A childhood home, an adult haven: A personal essay

Person looking over a city view on top of apartment roof
Chi Park/Staff

I have been traveling to Mumbai, India since I was 2 years old, and I have loved it there since day one. I have a particular love for Dadar, a small suburb on the very coast of Mumbai. The streets of Dadar are crowded with tiny shops and street vendors, busy pedestrians and motorcycles that have no patience for traffic lights or police sirens. My safe haven and most favorite place in the world is a small building housed in the Dadar suburb: Samartha Krupa.

Samartha Krupa is a small building right in the center of Dadar that is dwarfed by the huge neighboring metropolitan skyscrapers and is surrounded by a busy train station and enormous slum settlements. Built by my maternal great-grandfather about 70 years ago, our family has lived there ever since. It has always been a very central location where our entire extended circle of family and friends can join together and enjoy one another’s company.

During the span of my life, I have spent a few years in this ancestral home. When I was 2 years old, I traveled to India for the first time from New Jersey, where my parents and I lived, and I spent a few months there with our family. My brother wasn’t yet born, so little me got every ounce of my family’s attention. I got to go to different parks every night, visit temples, eat a ton of new foods, wear new Indian clothes and even celebrate my third birthday in India with my family.

Although I was so young, I was still at least partially cognizant and aware of where I was and what I was doing. For that reason, I remember that even then, my favorite part about India wasn’t all the good food and all the new places — it was our home. I was in love with Samartha Krupa. At the time, all I saw were long halls where I could pretend to play cricket with my grandparents; stairs on which I could run up and down; a terrace where I could fly kites, run around in the monsoon rain and look over to the train station and the vegetable markets down on the street; a bathroom where, unlike in New Jersey, I had to shower with a bucket and a pail; and a kitchen window with a ledge that I could sit on and catch the sweaty, humid breeze of Mumbai. I loved Samartha Krupa for the variation and culture it brought into my life, and that has stuck with me to this day.

…even then, my favorite part about India wasn’t all the good food and all the new places — it was our home.

This past December, I traveled back to Mumbai with my family and spent time in Samartha Krupa again. On every trip I’ve taken, I have noticed that the house changes, or rather, my perspective on it changes. Physically, the ceilings don’t seem so tall anymore, the terrace not quite so runner-friendly and the kitchen window breeze not so magical.

And emotionally, I experience something entirely new every time. The first trip I took with my brother was when I first saw — really saw — the slum settlements all around our building and the families selling vegetables on the streets so they could afford to live in those settlements. On our next trip, I began to see children begging on the street. In the years after, I saw families building shelters out of construction tarps, children bathing with buckets in the streets and slum settlements getting cleaned up by the government, leaving so many people homeless. I became full witness to the real financial, health and social gaps in Indian society. A few trips ago, I saw an ambulance trying to get through Mumbai traffic. Once the ambulance had finally negotiated a path through the traffic, numerous cars followed closely behind and escaped the traffic themselves. These experiences and disparities between Indian and American life have struck me deeply and introduced me to a whole new world outside my sheltered childhood bubble in suburban New Jersey.

I am able to seamlessly live in both regions because my childhood consisted of such a beautiful blend of Indian and American life.

I never realized that my childhood and adolescent experiences would so heavily impact my future career goals and perspective on life. Now, I am able to seamlessly live in both regions because my childhood consisted of such a beautiful blend of Indian and American life. In India, I crossed the street along with cows and rickshaws, lived in a multigenerational home, celebrated colorful Hindu holiday seasons with my family, ate street food, went to traditional markets and shops and visited ornate and traditional temples. Back home in the United States, I played soccer and lacrosse in the dry summer heat, celebrated the culture of Christmas and Easter with my friends, wore Crocs and skorts (tragic, I know), became enamored by the beach and stuffed myself full of macaroni and cheese and pie.

Although my experiences in India have changed as I have gotten older, I still have the same fondness and respect for the place I consider my true home. I thank Samartha Krupa for giving me a childhood — and in turn, an adult life — rooted in adventure, self-discovery and culture.

Contact Priyanka Athalye at [email protected].