Where do you belong?
We’re delighted to present Home, a new non-fiction work by writer, teacher and storyteller Umi Sinha, commissioned by Writing Our Legacy.
We’ve been working with Umi around the themes of home and displacement. Last year, Umi ran writing workshops at Jubilee Library, exploring these themes to write your own stories.
With creative writing, and especially for people from other countries or cultures, we write to understand, to feel at home in the world, to figure out where we belong. Writing is a great tool for exploring ourselves, other people and our past.
One’s sense of belonging becomes more complex when you’re a mixed race person, with family from different countries, and perhaps you from neither of those – or you have several places to call home and none are where you live now.
In 2012, Umi was invited to read from her current novel at our Asian Voices event in Crawley. The book is set during World War I and is about the Indian soldiers in Brighton at this time. We also commissioned Umi to write a piece about home. Being from both England and India, what did it mean to be mixed race? Where did you then belong? Where was home?
We present this work to you now. Enjoy!
By Umi Sinha
In 2006 I had been living in England on and off for nearly forty years, having left India when I was fifteen. For sixteen of those years I had lived in Sussex, first in Brighton, then moving along the coast to Saltdean, and now it was time to move again. Even before I left India, the country of my birth, I had been searching for a place I could call home. In India I was ‘half-English’, a half-caste, and therefore an outcast. In Britain, I thought, things would be different, but the moment I arrived I became ‘half-Indian’. Would I ever be whole?
We arrived in England in 1968, shortly after the mass immigration of Asians who had been evicted from Kenya and Uganda. After three years at school in Kent I went to university in Coventry where a lot of Asians had settled to work in the car factories and in my second year I moved with some other students into a rented house in the Foleshill Road, an area occupied mostly by Indians. I was so homesick that I tried to strike up conversations with Indian bus conductors. They seemed interested in where I came from and my family – searching for common connections as Indians usually do – until I revealed my mother was English. Then their faces glazed over and they turned away.
At that time the expressions ‘wog’ and ‘nigger’ were still widely used, and once a man on a bus asked me how I was enjoying living with “our coloured friends”. I was too embarrassed to tell him I was one of them. Towards the end of my university course, the mother of my friend Sue visited and asked the same question, rather more genteelly phrased. Sue replied, ‘Oh I hate it here. Indians stink and so does their food.’ There was an awkward silence. I left the room. Later her boyfriend came to me and explained that Sue had forgotten I was from India. ‘Anyway, we don’t consider you one of them. You’re one of us,’ he said.
As soon as I left university I moved to Crete. It was halfway between India and Britain, geographically, climatically and culturally. Perhaps I would fit it in there? I discovered Greek cinema was very much like Bollywood naatch gana and that the film actress Nargis was much admired. I loved Crete but soon understood why the word ‘xenophobia’ had been adopted from the Greek: an Englishman – who had been parachuted in to liberate Crete during the war and had married a girl who’d been in the Resistance and stayed – told me that after twenty-five years he still felt like a stranger. On a visit to Agia Roumeli on the south coast I learnt that a woman from the neighbouring village, a few miles away, who had married into the village twenty years before, was still referred to as ‘the woman from Hora Sfakion’.
I went back to India, aged 26, to discover nothing had changed. I was told by a mutual friend that the family of a male colleague I had lunched with was worried that he might decide to marry me.
Four years later I returned to England and resumed my search. I lived in London – at the beginning of the ‘80s not the multi-cultural place it is now – and then moved to Brighton in the ‘90s, where, despite the fact that there was practically no black or ethnic minority presence, for the first time in my life I felt accepted. As a lesbian friend said to me, ‘In Brighton no matter how odd you are there’s always someone odder.’ I found that statement reassuring because I had always been the odd one out. At school in India the only friends I could have were Anglo-Indian or Parsi; or Christian converts, usually from the caste still referred to then as ‘Untouchables’. To the Hindu girls we were all Untouchables.
But if Brighton embraces ‘the odd’, it also imposes an expectation that, as I got older, I began to find harder to live up to. When I left Brighton in the end it was probably because I didn’t feel odd enough.
So now, in 2006, I was looking for a home again. It was house prices that made us look in Newhaven, despite its reputation. The first few houses I saw dismayed me – cramped, dark and gloomy – but as I walked up the steps to a Victorian terraced house facing the river a gust of wind brought the smell of ozone, fish and diesel oil rolling up the valley. I took a deep breath and thought, “Ah, home!”
Home – that word that carries so much meaning. In colonial times the British abroad wrote and even pronounced the word with a capital “H” when referring to Britain. In India the conception of home is so strong that the word for England was ‘vilayat’, which simply meant ‘province’ – the word ‘Blighty’ derives from this – and even today Indians will often say someone lives ‘bahar’ which just means ‘outside’, or ‘abroad’. It’s as though once you’ve left Home, it makes no difference where you are.
As a result of my father’s career – he was a naval officer – I had lived around ports all my childhood, and we often travelled by cargo ship back and forth to England, so that smell of ozone, fish and diesel oil spelt Home, with a capital H, for me.
In fact, of all the places I have visited in the world, the one where I have felt most truly at home is the sea. Standing on the deck of a ship looking out and seeing nothing but blue all the way to the horizon in every direction is like being in a bubble out of time – neither one’s point of origin nor one’s destination, neither past nor future – exist. At sea I can be just me, not half this or half that. The sea does not belong to anybody. To me it represents freedom and escape and I have never been comfortable living far from it. Coventry, of course, was as far from the sea as you can get in England, but from my house in Newhaven I can watch the dredgers sail past the front window and the fishing boats putter past followed by a raucous cloud of seagulls and twice a day the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry docks further down the river.
Ports bring the world to your door and remind me that if ever I feel I don’t belong here any more all I have to do is get on that ferry and the whole world will be out there waiting for me.
Umi Sinha has an MA in creative writing and has taught for the University of Sussex on The Certificate in Creative Writing course for twelve years. Students from this course have gone on to win prizes, be published, and have plays or stories performed on radio. She also does life story and reminiscence work with older people, teach fiction workshops for the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) and she runs her own courses and a literary consultancy.
Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, including in Cosmopolitan magazine and a Serpents Tail anthology, Getting Even: Revenge Stories. She has worked as a freelance editor for Orient Longman, written titles in the ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ series, which retells myths, legends and historical events in comic book form for children. She was a sifter (reader) for the Asham Award in 2012. http://www.umisinha.com