‘How do you do this?’ A friend asked me recently. I was in the midst of a move across cities—my 12th in 42 years. “I need roots,” she said.
And I thought about that: Roots can be like those of the Giant Sequoia—built painstakingly, over generations. Roots that help you grow into someone awe-inspiring, and renowned—but maybe need just the right mix of ingredients—a certain clime, a particular soil, to thrive. Inspiring awe for sure, but in some ways fragile too.
Roots can also be like that of the Banyan—many roots, each laid down at a different time, spread wide across, each looking small and inconsequential, but together providing sustenance, helping the Banyan thrive.
The Bougainvillea has roots too. Shallow, to critical eyes, but put a branch anywhere, in any climate, in any soil, and it will still burst forth with millions of flowers. Sometimes it will be atop a tree, or have climbed along a fence, taking the help of whatever it can find. Its resilience, we take for granted, and brand its ability to thrive as ‘oh so common’. But it is a rare bougainvillea that hasn’t thrived and a rarer one that you can ignore. No matter how many other plants it is surrounded by.
The nomadic way of being I have come to appreciate, is not without roots. We learn, like the Banyan to build many roots, each put down at a different place, a different time. I have some roots in every place I have lived in, having built not just relationships and memories, but also a love for the local culture, language, foods and festivals—be it Bangkok, Michigan, Delhi, Bangalore, or Pune.
We also learn like the Bougainvillea, to be adaptable and resilient, to attach ourselves to whatever tethers us, and burst forth with flowers with whatever the environment has to offer.
As I reflect the life of a nomad, its pains of uprooting and re-rooting notwithstanding, has much to offer, many lessons to teach. Lessons in survival, acceptance, openness and resilience. All lessons important in our turbulent divisive times. So what lessons can a nomadic way of life teach you?
First and foremost, the nomad knows that building relationships is not optional. Uprooted from our homes, families and childhood buddies, friends and neighbours are our lifeline, our survival toolkit. We take relationship building seriously. We reach out, form bonds, nurture and nourish them, because, these bonds give us the roots to flourish in our new environs. And because we invest in our relationships with everything we have, they live on, often lifelong. It is friends who have taken care of my daughter when I have had to travel on work, and it is friends who sent me food, when my mom’s body lay in my living room. My mentors are friends, as are the shoulders I cry on—even if some of them are a time zone away.
We Nomads learn the value of acceptance and openness. Forced out of our relationship comfort zones, we befriend people across barriers of age, culture, language and skin tones. And we learn, that underneath our superficial differences, most of us care about the same things, that we are more similar than different.
And along with befriending people of different stripes, we learn to enjoy new foods as our own; celebrate new festivals with gusto; speak a new tongue, sometimes, thus opening the windows of our minds and hearts to a new culture. I have celebrated Songkran in Thailand on the streets with locals, shopped at Crawford market in Mumbai, eaten Misal Pav at the tiny non-descript Bedekar Misal in Pune, eaten deep fried parathas at Parathe Waali Galli in Old Delhi, and know like the back of my hand, the by lanes of Chinatown in Bangkok.
We know we are only passers-by in every place we call home. Our time is finite, and so, having to quickly adapt to a new city teaches us hustle. Ask a nomad how to get anything done in your own city. They will tell you. And because we know that our time is finite, we dive in head first into the local experience, we learn to belong, but still stay a little untethered. And when time arrives for us to leave, we also know how to move on. Only change is permanent, we accept, and this gives us resilience.
My nomadic way of being has taught me to love every place as my own, ignoring its faults and celebrating its unique gifts. My heart sings each time I visit Bangalore, Bangkok, Mumbai or Pune, as the familiar feeling of ‘home’ sets in. I am often asked ‘Among the cities you have lived in, which is the city you love the most?’ I disappoint locals every time by answering: ‘Every single one’.
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