Sanatani moved to India as a nine years old and started a journey that has taken her across the world. A journey through different cultures and traditions, told with honesty and candour. The interview was conducted in English, because even though Sanatani spoken Italian is perfect, she finds it easier to write in English. There is a touch of the exotic in her words that have transported me to the colours and smells of India.
Sanatani, a very exotic name that I am sure holds a story worth telling, or better still…reading! Thank you for accepting to share it with us. You moved from Italy to India when you were nine years old, can you tell us about your experience?
Sanatani in Sanskrit means Eternal. It’s also one of the Divine Goddess Durga’s name. I hold this name with pride as it speaks about my short journey in this world.
My whole life collapsed in front of my eyes at the age of nine, when my parents decided to separate. I remember that one moment I was dreaming of having a brother or a sister and the next I was asked to take sides. Did I want to stay with my mother or my father? I remember falling asleep at the sound of my sobs, as their screams would not stop.
Until that moment I only have great memories of my parents, we were a happy family, or so I thought. As a child I couldn’t really recognise my mother’s suffering nor her sacrifices. So she did what I would have done as well… she wanted OUT.
I woke up the next morning with my bags packed for a short trip to renew our energies, to “think” and to resolve everything within the week. I remember getting in the car with my dad, looking at my mum outside our caravan (that’s a whole other story) waving me goodbye. I remember thinking that perhaps I should stop to say goodbye to my friends, tell them that my parents were separating. My parents were the first ones in the community to separate. I always felt like the unlucky one because of that. Little did I know that in just a few years 99% of my friend’s parents would separate as well.
We drove to a family friend’s hotel to enjoy some quite time, swim in the pool and play mini golf. Few days later my dad came to me and showed me the tickets to India.
He asked me: “what do you think?”. Because I had been to India a few times already, in extensive pilgrimages with my parents, it wasn’t so shocking for me. I remember asking him if we could take a few jars of Nutella with us (in 1991 chocolate didn’t exist in India). He smiled. Then I asked: “what about my friends?” He told me I will make new ones. I asked: “What about Mata?” (mother in sankrit). And this is where I have a complete blank moment…I do not remember his answer.
But I was exited to go on this adventure. I had my father, I guess that was enough for me to feel safe and trust his decisions.
The so called “short trip” turned into a life changing move across the globe. But then I couldn’t predict that.
It was an easy transition. I remember just living by the day, enjoying everything that came with it: the new school, the new friends, the new house, the new environment. It all felt familiar and right.
My dad often tells me this story, it happened right after we moved: one day he saw me crying by myself, his heart stopped and he feared that I was desperately missing my mother. He came up to me and asked me: “what is wrong?“. My answer was: “I can’t seem to remember how to count in English!”. He gave a laugh of relief!
I recall missing my mother, but at that age I was busy with a new language, new friendships, new games, basically new life!
Your childhood has certainly been full of adventures and I admire the genuine and honest way you tell us about it. I am sure that many of our readers will appreciate your point of view on your “life changing move across the globe”.
The difficulty for me was the fact that I was different. I am white with blue eyes and super curly hair in a country where people had seen white people only few times in their lives. I got either the special treatment or the SILENT treatment. That is where I most struggled during my teenage years. After being there for a few years, I felt that inside I was one of them.
By the time I was 10, a local family had adopted me, I really had forgotten about my appearance. But as I got older and the complicated years came, or whenever I changed school, I was reminded of being a Westerner. The first day in a new school it’s often hard, but to know that I was being judged differently and looked at differently from the start, was always a reminder. What helped the most was my growing up with them, being part of their family. I was part of all celebrations, weddings, births, deaths… In a country where caste system is huge, that was very rare. Later in life I found letters from the community asking this family about their decision of accepting a low class (white person) into their family. I never knew about this while I was there, it never crossed my mind, because I felt protected and loved.
When I arrived I spoke only Italian, but I had to play, to make friends, so it just happened. My dad would leave me for couple of hours at a friend’s house every afternoon. So in three months I was speaking fluently Oriya (the regional language of Orisha). Later on I learned English at school, and Hindi by watching lots of Bollywood movies. I learned how to read and write these languages as well.
