It came as a surprise to me that England was exactly as I’d imagined it to be. The thatched-roof cottages, rambling roses and gigantic oak trees that I’d seen in picture books as a child all stood life-sized in front of me. The drive from Heathrow to Oxfordshire was nothing spectacular if you looked straight ahead, but on either side of the road, bright yellow fields shone under the clear blue sky. It was early March, the season of the rapeseed blooms. I’d chosen spring to introduce me to England.
On the 11 hour flight from India to the UK, I mapped the names on the screen in front of me to the gigantic rivers and city-clusters that I saw below. I remembered marking many of these places painstakingly on world maps in geography class—the Ural mountains, the Aral Sea—it felt like I was drawing them to life from my window seat. For most of my life I’d been vehemently opposed to the idea of moving abroad. But when I decided to get married to my college friend, who was based in the UK, it only seemed fair to give it a chance.
The village of Chesterton, my new home, was startlingly pretty, at least to my city-sore eyes. Around the house grew thick green ivy (carefully tended to by the landlady), and large pots of blooms in riotous colours stood on either side of the door. Looking back, I think I had arrived at the perfect time.
I spent my first month in the UK in a sort of daze, waking up to blackbirds singing in the garden and the twittering of robins. I went on long walks around the village, which was decidedly easy on the eyes. I saw daffodils for the first time ever a few days after I arrived. Even though I had never seen pictures of these flowers, I instantly recognized them. I was thrilled that the Wordsworth poem I’d recited so many times in school back in India had sprung to life. Suddenly, I felt at home in this place, where everything seemed so unfamiliar.
Four years on, and I still go to pieces when I see the first narcissi of the year bloom.
Life in small town England was quite different from that in its cities. The shops in the nearest town closed at 5 pm, the last bus back was at about 6 pm. Astonishingly, everyone seemed content with this arrangement. There was a general quiet that fell upon the village in the evenings. Unused to the silence and the cold, I would fall asleep at dusk.
After I quit my job to freelance back in India, I’d resolved to apply to jobs in the UK only once I’d got used to the place and settled in. However, all reason abandoned me once I moved. I woke up at odd hours frantically scouring job sites and writing cover letter after cover letter. Was this a mistake? Was I risking my career? I couldn’t quite shake off the panic, even as I woke up to lovely little surprises from my husband (cheese omelette was a real winner).
I was severely homesick, but refused to acknowledge and accept it. I missed the strangest things about home. I missed the sound of the papiha (the brainfever bird), a noisy bird whose song reaches a crescendo before it starts all over again. It’s amazing how much a soundscape affects the way you bond with a place. Back at home, there was always some kind of background noise, especially the sound of welding which I think is the unofficial OST of Indian cities. Somebody’s always welding something in India. There was the azaan from the mosque next door, the horn of the temple conch, kids playing in the street, our apartment lift beeping at someone to close the doors.
The absence of people was the thing I found most difficult to get used to. Suddenly there was no watchman, milkman or paperman; there were no autowalas, maids, grocery shop uncles, kolam-drawing aunties or chatty neighbours; no people spilling out of buses, no people on Scootys, no people at petrol bunks. No people. The lack of human interaction was stark. My mum summed up my feelings when she visited me a few months later: “Wow this place is beautiful. Such lovely fields! So much natural beauty! But where are all the people?”
And the rains! I would tear up thinking of the earthy smell of the rain back home, bhutta (corn on the cob) being roasted and people running for cover with plastic bags on their heads. Here, it rained a lot but the rain was less dramatic, and it didn’t smell of home. I lamented to my long-suffering husband about how I crossed the oceans for him to live in a place where even the rain didn’t smell like rain and we didn’t have easy access to street food.
The mental stress manifested physically. While on a video call with an old friend back home, he tried to tell me politely that I’d put on weight and added, only half-jokingly, “It’s because you don’t have friends over there, Ramya. If you have people to share your stories with, you stay fit. But if you accumulate it all inside you, then it has to be stored somewhere.” I didn’t argue with him.
But in all seriousness, I found the move pretty hard to deal with. I had lived with family after university back home, I had a wide circle of friends and I had a stable career in India. I was hard on myself for not getting a job immediately and for not having a house full of all the new friends I’d dreamt I’d make. I’m a fairly social being and I had pictured married life to be all about board games and house parties with lots of loud laughter and twinkly fairy lights. I didn’t realize I’d be spending the initial evenings questioning my self-worth. The loneliness was piercing, the silence deafening. On some days I thought I must be going mad. And to add to it all, the guilt! I had married the love of my life, the cherry trees were in bloom and everything was perfect. Surely I had no right to feel low?
