land, and she does it effortlessly as if it is like loving people from our land. 

The book and some magnanimous individuals had a significant impact on my mind. They made me realise that it is perfectly alright if I don’t fit into any categories. Perhaps, before being accepted by others, I need to accept myself and be grateful that I witnessed various cultures while growing up. Moreover, these experiences have made me look beyond mistreatments and helped me become more empathetic towards others. As humans, we all tend to be sceptical of uncertainties, of unknowns, and of people of different cultures, states, religions, and countries. Maybe it isn’t so tragic when locals try to protect themselves from outsiders. Sure, I would love to be accepted without hurdles and potholes, but I do understand the motivations behind avoidance and scepticism and frail trust. 

And, despite all the uncertainties, there have been individuals who have graciously, slowly or immediately, accepted me and embraced me. My heart beams gloriously whenever I think of my dearest friends and well-wishers and guides. Sure, there have been difficulties, but there have also been a lot of colours, a lot of seasons, warmer winters and rainy summers, a lot of slippery slopes and ascending bonds, a diversity in perspectives and a potpourri of diverse talent and ideas. And perhaps, a blurred past of multiple homes is perfectly and wonderfully complete.  

Author bio:

Diksha adores reading, writing, and drawing and is currently pursuing her PhD in Management Information Systems.

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