The clang of a brass bell vibrates down my spine, and I watch my grandmother fold her hands in prayer. I mimic her movements, walk behind her, and circumambulate the altar. I am nine years old and visiting relatives in Bengaluru, India, from the United States. My mother, grandmother, and I are in a Hindu temple in Malleshwaram, a middle-class neighborhood that is the geographic center of my grandparents’ world. The fragrance of jasmine and champak flowers mingles with the mustiness of the space, and the stone feels cool to my bare feet. “Sit for a few minutes,” my grandmother, whom I call Ajji, tells me in Kannada. “We should always sit at the temple when we visit.”
As we emerge from the dark interiors, we are greeted by a jumble of hawkers selling bananas, okra pods, sari blouses, and steel cooking vessels. I strengthen my hold on Ajji’s hand. Malleshwaram is the neighborhood in India that’s most familiar to me. The owners of the local medical shop have known my family for decades. Across the street is the studio that photographed my mother’s graduation portrait in the 1960s.
I touch the warmth of my steel coffee cup to my cheek and savor this space, this place, this moment.
People here look like me. I, however, am of the diaspora. Where do I fit in? I don’t quite know, but the bustling crowds make me feel connected to something bigger than myself. I am the child who is bullied back at school by white children. Being here, though, makes me wonder if I might also be ancient stone and jasmine and my grandmother’s firm grasp around my hand.
As an adult, I have been to Malleshwaram more than a dozen times. My trips have taught me that no place or person remains constant over the years; returning somewhere can feel both familiar and unfamiliar. Traveling to new places is thrilling, but for me, a second or third visit can carry more meaning. It makes me feel a bit unsettled—and also a bit restored. In these moments, travel becomes recursive and layered, a way to remember and revise ourselves and our understanding of the world. A place becomes meaningful based on what we bring to it, take from it, and leave behind.
I return to Malleshwaram in my mid-20s, this time with my mother. At a fabric store, we feel silk and georgette between our fingers. We sip filter coffee and eat dosas from a local joint that my mother frequented as a child. Though she has lived in the U.S. for close to three decades, this is home, and she lights up while reminiscing and sharing lively tales of the past. I listen to get to know her better; I love her laughter! Under the backdrop of Malleshwaram, our relationship feels more peaceful and we bicker less. Here I begin to see my mother as a daughter, a sister, a woman, a fuller version of herself. I touch the warmth of my steel coffee cup to my cheek and savor this space, this place, this moment.
Another 15 years or so pass. I am now fortyish, and as part of my role directing international education programs for U.S. universities, I’ve brought 15 students to Malleshwaram’s market. It’s crowded tonight, and people are everywhere. Why, then, do I feel so alone? This is the first time I am here without my family. Maybe I’m missing my grandmother, who has now passed. I’m agitated and can’t settle down. I know this market intimately, yet today all I notice is my internal fog. My roles of cultural insider, interpreter, educator, and daughter of the diaspora blur together in a tangled mess. How am I supposed to be an expert right now? I feel like a malfunctioning mother duck who paddles faster than her wide-eyed ducklings can comfortably follow. Perhaps I am protective of my memories and sense of self. I know this feeling will eventually pass, but for now, I need to bring this field trip to an end.
Fast-forward another 11 years, to July 2022. My 17-year-old daughter and I spend an evening wandering through Malleshwaram. I point out the dosa spot that my mother—her grandmother—enjoyed as a child. We gaze at the temple that my grandmother—her great-grandmother—used to frequent, resplendent in a finely draped silk sari, with her gray hair braided in a bun. Malleshwaram feels the same and different, probably because I too feel the same and different each time I am here.
“Let’s sit down somewhere,” I say. “We should always sit for a moment when we visit a place.”