Thursday, June 24, 2010

The degree of Indian-ness

This , and related discussion on my buzz prompted this post.
I have nothing against people questioning their own identity. I do that many times. I think it is a sign of a healthy, functioning mind. However, when it comes to being Indian, there is no single rule that can define us all. Living away from home, I actually go through a series of panic attacks every time I have to go back home for a holiday. I attribute that fear to the fact that I am not yet strong enough to handle this culture switch gracefully. The discussion on buzz reminded me of a first hand 'Indian experience' I went through about two years ago.
I was supposed to be in India for six weeks in December 2008. As soon as I made my travel arrangements, I went out with my Australian and other international friends to celebrate. We were sitting in a gloomy bar, on a weekday afternoon, with the fresh memories of experimental failures haunting us. All of a sudden someone suggested that they should meet me in India for a back-packing trip!
I was not exactly supportive of this idea in the beginning. However, they talked me into it. All along at the back of my mind, I was worried to the core. I did not want them to be overwhelmed. I knew them all well and knew they had open minds. However, accompanying someone on a low budget trip around Rajasthan, was not exactly, my cup of tea. I had never done anything low-budget in my life in India. I had never traveled around on my own, around my own country. I had seen everything from the point of view of a spoilt tourist. Apart from that, the people I was supposedly going to escort had never been to India before. Their ideas about what goes on in India ranged from riding on an elephant to one's own wedding, to a land where everyone does Yoga on those silly, non-slipping Yoga mats!
The idea made me admire their courage (or ignorance) and the skeptic in me eventually unruffled her feathers. I spent a week in Pune before my gang of friends arrived in Mumbai from Goa. Since they were all using "Lonely Planet" as their travel Bible, they chose places recommended by the book. When I got into a taxi in Mumbai, the driver was a bit surprised when I told him to take me to a hotel close to cafe Leopold. He quizzed me about what a normal looking Indian girl is going to do in this firangi ghetto. I had to explain to him how I was showing around my Australian friends (actually by this time, two people from Holland had joined us too since they were friends of a friend I met in Australia, who was also in the group). This explanation was then stuck with me for the rest of the two weeks. I had to explain to every second person on the train, restaurant, hotel, rikshaw etc., what I was doing with these bunch of goras. We got bored of the same story so two days into it, we started making up stories just to see how our interrogators react. In one of them, I was married to one of the guys in the group. I made up some very creative Bollywoody answers to the questions related to the whole 'how-did-your-parents-take-it? question. Mumbai was extremely overwhelming for all of them. The sheer density of population on the streets was enough to make them claustrophobic. On top of that, a few of them got taken for a ride by beggars and taxi drivers. Overall the reaction was tepid, just as I had expected. Since all of us were committed to making it a fun experience, everyone was trying to look at the brighter side. There were plenty. Just walking down the streets of South Mumbai was enough to cheer everyone up. We had the much awaited "Mumbai-local" ride. Although it was not the cleanest places to be, everyone had to admit that the number of people it dutifully transports, ranging from women with huge, open baskets of fish to working class people, would put any transport system under stress.
The day we left for Jaipur, the Taj was bombed by terrorists. Some of my friends panicked and considered going back. But all roads back home went through Mumbai. So we decided to stay in Rajasthan and continue with our trip. By this time, they swore that it would have made no difference had they been traveling with an Italian or a Spanish girl instead of me. I was as clueless just about everything as them. The only advantage being, I could bargain in Hindi (they accepted this only because they did not know how Marathi my Hindi really is). We had to constantly keep accounts, haggle, wait for rooms to be cleaned, then wait again because they were not 'clean enough'. It was one of the most stressful times of my life, especially with the additional fear of more terror attacks. By this time, the colors of Rajasthan, the cheap, yummy vegetarian food, bangles, skirts with mirrors etc., had infused the much needed enjoyment in our journey.
Every person we met, however inquisitive about our personal lives had an air of harmless curiosity about them. Initially, even walking down the street with my friends was stressful. But when you come out of your own awkwardness and face people with the same honesty that you face yourself with, everyone joins in. We went to a really old Meera temple in Jaipur. At first, the priest gave me the look that seemed to say, "I hope you know what you are doing". Each one of my friends, then asked him questions about the temple, its architecture, about Meera, Lord Krishna and I was translating it for all of them. In the end, he called me back just as I was about to leave the temple and handed me a laddoo. As a gift for showing people around who are not from my culture. He only had one request, "Just the way you are showing them a slice of our culture, also explain to them the importance of being vegetarian". I was really touched by the way he put it.
The philosophy of this travel group was very simple. Eat everything, walk a lot, talk to as many people as you can and respect the local customs. We hardly ate any meat in Jaipur. We were eating hot street food only. One day, when we were in Ajmer, one of the guys in the group started craving meat. Since we did not want to take any chances, we went to a fairly expensive restaurant (from the Lonely Planet list) and paid Rs.500 for a single portion of continental chicken. That night, he became violently ill. We were living in a simple hotel called the Haveli Inn, in Ajmer. I woke up the owners who lived downstairs. The next morning, we had to take him to the local government hospital. This was my first time in a public hospital. I thought this is going to be one of the biggest points on their 'bad sides of India' list. The room was humble, but spotless. He was given intra-venous medicines all day and all night. All of that, including the rent for the room came to only Rs.2500. The actual medicines cost lesser than the chicken that had made him sick. The owners of the hotel sent their domestic help with bland, Indian, sick-man's food that was just what he needed. His firang charm made sure that he always had company in the hospital. With all the nurses asking him questions about his personal life. :)
He walked out feeling as strong as he was before. All of them took a list of medicines that the hospital needed frequently for treating kids with diarrhea, since that was the most common cause of hospitalization amongst kids living in poor neighborhoods. My friends bought a stock of those for people who might not have enough money to afford the medicines (and the fact that there are people who cannot afford it says a lot about where we are going). This was the only exception to an otherwise low-budget trip. They only kept enough cash to get by until they reached Nepal, donating the rest to the hospital. Without any intervention on my part, they were given receipts of all the donations and informed where they were going to be used. The hospital turned out to be the highest point of appreciation.
When I returned to Brisbane, we had a beer over our experiences. Although India seemed overwhelming at times, most of my friends were sure they were going to go back for a slightly upgraded holiday. Some were enticed by their visits to Yoga schools while others were floored by the beauty of the Himalayas. All of them chirped in unison that they definitely wanted to go back to Goa.

