Another day, another pointless visit to the market. I’m like a lamb trying to find its way through the forest where it does not belong.
So I’m lost. Emotionally.
As I make my home through the busy market, sellers scream out their wares and prices. A young man is selling a cartful of fruits, a young lady is selling flowers, a quiet woman sells bananas.
But even though I pass through this market every day, I don’t know I am doing here. It’s a strange place, this city of Yangon, earlier called Rangoon. Yes, I had committed a year of my life to be here as a trailing spouse, companion to my husband for his year-long stint.
But this place isn’t home. How can it be home?
It doesn’t have the spirit that my city Mumbai has. In Yangon, their stilted tongue is so different from the hard consonants in Marathi. They don’t speak English either. There isn’t any vada pav hawker on the streets. The people look different here. They dress different. Their food is different.
All this means that my life in Yangon is a constant struggle.
Urgh, just eleven more months. And then I’ll be out of here. Till then, I just have to survive.
And how do I survive?
Barely. I have insomnia, and when I sleep, I have nightmares.
I wake up late, spend yet another day in front of the TV, go out to shop a bit, cook instant noodles or toss a salad, and then brace myself for the next day.
This isn’t what life should be.
After a long and restless night in early June, I fall asleep at dawn. I wake up in the around noon, expecting the sun to be beating down harshly on me through the curtains. But it’s cold and cloudy instead. Gloomy overcast sky.
My eyes flicker and it takes me a few seconds to register where I am. This hint of rain, this impending downpour, am I not in Mumbai?
Of course I’m not. I’m in Yangon, the place where I’m a stranger, an outsider. A mere passer-by.
But as the clouds open up and the raindrops splatter against my bedroom window, it hits me. This.. this rain, it’s just like home. Just like Mumbai.
The monsoon, the evening crowds, the commuter-stuffed local buses, the busy markets, the concrete buildings cramped together. The sea, not visible, but too far away either. I even joke that Yangon’s Hledan area resembles Mumbai’s Dadar.
So wait, if Yangon is home, there would be other similarities too, right?
I switch from survival mode to exploration mode. I scour my neighbourhood market and find things I hadn’t spotted before. A sprig of curry leaves, just what I need for my morning poha. A coconut seller who will grate it for my curry. A lady who sells mangoes that beat the alphonsos out of the ballpark.
I become bolder and begin to think of myself as a world traveller. I need to be more open-minded.
I head to downtown Yangon. The staid and elegant colonial-era buildings could be anywhere in South Mumbai. The erstwhile telegraph office and the old High Court could easily be mistaken for Mumbai structures. The stock market building was earlier the RBI office in the pre-independence era, and resembles Mumbai’s RBI headquarters on Mint Road. Even the floor tiles in the old part of the Indian embassy remind me of old buildings in Fort.
There’s a shared history between Mumbai and Yangon. A shared culture too.
The people love street food, especially in the evenings. My favourite snack quickly becomes the local tea leaf salad, tossed with steamed corn and sliced garlic.
Buddhist pagodas in every major street replaces Mumbai’s iconic temples. I pray to Buddha along with everyone else at under the golden dome of the sacred Shwedagon pagoda.
I learn the local language. As a result, I make friends with my fruit seller, my vegetable vendor, my landlord’s family. I learn the Burmese words for potatoes is aloo, pronounced exactly like the Hindi word.
Then I immerse myself even more. I bargain with taxi drivers. I cook with Burmese jaggery, and I learn to tell the difference between the various Burmese accents too.
Finally, a day comes when I buy some fabric from the textile market. I go to a tailor on my street to get the green swathe of cloth stitched into the local sarong-like skirt (called the longyi). When I wear it, I’m mistaken for a local. My neighbours compliment me.
Somewhere along the line, I stop missing Mumbai. Yangon is home.
Now that I’m back in Mumbai, I know what I did in that beautiful country of Myanmar. Just having that little bit of acceptance turned me into a new person.
But mostly, I said yes to Yangon. I said yes to the world. And now the world is my home.