I think one of the reasons people don’t talk about being homesick is simply because it makes you seem selfish and small. Especially when you’re in a position of privilege. Nobody wants to be told they’re just acting like a big baby. It was only until years later when a friend who was going through something similar spoke about it did I realize what I felt was perhaps completely normal.
I had grown up in a middle-class family in India with access to good education and exposure. Even so, I was incredibly fascinated by the ‘first-worldness’ of what I saw around me in the UK. Access to clean running water, clean air and basic necessities seemed to be more of a given than a luxury. I felt like I had just walked from a bazaar full of deserving yet poorly-compensated artists and craftsmen to a glitzy mall with big-brand showrooms. A naive analogy, I know, but the world just seemed incredibly unfair.
I once spoke with a cab driver from Punjab who said, “In the UK, if you do your job honestly and work really hard, eventually you’d be able to buy a home and a car and live a good life. In India you might work really hard all day long, but everything is a matter of kismat!”
On some days, every memory from back home would frame itself into a fundraiser poster for global charities. Ugh! The street kid watching you eat an ice cream, the old man sleeping out in the cold, women not having access to sanitary hygiene. Every day the guilt multiplied. I would repeatedly picture myself as the hero of this fantasy: I would fly back home, passionately kiss the soil once I landed, and travel all over the country, leading a large-scale social reform movement. Aha! That was my life’s true purpose. And then cheese omelette would reappear in the morning and I would remind myself of the reason I had moved. I would tell myself to be patient, and that eventually I would be able to untangle my thoughts and categorize them neatly into Excel sheets with highlighted next steps.
As a teenager, I had devoured Bill Byrson and PG Wodehouse and Durrell. I had even read George Mikes’ hilarious travel books, in particular, How to Be a Brit, that should have surely prepared me to blend into my new home. But it was one thing to know of a place through books and movies and the Internet and it was altogether a different thing to actually live there. Maybe I felt the disconnect a lot more because of where I was living. If I’d moved into London or any big city, I’m sure I would have felt differently. In big cities, there is an unspoken bond of shared experiences. You could be walking next to someone going through the same thing as you are. Maybe I just found the uniqueness of my experience isolating.
In a way, a lot of these experiences became mine and mine alone. During the job-hunting days I’d wander off to the town while my partner went to work. If it were New York or London or Delhi I’d probably find plenty of avenues—groups, online forums, books, blogs—that I could be a part of and say “I just loved that old bookshop too!” But these experiences became personal and internalized. I liked that I was the only one who knew about that one tree which was the perfect spot to rest under on a hot afternoon. I liked that I knew which neighbourhood garden featured what tree. I smiled at the guy who played his violin every Saturday at Market Square, and I listened to the handful of guitarists that busked there. In spite of everything being so new, there were objects I gradually started to identify with. The gnome in that garden, the pretty vase on that house’s windowsill.
During a walk one day, I took in the wonderful aroma of biryani that wafted out of somebody’s house and did a little happy jig.
There was no grocery store in the village, but there was a pub (of course) and a church. The first time I went to the supermarket, I was mesmerized. It sold hot cross buns, ginger beer and jam tarts just like my Enid Blyton books promised, alongside the more alarming Spotted Dick and Toad in the Hole and Pigs in Blankets. I discovered trifle and madeira cake, piled on the pounds, and enjoyed being addressed to as ’my love” by the friendly lady at the till. She was suspicious of my friend though, who picked up several ciders to take back with him to France. “You must be very thirsty,” she’d said to him drily. When I took a bus into town for the first time, I was the only passenger in it, something that was hardly common back home!
I spent much of my initial days answering the door and chatting with everyone from roof-fixers to Greenpeace campaigners. The postman figured that someone was always at home at number 37 and I became a parcel collector. Two JW ladies exclaimed that I “must be Hindu” and went on to declare that we’re all the same and want to believe that there’s hope left in this world. I spoke for a long time with a delivery guy from Somalia one day about moving to a different country. Bucks Wildlife Trust popped by one day to talk about the rapidly-vanishing owls and hedgehogs. I learned many things from these conversations.
And what better time could I have arrived in the UK but for the run up to the Great Referendum! A pro-Brexit campaigner once knocked on my door, took a good look at me and shook my hand, announcing, “You look new around here, love. Do you know what’s been happening in this country? No? Let me tell you. We’ve got some catching up to do.” I’ve carefully saved all the Brexit-related flyers that had come through the letterbox so I can tell my grandkids about how I was witness to this fascinating bit of history.
