For a long time now, it has been in my mind to discuss my very first experience of India. Initially the experience was so overwhelming that I couldn’t quite fathom articulating the enormity of it all. After awhile I began to just accept that it was merely a cliched response of most people of my ilk to India. But now, the memories are dimming up and I can’t quite feel the colours of that period of time any longer. And so I thought if I didn’t write about it now, I may myself, eventually forget all that it meant to me and that would be a pity. Because New Delhi circa 2010 was pretty much the place and time when I felt my molecules shifting. It was said many times in India that for those who had never been, and depending on your previous life experience of course, India can feel like a punch in the face.
I was 30 years old, which was a very vulnerable but reaffirming period of my life. 30 years in number but 18 years old inside in some cultures. Lost, naive, half single and somewhat wounded from recent pitfalls, I could not compare my wisdom then (shallow) to that of a 30 year old Pashtun woman of Laghman. I had some type of intellectual empathy of the work I was invested in, a vague notion that it could actually be meaningful in the big scheme of existence particularly in the afterlife (I hoped) but it didn’t have a full blown visceral impact on my full being yet. Not until India.
When I first heard that I would be assigned to New Delhi, I was both excited and scared which everyone knows is the best indication of impending growth. I had never been to the South Asian subcontinent and formative years abroad was in the protected context of Western civilisation, which I was beginning to develop an exhaustion for. In fact I had just come out of a year in one of the most sterile first world cities in the universe and was wondering how is it possible to feel so unhappy by a successful social order. By contrast, I have always had some type of affection for the people of South Asia since I was an adolescent. The friends (and boyfriend who became husband) I had moved me by their capacity to acknowledge the human condition in its totality. Their literary greats spoke of a vibrant culture that was driven by love, envy, social hierarchies and accountability to the community. It is obviously insane to lump more than 1 billion people into these stereotypical assumptions but it was all I had in my bag then.
These are my knick knacks of nostalgia.
A country that talks
When people say that India is the biggest democracy of Asia (perhaps the world) they are not joking. I first lived in India at the infancy of my political awakening so I was less observant of the level of civil and political rights other parts of the world was experiencing previous to that time period. But what stopped me in my tracks about India was press freedom. Every time I opened the daily paper it seemed everyone was emptying out their chests about everything that they believe the power holders have failed at. I didn’t come from a police state but during that period of time, let’s just say my native mainstream media was absolutely pro-establishment. The idea that there could be a public and incessant stream of consciousness ranting about the follies of a ruling government was just simply absurd. In fact for the longest time I did not understand the concept that a ruling government could be categorically wrong. And I am not sure why I was not as shocked by this in England – perhaps it was this presumption that free speech was a Western invention and not an Asian value. I need to point out that at that time, offensive as it may be to some, I still wasn’t sure about the premium placed on free press and people’s right to express a political opinion. I looked at India then and thought.. is it so important to have freedom of speech when your own people’s economic and social needs have not been fulfilled? It took me some time to understand another level of what these rights truly mean.
A people that writes and reads
The first book store I visited in India was in Khan Market. I was absolutely blown away when I first stepped in as they were not soulless mall bookstores selling mainly English books from the Anglo speaking world but a messy tavern of wall to wall books from the bottom of the wall to the ceiling, with even a fabulous attic containing more books and accessible via a ladder. The collection of books were equally fabulous – contemporary writings about present day India by Indians in a language I could read (I will blog about this topic another time I think). This was thrilling because quite often we miss out on the chance to understand a people in their own descriptions and have to resort to a foreigner’s depiction of India (ultimately what I am guilty of in this post) which no matter how well meaning is still a foreigner’s account (sometimes unintentionally romanticising or patronising or just rife with our own cultural baggage and projections). I was incredibly curious to revel in the nuances of an authentic expression of one’s own culture.
