A Longing for Belonging

The anxiety with which you search for a hometown delicacy in a new land is the same with which you look for familiar people and places when you visit your place of upbringing.

In either case, you are slightly disappointed. When you move out, things also move on.

A Story of Belonging

I left my hometown in Kolhapur in 1999 to pursue engineering in Pune, about 230 km away from where I grew up. Monthly visits back home ended with a 6:00 am trip in an Asiad bus hurrying back to Pune to catch the second half of college on Monday morning. I have had better sleep tired and cramped in those seats of what were remnants of the 1982 Asian Games held in India than on some of the softest beds I have slept on.

Over the years, as physical distances from home grew, so did the gap between trips. I did make it back every 6 months during my Masters in the U.S. A later trip included showing up unannounced to surprise dad on his 60th birthday after a 36-hour door-to-door journey.

However, while you realize that you are becoming a newer version of yourself in all those moments that you have been away, you seldom think of your home the same way. We all wish we could go back to the same neighborhoods and to the same people as we had frozen in our fading memories.

As I began losing people who were always around me growing up, I realized home will never be the same. The physical world you had etched in your memories also gets uprooted and renovated in real life. Some really old memories start to feel as if they were a dream.

The Recipe for Belonging

Some things never change though or not as much. I miss talking in a dialect of Marathi I grew up in and it is a delight to hear it, a brazen form of the neater version you may hear in the media but nevertheless, direct and candid in love and hate. I still vividly remember the first month of my first year of engineering in Pune. A senior asked, “Are you from Kolhapur?” I almost fell off my chair and asked him how does he know. He goes, “I can tell from the way you speak”. Until then, I didn’t think Marathi accent was a thing.

Another attribute that modern life hasn’t yet totally altered about home is the preference for simplicity, even if it projects certain coarseness, the lack of sophistication is often an intentional lifestyle choice. This passage from the book “Shivaji and His Times” written by Jadunath Sarkar in 1920 about the history of the region still rings true.

No matter the reasons you want to associate yourself with your roots, it often comes down to the memories that you cherish the most.

The most memorable moments in our lives are rooted in strong connections with our surroundings, especially when someone is able to relate to us, understand where we are coming from, and empathize with our situation.

When that empathy is missing, the exact opposite happens — you withdraw yourself from such an environment, physically and emotionally, where you don’t think you belong. At times, that could even happen with your own family. This happens even more frequently at work.

Belonging at Workplace

With remote work becoming the norm, belonging at the workplace is even trickier to define. At a minimum, staying true to who you are is the first step to discover that belonging. At certain points in our careers, we all have struggled to bring our true selves into our interactions at work. In those moments when we overcome this struggle, we can fully align our actions with our hearts. This is crucial to building an authentic presence and a sense of belonging with the community at work. Whereas, in those moments when we are not ourselves there is a dent in that belonging.

So no matter where we find our “professional” homes – whether in our project teams, or wider groups at work, or online social communities – the first step is to discover who you are and what you stand for.

Find Your “Habitat”

This is also the reason why when we meet long-lost friends, we almost always pick up the discussion where we left it many years ago. There is no pretense and there are no perceptions to care about. You are who you are in the company of those you know you belong to.

Once you discover who you are, find your habitat, a place that lets you be you, to become the best version of yourself.

Haven’t visited home in 18 months. This is not the most I have stayed away from home by a long shot. Still, the pandemic has uncanny abilities to age everything. Looking forward to the next trip to savor the pandhara rassa (white curry) that I have never found made better anywhere else in the world. While the city will keep evolving and so will I, some parts of me will always find themselves in some parts of my hometown.

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