We all define ourselves in part by where we are from. I, for example, was born in the winter of 1996 in Detroit, Michigan. But perhaps it’s not so simple.
My parents had arrived here—via Minneapolis, Houston, Long Island, and small-town Kentucky—from Karachi, Pakistan, where they entered the world some 30 years before me. Uprooting from the soil in which they grew and planting themselves in new earth in a foreign land was no easy feat, but my parents had inspiration. Their own parents—my grandparents—were immigrants as well. Just as my parents had, my grandparents, too, left behind the only home they had ever known. But for my grandparents, their home was their home. It was our family’s ancestral homeland. It was the birthplace of their parents, their parents’ parents, and every Hakim and Paliwala that the world has ever seen. It was the City of Lakes, the Venice of the East, the Kashmir of Rajasthan. Its official name is Udaipur.
Now, that word—Udaipur—is little more than a distant memory for my family. Its semi-arid climate, the lavish palaces at its heart, and the austere forts at its perimeter are as real to me as a bedtime story.
My late paternal grandfather was highly educated (he was literate in English and would eventually study in the United Kingdom) but of modest means, and so he found himself on a train to Pakistan in search of greener pastures. His wife (my grandmother), who was probably even more well-read than he given the constraints on women at the time, joined for the ride. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, lived a life of plenty in Udaipur. Odds are she would have never left had a Hindu mob not raided her home—which my mother nostalgically describes as a mansion—and almost slaughtered her family. Once in Karachi, my grandmother met my maternal grandfather, who was a student at a prestigious boys’ boarding school before his family fled Udaipur for many of the same reasons as her own.
My grandparents’ journeys, it turned out, would be one-way affairs. Between Karachi, Pakistan and Udaipur, India lies one of the world’s most impermeable borders. So, although the City of Lakes is only 400 miles from Karachi—shorter than the distance between Udaipur and India’s capital—it might as well be on Mars. There is little hope of India’s doors opening to readmit my native-born grandparents. And my parents, who have long been U.S. citizens, can hardly imagine visiting the birthplace of their ancestors.
In fact, even I, who have known no home besides the United States, have fantasized about entering the halls of Udaipur’s City Palace and dipping my toes in its five great lakes. We have our own in Michigan, but I imagine they’re not quite the same. I was crushed when my employer recommended I work in Lusaka, Zambia instead of Delhi, India due to immigration concerns.
I’m convinced that I cannot know myself completely without knowing Udaipur, without breathing its air into my own body. When I find myself wondering who I am, what I want, what my purpose is, I settle on the thought that all would be revealed if I could just see my reflection on the surface of Lake Pichola. If I could discover a part of myself that remains, to this day, purely an abstraction. In that way, my relationship to Udaipur is less a yearning for a far-off land than a quest inward. The city is a catch-all for the parts of myself which I have yet to understand, or even to truly acknowledge. Because it feels so essential to my identity yet so distant from my life, it serves as a sort of reminder: even as my college years have been consumed by a rush to learn as much about the external world as possible, there is much about my interior being waiting to be discovered.
And so perhaps there is a silver lining to all of this. Although Udaipur lies 7,000 miles and one impenetrable border away from me, it is precisely this inaccessibility that defines much of the city’s value to my life.
Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said my inability to visit the place of my dreams doesn’t stir in me a sense of deprivation, a feeling of having been robbed of a part of myself. Of course, I cannot blame my grandparents for moving, nor do I resent the rioters who ransacked my grandmother’s home or the bureaucrats who reviewed my visa applications or the politicians who set the immigration policy. All I can do for the time being is keep dreaming of Udaipur—keep romanticizing it—and maintain faith that I will one day be able to reckon with it in person.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tommy