I’ve dreaded writing this post for a while now, the inevitable bookend to Delhi: One Month In. I’ve dreaded it because there’s no possible way to do justice to the life-altering experience that this stay in India has been—on all levels, from individual and familial to academic and political. It will take a few years to process everything.
Just by being here for some time—meeting people, traveling some, going to the markets, consuming pop culture, celebrating holidays, following day-to-day events in the news and seeing changes in people’s lives—I’ve gained a far greater understanding of diversity in Indian life, of what the accelerating class gap under globalization actually looks like, of the sheer variety of struggles and movements Indians are engaged in on any given day.
As I wrote in an article on the impact of Egypt in India, the question here is not when India’s Tahrir Square will come, but what will happen in a country where all kinds of actions, from demonstrations to mass marches to strike and agitations to armed insurgencies, are already happening, where the question of the need for fundamental change is already on the table.
The question in India is really this: What happens to dreams deferred?
There’s that tempting political thread again, waiting for me to pick it up. But I want to speak in a different register right now.
This trip has left me—and this is the only word I can really use to capture what I feel—greedy for India. I just can’t get enough.
I want to visit more parts of Delhi, more parts of the country. Visits to the states of Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal have been great–and are just not enough.
I want to hear more Hindi and keep on improving my skills. I want to hear more qawwali concerts at Humayun’s Tomb and go to dance performances against the backdrop of the Purana Qila; I want to see more plays, get more clothes, read more books, see more exhibits.
I want A2B in Green Park market to always be a short walk away, so that I can make those easy detours for gol gappas (6 for Rs 30). I want to keep having the option for Kadai Paneer on my pizza, or for a masal dosai lunch with some hakka noodles on the side.
I want to keep being in conversations where my knowledge of Indian history and politics barely keeps me afloat. I want to keep learning from colleagues like those at Delhi University who—get this—not only consider themselves workers but are actually fighters for democracy in the university. I love being in a place where the critique of imperialism and corporatism is part of many people’s basic understanding of the world, and where such thinking has a clear place within mainstream discourse–and I’m saying this with a clear knowledge of the dominance of the corporate Indian media.
I want to hold onto this sense I have here of, as one of my close friends put it, feeling completely comfortable within my own skin. Just being brown doesn’t make me one with the multitudes; race is not everything. But I’m saying something different: whatever else may be going on, this is one place where I’m not separated out of the social whole because of my race.
Growing up in America makes you race conscious, and boy it’s been nice—though a bit strange and unfamiliar—not to have to deal with being a racial minority. One of the things I dread about returning, especially now with the hyped-up nationalist frenzy and Islamophobia after the Bin Laden assassination, is I’ll have to go back to that crap again. Worse, that I’m actual more familiar with that feeling than the one I’ve had here. Sure, I’ll fight the racism itself. It’s the feeling of always having to fight it that I’d rather not have!
I want to hold onto my changed perceptions of the world. In the earlier post, I wrote about my visit to the FRRO—the registration office for foreign residents that, I’m pretty sure, is mentioned in Dante’s circles of hell—and talked about the experience of seeing Afghan refugees in India. It was honest enough: I had never seen such refugees, and was reminded of how different this war looks when you’re relatively close to Kabul. When I had to go to the FRRO again a few weeks back, though, I was already quite used to seeing Afghans—nothing to write about there. Now I could see things beyond the fact of their being Afghani. I could get into some conversations, I could see the differences between the wealthier Afghans who had come for medical attention and were headed right back, and those who were truly refugees.
I can give so many examples like this, where living here for somewhat of an extended time allowed me to go beyond simply registering something new. I had never really interacted with folks from North Bengal or the Northeast before; after developing relationships with several such individuals here I’ve gained new insights on race and ethnicity in India/South Asia. In fact, the same goes for my association with Indian Muslims; my South Asia Muslim friends and comrades in the US are Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. And then I made several great friends from our community of ex-pats, including South African and Pakistani desis. I feel like my basic appreciation of and support for Indian secularism and diversity has transformed from an intellectual understanding to a more visceral one.
Way back, as far as I can remember, the question of “Am I American, or am I Indian?” has shaped my identity. Specific points in my life can be mapped against my answers to this question as the pendulum swung between something called “Americanness” and something called “Indianness.” Good at singing devotional songs? Indianness. Started to listen to Sting? Americanness. Want to go to the prom? With an Indian girl? Who exactly do you think we are! Think that white girl in English class is cute? Get over it, she’d never like you. And on and on. You grow up, you see the world, you understand that the categories don’t hold.
But all of this was based knowing Indians in the US. And then you come to live in India — not just to visit, not just to stay with family — and boom! it all explodes. It’s not just that “Indianness” is much more varied than you had ever dreamed, that’s certainly true. It’s just that the issue doesn’t matter as much, leaving aside ritualized assertions of national identity while watching cricket or reading news reports about Pakistan.
As I said to my kids, “Watch, we’ll never see an Indian restaurant or an Indian grocery store in India.” And when they seemed shocked I added, “Because there they’re just restaurants and grocery stories.” (I thought it was pretty clever; so did they, until the fifth time I said it.) Again, aside from the explicit political identity of being Indian, which is quite strong and pervasive, the laid-back way in which people here wear their cultural Indianness has been new, unique, and refreshing.
A few years back, I returned to the US from a short trip to India a bit angry with my parents for immigrating at all. I never felt like that when I visited India as a child, but it was different in 2007. Maybe it was the post-9/11 thing, I don’t know. I can’t say I won’t go back to that sort of bleak emotional space when I return. Sure, the power will be on, and it won’t be 44 (111) degrees, and I’ll be able to eat Mexican food again—and I value these things. And I want to see my friends and comrades again, and miss them dearly. But the streets will be so empty…
Anyhow. I know I’ll be depressed for some time. But I feel it will also be different now. Intertwined with this frustration of wearing, once more, my familiar but detested racialized skin will be a new respect for the sense of loss built into my parents’ and other immigrants’ consciousness, which has come down to me so strongly, reflected in my own cultural and even personal, academic and political choices. I’ll go now to that Patel Brothers grocery a few minutes away with a new desire, and appreciate a bit more, in a visceral way, those local attempts to recover a bit of home.
Because now I can truly echo, for the first time, the opening line of the picture book my daughter has about a Korean-American boy: “My heart beats in two places.”