My father was very particular about me becoming fully part of the culture, with that came the decision of going to an Oriya school, instead of an English school. The incident where my dad saw me crying was because I was finding learning English hard. Goes to show the difference between studying a language at school and learning a language organically, by being with people that speak that language only.
We are all aware of how flexible and adaptable children are, but it’s fascinating to have your first hand experience. How long did you live in India for, and why did you decide to go back to Italy?
I lived in India for 12 years. After ten years, when I was 19 or 20 I started thinking that maybe I had a different purpose in life, that I wasn’t meant to just marry someone, have children and be a housewife like all my other friends. I started missing being a Westerner with a broader mentality.
My father always encouraged me to be independent and would talk to me about finding jobs, something that was very rare in India those years. I think it was a mix between him pushing me to do something with my life, me finishing my studies and watching all my friends getting married and the nostalgic memories of my childhood in Italy.
I also wanted to reconnect with my childhood friends, grandparents and try to live in Italy with my mother. It felt like the karma with India was finishing and I had to explore and find my roots.
How was moving back to Italy after spending your formative years in a totally different culture? Was it hard to reconnect with people and with the different lifestyle? I am incredibly curious about this process.
When I decided to move back I was only 21 years old and I had not seen the world. Flying seemed like an elite experience. Driving a car felt weird and having a proper bed with hot shower felt like luxury.
There was a huge culture shock for sure.
First of all I had forgotten all my Italian and my grandparents would talk to me in Tuscan dialect, hahah. So I never understood a thing they said. I remember arriving in February and the first thing I thought was that I hated the cold weather, but loved the fire place. I hated being dependent on my mother to take me to places, as we lived in the countryside, because in India I was very independent with my scooter. I felt lonely, no noise, everyone locked in their own house, no one came knocking on the door in the afternoon for a chai. It felt very sterile and lifeless and the traditional Indian customs where not there.
The first time I saw a childhood girlfriend rolling a cigarette was the biggest shock of my life. Not only she smoked in public but she was a woman!!! It was surreal and I couldn’t wait to get away.
My expectations of going back home was tainted from my very narrow minded customs and the views I had become accustomed to.
It’s not often that we hear of reverse culture shock of such intensity, Sanatani! It extends to all aspect of your life. You left as a child and you came back as an adult, from a different culture! You are now living in Australia, what made you decide to leave?
After India I lived between Italy and India. I tried living in Italy for 10 years, my daughter was born there. Unfortunately I could not feel part of the community. I always felt different and the difference wasn’t well accepted. One day my 4 years old daughter came back from pre-school and told me: “Mamma I don’t want to learn to dance like you, it’s not normal!“. That’s when I decided that I was not going to bring her up there. So I kept looking for an escape. At an appropriate time I received an offer that I could not refuse. I was asked to come and teach at a Hare Krishna community in Australia. I sold almost everything I had and came here with my almost 5 years old daughter.
It sounds like your journey to find a place to belong is not over yet. The question that comes naturally to me is: how do you feel in Australia? Have you found the place where you could settle and find a sense of belonging?
I do feel a special connection to this land. As if I have been here before. The fact that I landed in one of the sacred lands of the Indigenous people, explains why I feel this connection. I need that spiritual connection where I reside, that’s what India was all about. Australia feels the same. The community has been the greatest support for me and my daughter and made us feel at home, protected.
Although this situation is very temporary, I take it as another great teaching of life and just broadening my daughter and my view on the world. My daughter has learned English, she has amazing friends all around her, she has many mothers that take care of her while I work. A bit like it was for me in India, sleeping in a room full of the women of the house. This only strengthen my belief that it takes a whole village to bring up a child.
I don’t know about settling, but I proved to myself that coming here was the best decision I could have made at this moment.
Interview collected by Barbara Amalberti (Barbaraexpat)
Photo Credit ©Sanatani