I also felt that peculiar feeling that I’m sure many newcomers must’ve experienced—of not being able to comprehend English at all in this country. The first time my partner (who’d been in the UK for over 7 years) mentioned that he was going to the surgery, I was startled. Surgery? I said. Who’s having a surgery? It quickly dawned on me that it was what they called hospitals here, just like they called ovens cookers and vacuum cleaners hoovers.
At a neighbourhood Christmas party once, I found that I unwittingly attracted much attention. My neighbours, who weren’t used to seeing many new folks in the area, asked me lots of difficult questions about India: How come baring your midriff in a saree is OK but you need to wear a dupatta for modesty while wearing a salwar-kameez? Do you really see a lot of cows on the road? How safe is it for women?
And then: Can you cook a good curry? How come your English is so good? Do you really mean it when you say you and your husband have no other family in the UK? Must be awfully lonely!
I also saw other bizarre events that this country was witness to—the Great Scone Debate for example. Ah, what a delight it was to switch on the TV on some days! A cow got its head stuck in a chair, a donkey fell into a well and was rescued by firemen, and a lady adopted a bumble bee which couldn’t fly. BBC Breakfast became a daily routine, I watched reruns of Come Dine with Me, got addicted to WILTY and spent considerable time understanding the concept of a TV license. I spent every week waiting for 8 pm on Sundays to watch Attenborough on Planet Earth II.
Eventually, as much as I rebelled against it, I fell in love more and more with the UK. I couldn’t keep moping forever. During long summer afternoons I’d watch the birds splashing about in the bird bath for hours. Though it sounds a bit idiotic, I think it’s comforting to find all these little universal truths, things that seem to the same no matter where you are. I found that squirrels liked nuts both in India and the UK. Venus sparkled in the sky in both countries. And of course, I realized that people are pretty much the same the world over.
With time, I found ways to reconstruct pieces of home in my new place. My partner and I moved four times in the UK and I carried home with me wherever I went. In a handed-down recipe book, in a box of spices, in a magazine from an airport, in a colourful bandhani scarf. I figured I couldn’t continue living life trying to be in two places at once, I had to let go. I found that I had plenty of opportunity to drive change even if I wasn’t hopping from village to village in India. I found that I could love another place without feeling like I’d committed some Great Act of Betrayal. I rid myself of guilt. I found that I was lucky enough to be able to split time between the two countries, see my family often, and ended up making the best-decision ever: I chose a location-independent job.
With easy access to the countryside, it’s impossible to resist falling deeply in love with the UK. England is where I nurtured my love for long, meditative, thoughtless walks. A place where I discovered that I love magnolia trees and strangely, duck egg blue, a shade I’d never heard of before I moved. In particular I’ve grown attached to the little Public Footpath signs that dot the countryside, offering the prospect of a nice amble beside gurgling streams and open fields and placid sheep. (The bovine animals don’t look upon you as kindly though, especially if you’re with a border collie. I speak from experience. ) I’ve started becoming more open to the unavoidable impact my experiences would have on me and started to actively seek out more.
For four years, I delighted in the bluebell woods, the beech trees, the bracken. I picked up conkers, went on circular walks, and visited National Trust estates. I visited the Chilterns (so underrated!) and the Cotswolds (slightly overrated), walked the fells in the Lake District (overwhelmingly gorgeous), stayed in charming seaside towns in Wales and did a train ride through the remote Scottish highlands. I stuck my nose to the window all day long when it snowed heavily one winter, amazed that I could build a snowman in my very own backyard.
And now, a new soundscape has grown familiar. The loud call of the blue tit, the sound of the post coming in through the letterbox. The ice-cream van in summer. The ‘Please take your items’ voice at self check-out in supermarkets. The sound of cars, which earlier used to be ‘honk honk’, is now ‘whoosh’.
I think of the UK as a country where its people love and value their privacy, dogs, leisure centres, gardens and Red Lions/White Harts. This place has become home in its own peculiar way. I’m now used to being asked if I’m alright when I walk into a store. I’ve learned that the right thing to say in response to how I’m doing is the non-committal “Not too bad”. I look forward to the same old Christmas songs that play on loop on the radio every winter. I know my bin collection days. I stock up on Lemsip and am happy to tuck into my fried eggs for breakfast. Sometimes I think it might even be odd to go a few days without hearing about the weather from the BBC reporter Carol on the telly… er, television. And after four years here, I’ve realized the profound truth that the UK offers—that a hot cup of tea and biscuits can help you tide over the dullest days.