A Musafir Remembers…

By Reena Kapoor 

Photo: Reena Kapoor “Not a Koel” Instagram @1StarDust

It was a Transitory Existence

For years my label for myself has been musafir, مسافر/यात्री which is the word for traveler in Hindi/Urdu. I grew up in India and since my father was a doctor in the Indian Army, I found myself in a new city and school every two to three years. It was a transitory existence, which I assumed – as any egocentric child – was how the world lived. Seven schools, a couple of universities and many, many homes in many cities later I found myself in a city and home in California, where I have now lived the longest. And the musafir is still here.

Finding Meaning

Sometimes I still get restless for that traveling life, for meeting new people and discovering new worlds, foods, art. Like I did in the India of my childhood. Making new friends. Marveling at how people find meaning, happiness, fear, connection in myriad ways. The tens of thousands of gods and goddesses they honor. Yet connected by a single “Indian” identity.

Traveling through India is a Magical Experience

It is a marvel to me, even as it can be a challenge for those that concern themselves with politics. Traveling through India is a magical experience – the closest comparison I can think of is traveling through Europe. The landscape, the language, the food, the mores changing rapidly and so completely and suddenly when you leave a state and enter another. I often long to travel through India more thoroughly and discover so much that I have missed. One of these days before they come for me.

Swimming Pools, Horse Riding Lessons, Movie Screenings, and Club Life

That life had its perks and its downsides but the constants of my particular family and the Army community that welcomed every new arrival in town made it work. Army life – at least in those days – was comfortably middle-class life but ironically came with fringe benefits not available to many even in upper classes. Swimming pools, horse riding lessons, movie screenings and club life where we went dancing, socializing without fear for us girls in particular, etc was not available to too many in civilian life.

My Fondest Memories

I have the fondest of memories of that life. My sister and I can spend hours reminiscing. But with the years I also know not to blindly glamorize it all. As I look back I can see there were many of my own friends who suffered for the constant change, the school transitions, the transitory friendships that were unceremoniously interrupted. I don’t make light of those hardships either.

British Army Stations with Wide Tree-lined Streets

Despite the hardship, this life resonated with me deeply. I particularly loved living in what was called “cantonment” or “cantt.” as it was commonly referred to. These towns within towns were modeled on British army stations with wide tree-lined streets, beautiful bungalows sporting languorous verandahs, manicured gardens, all mingling with animal and bird life you would not commonly see elsewhere in urban India. All of this coexisted peacefully within a city’s hustle and sweaty bustle. It was indeed a life of privilege and I realize my clueless, good fortune in having had it. I still remember the calm that would descend on me when I reentered “cantt” from the city and it still has that impact on me.

The Presidio in California

Several years ago when I first came upon San Francisco’s Presidio area, I was dumbstruck in being revisited by that same feeling! As a child I loved being in nature, in my mother’s garden or hanging among trees listening to nature’s sounds. All of this somehow centered my notion of a home – people I love, a small garden (or at least lots of plants), friends that visit as family, and a willingness to build a place of love without being tied to specific places or material elements.

A few years ago when I was in Delhi at my parents’ home (not in cantt anymore) a simple sound brought back a flood of this feeling. Next to their flat in a majestic Peepal tree, an early bird Koel arrived one morning to sing her sweet song. As I lay in bed listening to her, it brought on a deluge of nostalgia for a childhood gone by, a way of life and a home full of memories. Where my parents live now is not a home I have really lived in – except for my visits – but that is my normal, given my childhood. Here is a poem I wrote for my fellow traveler-companion who surely sang for my nostalgic reveries…

Koel by Reena May 6th 2016, India

In the peepul she comes and sings

Every morning pulled by an inexorable longing

Such a sweet song my ears haven’t known yet longed for

It’s been a lifetime since I’ve heard her sing

The house I’m in is not one from my childhood

Not one where I know all the nooks and corners

But it’s one where my precious have lived to make it oddly mine

Somehow, she knows these truths

Her sweet refrains gently remind me so

Every morning as I lie awake before anyone stirs

She comes to sing and call with her song

She knows I think I’m not from here somehow

Yet as she sings, she makes me gently hum

Come alive to my memories of a time that was

And while I’m not from here anymore, she must know

This place from a lifetime ago

Will forever live within me…

And while I’m not from here anymore, she must know

So even when I stay put in my home for many beloved reasons, for ties that bind, for promises made, I travel in my head. It recently occurred to me that my debut book of poetry and my blog are both called “Arrivals & Departures” perhaps for the same reason. Musafir hoon yaaron…. (I am but a traveler, friends…). Such conditions cannot be cured.

Reena Kapoor

As an “army brat” growing up in India, Reena Kapoor lived all over the country – attending eight schools – and feels lucky for having had that wandering life. Reena has been active in writing, theatre and performance since her early school years. More recently Reena wrote her first play “Art of the Possible” as playwright-in-residence for EnActe Arts, a leading Bay Area theatre company. As the first writer-creator in EnActe’s WEFT (“Women enacting for themselves”) program, Reena’s work will be produced in April 2021.  

Reena has been muddling with poetry for over a decade, claiming her poems write themselves; she just shows up! “Arrivals & Departures” is Reena Kapoor’s debut poetry collection. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. From the nostalgia of one’s homeland, to the suffering and resilience of women who experienced India’s 1947 Partition, to parenthood, to life’s other simple pleasures, Arrivals & Departures draws readers into new worlds and allows them to find themselves within. Reena regularly publishes on her blog by the same name. Reena is also an avid photographer and can be found on Instagram at @1stardusty and her photo-art prints are to be found at reena-kapoor.pixels.com

She lives in California with her human family and their beloved Labradoodle Dishoom! Reena graduated with an engineering degree from IIT Delhi and a graduate degree from Northwestern University. Reena works as a software product professional in Silicon Valley. She is an active executive mentor to social enterprises and supports various youth & women related causes.

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