Finding Home


Against day’s lingering light and wisps of mist hanging in the distance, laborers work in the lush, green paddy fields; bullock carts lurch along dirt roads; and women and girls balancing oversized loads on their heads hurriedly walk toward their destinations. I remember well my sweet, childhood home in east India. And I remember wondering what might lie beyond my countryside paddy fields.

A branch and reed-thatched door opened up our modest, one-room house with a sloping floor. From the kitchen corner, adorned with heavy, iron pots, a stone grinding wheel, and an oil lamp, my mother often whispered in my ear, “The world is yours. You can do anything.” She struggled with intention. Her intention was me. “I made a tough decision between my life and your life to bring you this world. The universe has decided to give you wings, and you must fly.”

And you must fly. Those four words grew wings, and from an early age I saw myself as a boundless, soaring bird, embracing the sky and seasons, flowing with life’s rhythm—a co-creator of beauty within and all around me.

Despite a determination to fly high, education was hard-won. My mother saved, and spent most days ignoring nagging hunger pangs so my siblings and I could attend school. The rural, missionary school classroom was crammed with desks, where uniform-clad students sat under the teacher’s laser-focus, which some kids in the back of the room. As my counterparts took notes with ease, it was harder for me.

School lunchtimes with no lunchbox could be awkward. In 16 years, I couldn’t remember bringing a single lunch. As friends gathered to share what they brought, I stood away, pretending I wasn’t hungry, until class resumed.

University led me inland to New Delhi, India’s capital, a world away from village life, where I could spread my wings and explore beyond my paddy fields. In one of the world’s oldest hubs of civilization, the ancient and modern were apartment blocks towering over historical monuments along the River Ganges.

At night, I would often imagine paddy fields with only a splash of moonlight to guide me through the vast possibilities I was brought into this place to create. And the same question always came to mind: Where is home? Where do I belong?

Today, as I watch women and girls move from row to row, laden with farm tools, busily working the Arkansas Delta rice paddies, I remember the day I met Jessie at a Little Rock salon, so far from my childhood home.

I met Jessie’s young daughter, Sarah, that day, too. “My mother is working today, and I have no one else to keep Sarah,” Jessie says, “so I had to bring her with me.” Sarah is a beautiful, spirited five-year-old, just like my own daughter, Aayati, who is the same age.

Our paths crossed and—as if by divine appointment—made way for easy, deep conversation. Jessie shares that she was born and raised in the Arkansas Delta, where agriculture is king and rice, cotton, and soybean fields stretch as far as eye can see. In fact, that’s where Jessie’s mother works—in a rice field.

“I grew up near rice paddies too,” I tell Jessie. “I remember my mother, aunts, and other women in my village doing back-breaking work in the fields, even when very pregnant.” Silky mud spread to fill the spaces between their toes as they toiled as long as sunlight would allow.

Neither of us wanting the conversation to end, when her last client leaves, Jessie invites me to her home in the Southeast Arkansas town of Stuttgart. This is a rare night she doesn’t have to work her other job. Her modest home is cramped, a simple wooden crucifix on the wall. With no electricity, gas, or plumbing, Jessie’s small home is as basic as they come.

Jessie tells me about her community. She talks about women, like her mother, who work the rice fields.They struggle for a better life, a life that seems eternally out of reach. And I resonate with her story. It’s my story too. Whether small-town Arkansas or tiny-village India, we share this sad narrative. These women are us. We are everywhere. And we deserve to be heard.

The brilliant full moon’s light splashes through Jessie’s window, calling us out to the fresh air and magnificent Stuttgart paddy fields. Our visit holds space for an exchange of experiences and one very powerful idea: to create a platform from which to intentionally serve women in Arkansas, especially the Delta region. This platform, the Global Mentorship Program, was born that day, on the edge of a rice paddy, in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

My decision to move to the United States was driven by a desire to build a better life for my family. So far from home, I realized I wanted my new home to feel like home—my lush, green, rice paddy home. It didn’t take long to recognize stark similarities between here and there. Whether the Delta here or back in India, the human experience—particularly for women—is largely the same. From my new home, I observed—and felt—struggles, joys, disappointments, and love. I wanted to belong, and I bristled at the question, “Where are you from?” Where I was born and raised doesn’t define me. My home is where I am. I am here. Here is my home. I am here to serve those who surround me now.

I am still that bird—soaring high, looking for home. And I see women struggling here—in this far more developed country—with the same issues faced by their contemporaries in rural India.

It’s time—past time, really—to create a “land of opportunity” for ALL. No matter which river delta is home—the Ganges or the Mississippi—parity is a right. Equal pay for equal work, and fair treatment must become the norm, not an unimaginable dream.

My soul still longs for the sunshine. My bones dream of its warmth. My breath searches for its rays. As a woman with a deep connection to the vast Ganges and Mississippi Rivers—geographically so far apart, yet circumstantially so close—I want to be that bird who soars from shore to shore, experiencing people, identifying problems, and exploring all the possibilities to solve our common issues, effect real, sustainable change, and co-create a human experience that is beautiful for us all.

Am I home yet? In the heart of America, as the golden beams of sunlight rise above vast paddy fields, the Sunshine Revolution has just begun.

About the "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection

Organizers and Advocates are heroes. Every great hero has a story to tell. The "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Collection shares stories about challenge, triumph, great personal cost, and outright determination to love and serve Arkansas.

The Foundation put this collection together to share spoken-word narratives from our "Stories that Change Hearts, Minds, and Policies" Story Slam, where we recognized "October is Advocacy and Organizing Month" (OAOM). Our Story Slam was hosted in partnership with the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and The Yarn. Special thanks to Herstory Writers' Workshop for helping Arkansas Organizers and Advocates find their voices and tell their stories.

Click here to experience other powerful stories of Organizers and Advocates who have transformed Arkansas communities.