A love-hate letter to my life as a military brat
I was born in August, during the peak of my country’s tropical monsoons. My mother doesn’t remember whether it was raining on that particular morning in 2001; I was coming a month in advance, and she had bigger (well, how big can a pre-term baby be?) things to worry about. Like, my father, who was then a lieutenant in the Indian Navy. He was aboard India’s second aircraft carrier, the INS Virat, with no idea that his first child was on her way.
When the news of my birth finally reached the ship, my father’s commanding officer approached him. “Congratulations, Hota!” he said. “Your daughter is here.”
My father, convinced that the other officer was confused, disagreed. “No, sir,” he replied. “The baby is due in a month.”
The next day, my father reached the hospital in Goa, the smallest state in India, and my first home. My birthdays were celebrated in cities across the peninsula in the south of India, from Visakhapatnam, a major port in southeast India, to Bangalore, the “Silicon Valley” of India. I was young and friendly; the moves didn’t matter to me. I was more concerned about dressing my dolls and running away from my homework.
In 2006, we moved to Moscow, the Russian capital. I started first grade there, in the school run by the Indian Embassy. This was the first time I was attending a school where I was one of the very few military kids, which meant that a lot of the other children knew each other since before they started school. I felt out of place and awkward. It wasn’t easy being the only new kid. Luckily, I was an amiable kid.
We returned to India for my aunt’s wedding two years later, when my mother was pregnant with my sister; by the time my aunt got married, my mother was in her third trimester, which meant that she couldn’t travel back to Moscow. We decided to live with my grandparents for the six months that were left in my father’s tenure in Russia; this was the first time I was truly exposed to my culture as an East Indian. My family is from a state called Odisha, but can I truly say I am an Odia? I knew little to nothing about my culture when I first landed there and was mocked relentlessly by the other students in my class because of that. I only learned the language because my neighbors would speak it, but I am not and probably never will be fluent. I can’t say that I have lived in my hometown because even the 6 months, which is that the longest span of time I have spent there was too short. I have many cousins, whom I haven’t met more than once or twice. When my mother, aunt and grandmother gossip about the family, or discuss life in Odisha, I either can’t relate or don’t understand, so I laugh and smile at a lived experience that will never be similar to mine.
But I am not from the cities I have lived in, either. All my official documents have different addresses that repeatedly need to be updated. My family would always return to Goa, a place that will forever be my first home; but I am not Goan, I have only lived in Goa.
Another place I wish I could call mine is Mumbai – the financial capital of India and the home to Bollywood. It was in this city that I first went to an educational institution, Mumbai University, that was not defined by my father’s job. I fell in love with the city where I turned eighteen and learned how to be independent; where I formed friendships that will last a lifetime. But, with my three years in the city, even with all the exploring I did, do I have the right to call myself a Mumbaikar when I have friends who have spent their entire lives there?
So, where am I from? Which culture defines me? I never know what to say when people ask me what part of India I am from. Am I from Odisha, Goa or Mumbai?
My only solace is that I am not the only person in the world who feels this way. I grew up in a community with children who were from everywhere and nowhere, but never alone. All of us have loved and lost friends through the moves and bonded through our collective identity crisis. But, as lovely as it is to love, it is harder to lose. I have often found myself envying the stability of a permanent home. How beautiful it must be, to be assured that your friendships won’t fizzle out because of distance.
But I have also met people who became a part of my family, people who knew exactly what I was going through. My family was my lifeboat in an ocean of uncertainty; the constant in a life with ever-changing environments. My sister, and my father, whose father was in the military as well, understand my plight. My mother, who had to adapt to this lifestyle after marriage, empathizes with me.
My life may not be similar to what my mother’s had been, like I had wanted every time I left friends behind. But I share a lived experience with thousands of other military brats, who recognize and support each other everywhere they go. My home may not be a place, but it is my people.