Another wonderful memory I had of this bookstore is both superficial and semi-deep. When I approached the guy behind the counter and asked for a specific book I was recommended to obtain for work, he looked up and dramatically gasped out ‘My God you are beautiful!’. I need to preface this with the fact that I am not a beauty by any standard (inoffensive is a better description, and let’s just say my personality is better than my aesthetics). But what I found curiously terrific about his compliment is not just the obvious flattery it washed over me but how he managed to simply shout out his admiration for someone’s appearance without it seeming needy but somehow charming. After the obligatory bashful smile, I asked him for the book I needed to purchase, and he came up with another reaction which I thought was great. He said ‘oh no, we don’t have that right now. How is she by the way? I haven’t seen her for ages!’ It took me awhile to realise that the ‘she’ he was asking for was the author of the book (the book was basically an activist’s account of the hideous corruption and arbitrary killings committed by one of the country’s officials). I was absolutely taken by that. The idea that a bookstore owner/ employee (who knows what this excitable fellow was) would assume that readers and authors were all just casually gathering together in a cozy network of discourse was delightful and made me wonder… is this what happens in the literary circles of India? How delicious.
Trite but still a life defining moment for many. I saw families comprising of the elderly to the infant congregate beneath bridges as they woke up, fell asleep, ate, begged and lounged around. For the most part they lived in their own silos, uncaring of their surroundings and when needed would knock on vehicle windows asking for money or food. Even though mass media had informed me of this reality, to confront it with my own eyes was still disorientating. That was the first ‘face life’ punch. It’s horrible how by now, I have come and stayed in India so many times that I don’t feel the same way as I used to in those first eleven months because I genuinely believe this shocking observation transformed my DNA in a positive way. The idea that one could be borne, exist and die in those circumstances just broke me. I wondered also if my husband’s generally stoic approach to life came from observing the extreme nature of human destitute to human excess – that priorities are about how we love the people in our lives and serve our Creator and everything else are temporary trivialities.
The face of danger
It made me understand too that no one would flee their own country to live in the marginalized pockets of an overpopulated city which were stretching their resources for their own poor unless their fear of danger in their homeland was insurmountable. Of course there are other factors why one would seek for solace here but surely a more materially comfortable life is not one of them? With the extreme heat of summer, I sometimes needed to be in closed spaces with people who came from afar and the very human bodily odours would overwhelm these spaces to a degree when you no longer smell or understand it. Then I asked myself… why are we so afraid of our own humanity? This is the biological truth of the human form – there is nothing sinister about our own smell emitting from inside our bodies. It is just that some people simply do not have the resources or opportunities to remove it, clean it or mask it. And this is what I mean again – India taught me to grow up and not just accept but embrace the human condition in its totality.
A journey to the Midwest
Even after all these years, I am still so gripped by the memory of this mission. It was again one of those core shaking experiences that the country for me was full off. It was my first major mission with five other colleagues flown in from across the globe and the built up, process and aftermath of it was exhausting to say the least. We were dealing with victims of a miscarriage of justice and they were traumatised by more than ten years of incarceration. We travelled to the West of the country and I was stunned by both the British architecture and the intense poverty that made Delhi seem absolutely luxurious. But the city was not my focus at the time, the work was too urgent. I couldn’t sleep well for two months. My relative innocence, professionally and personally, and my newfound desire to give all of my heart, soul, lungs and kidneys to the cause saw me completely destroyed yet strangely rebuilt after this project was accomplished. And that’s when I started to understand something about myself – I was just not one of those naturally ‘good’ and ‘moral’ people. I needed to constantly be physically looking at tragedy in the pupils to be motivated to fulfil a higher duty for others and it is only through this constant reminder (of their extreme deprivation) could I feel connected to my life’s purpose. I sometimes try to search online of the fate of those whom we worked for in this mission and who have now long left the country and sadly, I understood that not everyone could thrive in freedom.
