For how many years have I seemed to myself to be both inside and outside the family?

As a young girl, I once had a nightmare in which several of our relatives were playing a version of the game Four Corners that we frequently played as children. They were, however, standing not in a lane, a garden or a park as we did, but one in each corner of every room in our small house, and they were tigers with human faces, standing upright, brightly striped, smiling red-mouthed at me and lunging as I dodged from room to room. My mother, usually a sympathetic listener, was displeased when I recounted the dream, and said, “Don’t talk like that.” I was silenced but the dream remained with me.

My mercurial mother, singing as she went about her chores, unfurled stories about her childhood and youth, scene after brightly painted scene that shone in contrast to the small, dark rooms in which she was now confined. Our vacations were spent in her father’s bungalow in Allahabad with my grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. But our flat in Delhi was a complete world too, a snug if small ship, where I sat curled up on a windowsill, reading hour after hour, setting sail for beckoning shores.

I had eight years alone with her, until Robin appeared, and in those years, I was her companion, confidante, pupil, star-child, sharer of her bubbling enthusiasms and her plunges into gloom. She schooled me until I went away to IT College. To her I recounted each little detail of what happened between me and my friends until one day she took umbrage at a neighbour’s son’s ambiguous remark and reported it to his parents, unwittingly casting me in the role of a tattle-tale, after which I was more circumspect in my confidences.

In that long-ago time, when I silently witnessed conflicts which I now realise were injustices, in the family, church and neighbourhood, it never occurred to me that I should or could try to change my home or school, let alone the country or the world although it was a time when the imperative to go out and initiate change pervaded the many groups, big and small, that mushroomed, decayed, and then sprang up again under other names all over the country – militant, pacifist, religious, spiritual, atheist groups. Most of our teachers at college had caught the infection – some wanted to convert everyone or at least as many as they could to Christianity; all of them wanted to educate everyone; and most hoped that education would inevitably lead to Christianity.

Streams from books formed the ocean in which I swam, dodging between unearthly plants and rocks, exploring murky corners, far from the world above. College was simply another area of that ocean, where I continued reading the Bible, Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, until one day, from my roommate Hemlata’s desk I picked up Hind Swaraj, which she had managed to obtain even though it was a banned book. This hook reeled me up into the startling light, and soon I was reading Mrs Besant, Coomaraswamy, Gurudeb, Marx, some of them borrowed from my friend Satty. It took me no time at all to decide, with the celerity of youth, that I would dedicate my life to educating poor children. This was the way to free the country, I thought, and so did Hemlata and Mahadevi and countless other young people in towns and cities elsewhere.

Why did I catch the contagion at that moment? Was it because I knew that when I went home after college, I would be expected to marry, while I wanted to lay another path to adulthood? Was it a way to continue worshipping at the harshly lit altar of Satty? Or was it that the English, and even the American teachers at our college, remained, beneath their seeming impartiality, implacably sure that they knew what was best for us? Whatever the reasons, I have spent a decade and a half on this enterprise, which, now that I look back at it, is merely another form of the mission for which our teachers set out to train us.

Despite my efforts to join other kinds of families, like the family at IT College and the family at Satyagraha Ashram, both of which magnetised so many thrown into their orbit, they never entirely absorbed me. As I rotated in the daily round, something quizzical, secluded, elsewhere-turned, remained beyond the circuit, watching.

The sea crashes as I walk along the shore, a disquieting undersong to my thoughts. There are days when it is flirtatious, spreading in silver half-circles to touch my toes. Today, it is vociferous, demanding attention. I live with it but it has never become mine. Though nations imagine they have carved it up and divided it, it belongs to no one, least of all to those who grew up far from it, yet my home is now on its shore – the home that is becoming in my mind the nucleus of some sort of family.

Excerpted with permission from A Slight Angle, Ruth Vanita, Penguin India.