That trip was an lesson in many ways. Firstly, it was a lesson in honesty, where even though people look at you funny, you go ahead and do what you have set out for yourself. To be able to accept that your country is not perfect. To be able to present to people India, in her real form and let them make their own judgement. In the end, the message that I really wanted to put across got through. Without my having to spell it out. India doesn't care if you are a proud Indian! And Indians don't either. If you attract enough attention, they would give you a few curious looks. If you are dupe-worthy and look loaded, they would dupe you without any of their thirty three billion gods stopping them. Most of them are just looking for simple survival. In a deluge of people wanting to replace their place in this world. The country herself seems to me like this complacent mother cat. Watching a new batch of kittens amuse themselves as she lies down for rest. She does not care if you are proud to be a part of her litter. As long as you get your mouse and get by, all is well. :)


Pipa said...

Hi Saee,

This was very good to read. I don't think I will have the courage to take my American friends around in India.

I am no longer on FB in case you missed me. Be well :-)

Saee said...

Hey Pipa,
Thanks so much. :)
This trip was indeed fun. You should try it too. :D

fromperiphery said...

Good read.

Nemo said...

Hey Saee,

This was an awesome post. It takes lot of courage to go on a trip like this. Your writing style and your thoughts are praiseworthy. :)


Saee said...

@ Shrirang and Prajakta
Thankoo. :)

Nikhil Savadi said...

Simply amazing ! And Happy Birthday !! :)

Random Thoughts said...

A nice post indeed Saee. INdia trips are always a emotional roller coaster for me from the day I purchase the tickets. I came back from my trip more than a week ago and beginning to relax now. When we are taking firang friends around(or even merely talking about life in India) in India we are playing host whether we want to or not. At the back of our minds we feel responsible for the image we create in their minds about India. It takes a lot to shake that pressure off and take things as they are and not being judgmental. looks like you achieved it.
This trip I got the weird feeling that I am better off living here than in India not because of physical discomforts but because of emotional stress of having too many relatives surround you at all times. At that point I realized I had become an american at some level. Thank you for the post, and keep writing.