In the sun, remake by Coldplay and REM
‘I picture you in the sun wondering what went wrong
And falling down on your kneesasking for sympathy
And being caught in between all you wish for and all you seen
And trying to find anything you can feel that you can believe in
May God’s love be with you
May God’s love be with you
I know I would apologize if I could see your eyes
‘Cause when you showed me myself I became someone else
But I was caught in between all you wish for and all you need
I picture you fast asleep
A nightmare comes
You can’t keep awake’
Every time I hear this song (and please listen to the remake by REM and Coldplay here)the emotive impact of India seeps underneath my skin again and I start to re-experience those days of epiphany. Not only are the lyrics so evocative of loss and hope – two of life’s most powerful dichotomies – but there is just something so penetrative about the way both Michael Stipe and Chris Martin sings these words which can sometimes move me to tears. I used to sing it obsessively in my Sunder Nager studio flat. Ultimately, it resonated with how I felt about the people I worked for. After all those years I was finally looking at them (and not just seeing them) and it revealed to me something regretful about who I had always been – someone caught between desires and necessities and eternally struggling to stay content with necessities. And when I fully got that, I really wanted to change myself. Till today, this is not a battle easily won, but I think pre-India I just didn’t even get that deep change was required. May God’s love be with you, always.
Tea, biscuits and money
It was a standing joke at the office that paying rent to our landlords was not a professional banking transaction or even a practical moment of leaving the cash with your landlord without further ado. Rather it is an elaborate affair of setting up a date in advance (Hi, Mr. X… can we meet next Tuesday?) and be served with tea and biscuits as you sit with the rest of his family, share life’s anecdotes and after half an hour (minimum) of a polite back and forth (any shorter would be too crude) we announce as casually as possible ‘by the way, this is for this month’s stay…’ remove the envelope of cash from our bags and lay it down on the table. Shortly after, the date would be adjourned and we would bid farewell knowing that the next date would be in four weeks. Weird as it may seem, I found it quite adorable and didn’t really feel encumbered by this social custom. Just like most travellers it is always a treat to understand how the host experiences their own country and so for me it was a nice break from the expat bubble. I still remember their anecdotes about the Parsi’s reputation for honesty (if a Parsi gives you 10000 dollars, don’t bother to count it, you would have 10000 dollars), their own snapshot of their motherland (a place of extreme goodness and extreme evil), and their jokes about the rich never truly understanding the meaning of life quite like the poor (banal and privileged from a people who are so clearly on the upper end of the social spectrum, but funnily told nevertheless). Those bygone days are a flurry of jewel coloured sarees, an elegant sitting room with old Mughal artefacts and a charming family full of grace and culture. When I left they gifted my visiting father a piece of art from their collection – Quranic calligraphy in the shape of an elephant. While there are bound to be those who frown upon this from a political/ religious standpoint, I deeply appreciate it as a genuine gesture of love and generosity.
For the love of the tribe
I found that the mainstream psychology of most people was one which thrived on uncomplicated love and service to their family and community. If I were to make comparisons between my friends and colleagues in India and the other countries I lived in, all of whom are demographically similar in terms of age group (youngest would be babies from the mid to late 80’s) education (higher education and most with double postgraduates) and social group (middle to upper class), I do find that the Indian people have an innate sense of joyful honour to their parents, nuclear family and extended family more so than any other. These relationships appear to be what defines their purpose and happiness and generally there seems to be minimal complexity in discharging these duties. While this gross generalisation would of course apply to most societies in the Eastern hemisphere, it did seem more pronounced in this South Asian continent. There is less introspection, doubt, blame-game and resentment towards family relationships and all that it entails and I do not remember meeting even one colleague who came from a divorced family. I am sure the social order continues to change and what was my truth in that time period is possibly less so now. It just seemed to me then like a culture that was free from angst and melancholia, which was the perfect antidote to my inherent propensity for inward gloom.
I often describe my duty stations in the language of lovers. And for me, India will always be my First Love. It seemed I was asleep before, and in the Bharat kingdom, I woke up to the exhilarating notion that life was finally about to begin. And just like how we always reflect on a First Love, I feel mostly grateful to India for elevating the quality of my life experience.