The Familiar in the Unfamiliar

Dnyaneshwari Burghate looks at how we manage to cope with change 

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

This has been my sixth year away from home and yet every time I move out to a new city, several such questions regarding my roommate, my place of study/work, my choices, and my habits crowd my mind. Although I try to be comfortable within my skin, I have second thoughts about my choices, my lifestyle, and my habits.  


‘What will she think of me if I play this song? Will she tag me as an old-school person and decide to not hang out with me? Should I change my playlist which is filled with old Hindi songs and try something trendy? Will that help us bond?’

This reminded me of my hesitation to play the old Hindi song on the first day at my hostel. Regardless of my irrational fears,  I finally decided to throw caution to the wind and played ‘Lag jaa gale…’ and voila!
I found familiarity in that unfamiliar zone. 

My native town is Amravati, 150 kilometers away from Nagpur, in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. I left home for the first time when I was eighteen; for my undergraduate studies. I was selected for a liberal arts course at Ashoka University in Sonipat, Haryana. I was excited yet scared to leave my house and enter an unfamiliar surrounding. The campus was new to me; the place, the people, my classmates, and even my hostel room smelled strange. I was taken aback by the socio-economic status of my peers. Almost everyone came from an upper-class background and studied in international board and fancy schools. I, on the other hand, had completed my education from the Maharashtra State Board. There was a big gap between me and my classmates; our mannerisms, pronunciations, habits, and choices, followed two different routes that disconnected me from my peers. This made me question my abilities, my background, and my social status. I often asked myself if I am sufficient enough to be here. I would often hear a “No”. But I couldn’t afford to follow the answer. I had studied hard enough to be where I was and I could not let the opportunity go just like that. So, I stayed.

What made me stay? The institute, of course! I knew I would lose out on a lot of learning opportunities if I quit, but some other strands tied me to the place and made me feel comfortable and at home. My college had a dog club that used to feed stray dogs and their puppies. One random day, I stepped out of the college gate and they greeted me with love and affection. From that day onwards, visiting them became a part of my routine. Another interesting routine was talking to the women helpers on my campus. I have a habit of talking to people around me, especially those who make our lives easier by doing their job. I continued with this habit at Ashoka. Talking to these women about their day, their work, and sometimes their household issues too, became a part of my routine. We later formed a society that taught these women, who we fondly called ‘didis’, spoken English. This enabled them to converse with students who couldn’t speak Hindi on campus. Soon enough, the didi on my hostel floor started greeting “How are you doing?” every morning. These conversations gave me the warmth that I was seeking and helped me find a home away from home. At the same time, it made me look beyond myself and my problems and helped me understand my privilege and use it for a purpose. 

Three years later, in 2019, I went to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), for my master's in Women’s Studies. This time, it was less scary. The city seemed familiar, as I could see a lot of people talking in my mother tongue, Marathi. Food, culture, eating habits, and dressing styles were familiar too. The institute had more people with similar socio-economic backgrounds. Yet, the city outside my secured and accepting campus was daunting. Boarding the locals, holding your bags tightly while traveling in the locals, waiting for taxis and buses for hours, finding your way amidst a huge crowd of people, was unfamiliar and scary. But the same city accommodated us; the students with similar views, stances, protests, and demonstrations against the state. One day; we were heading to the August Kranti Maidan to protest against the then CAA NRC Bill. We had collected in huge numbers and crowded the railways with our daflis (a powerful musical instrument played by shaking or hitting hands on it that symbolizes voices and revolution), and posters. We didn’t know how we would all be able to stick together throughout our journey owing to the crowd on the local trains. And then, something unusual happened. 

The commuters made way for us, let us climb the trains first, and joined us in chanting the slogans throughout our journey. I had always thought of Mumbai as a city that made people too tough to be sympathetic to other people’s experiences or emotions. But this incident changed that perspective and projected a comforting side of Mumbai to me. Now that I have returned to Mumbai after a gap of two years, the city does not seem alien. It still throws some tantrums, but I believe I can find a way around it now. It took me some time, and some skills to get used to this city, and its people. Debahooti Basu, a practicing psychologist in Indore, says, “Communication is an integral part of human existence and a person cannot get comfortable unless they communicate in a new space. The communication need not be verbal always. It could just be a reassuring smile from a person who looks like your friend, that could make you comfortable in a new space. But to get connected to a new space, humans always tend to find something that they have seen, heard, felt, or experienced”.  I was keen to listen to and understand other people’s experiences of coming to Mumbai and adapting/not adapting to it. I was keen to understand if they had experiences that helped them change their perception of Mumbai or if those experiences made them feel more alien to themselves, their goals, and the city. 

Sudrisha Goswami is in her third year of Bachelor of Mass Media (BMM) at Sophia College and comes from the small industrial town of Duliajan in Assam. Duliajan has ‘lush green trees, lesser traffic, and cleaner air than Mumbai’, says Sudhrisha. Moving to a massive city like Mumbai, with so many people and so many cars was shocking to her initially. She was scared to get lost in the huge crowd. Sudrisha shares her story of falling from a departing train and thinking it was the last day of her life, “but a man rushed and pulled me up. I don’t even remember his face. He vanished so quickly. I hope he is happy, wherever he is”. The hustling people of Mumbai scared her initially but helped and (literally) pulled her out of difficult situations. Amidst the new faces and places, unfamiliar people offered the warmth of familiarity to Sudrisha on the busy routes of Mumbai. 

