As I move onto a new journey that takes me outside India for a couple of months (watch out for a more detailed post on Monday), I couldn’t help but reminisce about the places that I have lived in and visited in the last one year I have been in India.
India — a country with distinct religions from the ancient Hindu to the declining Zoroastrianism, with a myriad of languages and dialects from Konkani to Jarawa, with a plethora of geographies from fathomless deserts to treacherous glaciers, with a vast network from modern sea links to old hanging bridges, with a wide assortment of food from homely dal roti to mouth-watering, overnight-cooked chicken biryanis, with a range of commutes from rusted Hero bicycles, serene camels, and obedient bullock carts to fancy Rolls Royces, from peaceful Tamil marriages that are held for two hours during daylight to exciting Punjabi wedding functions sprawled over many days in luxurious hotels spread across India; we have it all.
This large and miscellaneous congregation of people — that India is — sometimes makes me proud, but sometimes the restrictions of this collectivist society suffocate me.
As a young girl in a middle-class Indian family, I never wondered that why was I not allowed to play badminton at my school when my brother could play cricket with his friends for hours. Or why my sister had to clean the house and cook and prepare to become a future wife while the women of the world were studying to become fashion designers or were strapping their backpacks to wade through the world.
But as I grew up, I started seeing the world and India in the light of my understanding and asked a lot of questions. Why can’t I go out with boys? Why can’t I live alone in an apartment? Why can’t I wear shorts and skirts on the street? Why can’t I take a few days off to enjoy life without feeling sinful? Why can’t I see myself not getting married or buying a house or bearing babies? Why can’t I leave a corporate job and do what I want to do? Why can’t I reject a guy even though his receding hairline reminds me of the craters on the moon?
Sorry, the last one was a cheap shot. But you know what I mean.
Then I traveled to other continents such as South America, Europe, the UK, and saw their culture from up close.
I sipped cappuccinos in Paris streetside cafes where no one wondered why was I alone or stared at me. I hung out with seventy-year-old South-American, unmarried women who were enjoying their life without having to answer their families that why were they not settled yet. I drank beer and talked openly about my relationships and writing dreams with my host mothers on remote islands.
I walked alone on strange, deserted lanes while trying to figure out my way back to the place I could call home.
I felt liberated, independent, and unjudged.
For once, I could decide for myself. I thrilled at my independence, but this freedom also meant that I had to take responsibility for my mistakes. I didn’t have to answer anyone, but I couldn’t get lost.
And that is when I started developing a love and a hate relationship with India.
When I was eating bread with cheese in South America, I wanted to come back and dash through the streets to stuff my mouth with spicy pani-puri. When I was scared to hold the rabbit-like children of couples outside India, I craved to cuddle the cute Indian infants whose parents swell with pride when I pull their baby’s cheeks in public. When I was stuck at international borders, I gazed at my passport and wished that I was back in India where I could travel to the desert of Spiti or the jostling Mumbai street, and no one would dare ask me anything.
And then I would come back from my trips looking forward to the India that I had described to the foreigners and the one I had dreamed about. But the high-spiritedness of the shining sun, the casualness of the people, and the cultural rainbows of India usually drowned in the rigid customs, the stares of strange men, and the fight for the right to design your own life.
Who knows if it was the cab driver in Munnar who wanted to sleep in my room or the guy on the river Mandovi who asked how much I charge creeped me out. But I don’t travel that much in India that I would like to on my own. That would change when I come back. For I want to explore the frightening Himalayas, participate in the native festivals of Orissa and Bihar, go to the eco-friendly villages in Kerala, drive through the coastal fishing villages of Maharashtra, and explore the wilderness of the Satpura national park. The list is long…
As someone who has never believed in the concept of a country or a native, who thinks that the whole world is ours and its people alike, I never hesitate to go out of India for months or come back and stay in a room in the crowded Bengaluru for a year to get things done. It is all about priorities, I guess.
But India would still be the place of my birth, whose muddy lanes I rode on my Ladybird bicycle while growing up, whose people ranging from Muslims to Sikhs to Christians to Hindus were the first one I became friends with, whose rich curries and homemade kachoris always left me craving for more, and whose first rain’s petrichor left me gazing at the green foliage of my garden for hours.
So this time, while leaving India for a while, I share these memories that hang on the string of my life and make it beautiful, chaotic, vigilant, and proud.
Come, let me take you on this journey.