Suhani  |  She/Her

Rooted Routes

Tropical and Subtropical Dry Broadleaf Forests
Tropical and Subtropical Moist Broadleaf Forests
Temperate Coniferous Forests
Temperate Grasslands, Savannas, and Shrublands

Session 10: May 30, 2023

Two autumns ago, I was on a gap semester in Mexico, and at one point I found myself in a remote village in the mountains of Oaxaca. I was there with a community organization that was started a few years before for earthquake restoration. Perse, the leader of the organization, was telling me about a Zapotec custom practiced by her family and the women in the village.

“When a child is born,” she said to me in Spanish, “the women cut off the umbilical cord and bury it under the biggest tree in the family home. This way, no matter who the child grows to become or where they go in the world, they always have their center firmly rooted in their origins.”

She then asked me, “So, where’s your umbilical cord rooted?”

But I wasn’t raised where I was born, nor was I born where my parents were. In fact, my mother tongue was not even the same as my mother’s mother tongue. So, needless to say, I was unable to give Perse a straightforward answer. But her question stuck with me.

The following summer, the search for the burial site of my umbilical cord ignited a quest for my roots. Arriving for a language program to study Urdu, I landed in Lucknow, the city where I spent the first six years of my life. In early June, the “Loo” was still at its peak: a series of strong dry summer winds that swirl over those north Indian plains.

I remembered my childhood in Lucknow, when every year on my birthday at around the same time of year, my planned outings would be spent waiting out the storm, all dolled up in the back of a car with my family. Nonetheless, the rains were, after months of intolerable heat, like a gift from the heavens. All the kids would make their paper boats to sail on the water pooled up in the courtyards. They danced on their rooftops, only to carry home a puddle and a cold.

This year though, the rains hadn’t come yet.

And this wasn’t the only thing that was different this summer, according to Fatima, the woman who gave us refuge in her shop as a Rath Yatra procession passed through the market strip a few weeks later: a parade of elephants, camels, horses, and people dressed up as Hindu deities and symbols. Some played and laughed, but a sense of unspoken discomfort permeated the shop workers who watched from aside. The joyous atmosphere was quickly turning into procession-goers chanting violent phrases against Muslims in the name of reclaiming “Hindustan.” This was a politically backed event on the day of Jumu’ah in Chowk, a famous hub for textiles in Lucknow, and a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

The rains didn’t come for several more weeks.

It was incredible to see a place that was one so familiar after more than a decade. So much so that, in moments, it felt like it was a different place.

Having a center, a people, a home, to come back to seems like a basic requisite for a happy, healthy, flourishing life. At the same time, places—like language and roots themselves—are always evolving.

When I think of the word “roots” now, I first think of a banyan tree. This tree, native to the Indian subcontinent, has aerial roots falling from the branches to the ground and can sprawl over massive areas of soil. When I hear the word “roots,” I also think of the “routes” to get somewhere. If an earthquake strikes the isthmus of Mexico or the monsoon shies away over the Indian Ocean, we must be able to recognize that routes everywhere would be damaged.

Roots, then, are also paths we must imagine for our future, a future in which we strengthen our centers of community and our greater webs of life.

The end.

Suhani is a recent graduate from Georgetown University, where she focused her studies on decolonization and Indigenous knowledges from South Asia and Latin America. She is soon to be a climate justice Fulbright researcher in the Brazilian Amazon. Suhani also enjoys dancing, film, and travel.