The Marine Drive and the sea were other places that reminded her of the long distance between Mumbai and her home but the peace also reminded her of her home. The food and eating habits in Mumbai vary a lot from what is cooked back in Assam. She says rice is an important part of her meal back at home but the food in Mumbai doesn’t have a lot of rice dishes and comprised huge quantities of junk. ‘But the good part was the street food, which offered me comfort whenever I felt stressed. Unlike a lot of my non-Mumbaikar friends, Sudrisha loves the paon culture in Mumbai, be it the Vada Paav or Misal Paav, and other street food items like Sev Puri. ‘I don’t get these dishes in Assam, so I ensure I have a lot of them while I am in Mumbai’. Sudrisha’s experiences in Mumbai varied from being scared and lost in the unfamiliar surroundings, to embracing it and being a part of it. 


The experiences of Prashant U.V, a firm believer in the ideology of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar; who prefers to be described as an Ambedkarite, were different from Sudrisha’s. Prashant is currently pursuing his M.Phil. from IIT Bombay. He came to Mumbai for the first time in 2018 to pursue his master's in Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Prashant’s native place is Baramati, near Pune. He tells the schools and colleges in Baramati were not as big as the ones in Mumbai or other big cities, and therefore the skyscrapers or even the buildings of TISS scared him. Cinema also played a huge part in how Prashant perceived Mumbai. ‘Films show how you get lost or someone kidnaps you in Mumbai. So I was alert while commuting in the city’ tells Prashant. “McClelland’s Theory of Motivation explains human behavior. We are governed by the motivation/need to achieve, have power, affiliations, and we function according to these needs. Young students leave their homes to study and have better lives, so there is a motivation for achievement. Amidst these, there is also a constant need to have something that connects them to themselves, their background, and their social location and therefore the quest to find that one familiar thing neve fades away,” says Basu. 

Media and Dalit Literature interested him and therefore he was keen to understand and learn more about them at a prestigious institute like TISS. However, he mentions how the pedagogy and the infrastructure of TISS did not appeal to him. He recalls how his classmates were fluent in English and knew of western thinkers. But Prashant found it difficult to speak or write in fluent English like his classmates. The language was one of the biggest factors that alienated him from his classmates and peers. He started to believe that knowing English is the most important factor if one wants to study at an institute like TISS. Amidst this, Prashant found a good bunch of friends and Ambedkarite students who helped him with his assignments and introduced him to websites like Britannica that helped him learn more words and terms. 

The Ambedkarite Students Association (ASA) played a huge role in Prashant’s life at TISS, to get adapted to the environment and pedagogy. “We formed groups, started discussions and the SC/ST department organized sessions on spoken English, foundation courses, personality development, etc., that helped me gain confidence”, tells Prashant.  Another aspect that helped him find his comfort in Mumbai was the residential settlements of the working-class people in Kurla, Wadala, and Govandi that he had read as a kid. “I was introduced to these settlements through the Dalit literature I read in school. When I saw it in person, it immediately mesmerized me and gave me a sense of familiarity and made me feel closer to home as opposed to the skyscrapers in the city”, tells Prashant. 


While the settlements in Mumbai gave relief to Prashant, Faiza’s experiences broke her in her initial days in Mumbai. Faiza came to Mumbai from Meerut in 2019 to pursue her Master in Women’s Studies from TISS. Her parents allowed her to come to Mumbai because her elder sister was already studying at TISS. Faiza started looking for PGs after joining the course. “Because I was not a ‘visible Muslim’ there wasn’t any rejection by the landlords, but as soon as they (landlords) came to know my name and that I belong to a particular community, there was a straight rejection on my face,” tells Faiza. With a somber voice, she recalls that some societies did not even let her enter the space and told her “aapko yaha ghar nahi mil sakta” (you won’t get any house here). While Faiza’s sister and her classmates were there to support her in such times, the rejection within academic spaces also bothered her. Students, professors, and institutes that supposedly stand for inclusivity would turn back on her and question her identity and background. “My first semester was entirely ruined because of this. I was new, I wanted to study but I had to face the harshness of the city because of my religion, which I never imagined would be here, in Mumbai”. 


Sisterhood and friendships were something that helped Faiza find comfort amidst this. While some professors ignored her plea, others stood strong for her and asked the administration to allot her a hostel room, which finally helped her in finding some comfort on campus and in the city. The struggle was long and tiring for Faiza, but having and holding on to the right people helped her find familiarity in her unfamiliar surroundings. “We will always be attracted to novelty, but there will always be that one familiar thing that we will look for in that new surrounding because our mind is designed that way. We cannot comprehend things unless we find a thread of commonality. Making sense of new things, surroundings, battles is almost impossible unless we find familiarity”, says Basu on the importance of finding familiarity. 


For each one of us, the task of finding our comforts in new settings takes time. Sometimes it exhausts us to such an extent that the unfamiliar seems familiar. But the mind keeps wandering until we find at least that one aspect that helps us find our familiarity, our comfort. At times, it could be holding an unknown hand in a crowd, spending an evening at the Marine drive, visiting the settlements that always felt like home, and lastly but importantly, being backed up by the comrades and companions who sympathized with us and our struggles because somewhere along the way, they have experienced it too. Having familiar aspects might not always get you solutions but it certainly strengthens our wings to fight the battles that otherwise might seem arduous.