“Ugh, I don’t want to go to India this summer. Can’t we go somewhere more exciting?”
When I was growing up, my parents and I used to make the long trek to India almost once a year. While my mom and dad made America their home years ago, the rest of their families stayed in India, and these annual visits were the only chance for the entire family to be together. These trips were treasured time to reconnect with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, but for the most part, I dreaded them. I hated the long flight to India; I hated the squatty-potties that were often my only option at family homes; I hated that I got sick every time we came here; and, I really hated the unrelenting heat and infamous monsoon rains.
We would visit two places—Bombay and Ahmedabad—when we were in India during my summer vacations. My mom is from Bombay, my dad is from Ahmedabad, and both of their families still live in those cities. On trips to India, we’d alternate between the two, ricocheting from one cousins’ house to another, and just around the time I’d adjust to the jetlag, we’d get on a flight back to New Jersey. We wouldn’t get much time to sightsee or even explore the local food scene, because we would try to spend as much time with family as possible. Stuck inside (often without AC) in the infamous Gujarat and Bombay summers—this is the picture that came to mind whenever I thought of India.
Because my parents and I visited India fairly often, I thought I knew India. Even in America, I ate Indian food for dinner almost every night, took Indian dance classes every weekend, and attended gatherings at my temple or at other Indian-Americans’ houses frequently. So much of my identity was tied to being Indian. Moreover, the other Indian-Americans who I knew had similar fusion-filled lives, and their parents’ narratives looked similar to my parents’. My understanding of what it meant to be Indian, and of what India looked like and felt like, was very homogeneous.
I applied to the Fellowship because I wanted to experience India on my own terms—I knew that India was more than the Bollywood songs I danced to in dance practice or the chai I had every morning. What I didn’t realize was how much more it was. The biggest surprise since moving to India for me has been discovering its ample diversity—diversity in people and stories, foods and clothing, languages and religions, and especially, in climates and landscapes. In his book, In Spite of the Gods, Edward Luce describes India as “mind-boggingly heterogeneous,” and I can’t think of a better way to put it.
The multitude of narratives, of sites to see, and cultures to experience in just this one country blow my mind sometimes.
I’ve walked through Johri Bazaar in Jaipur with sari vendors trying to lure me into their shop; I’ve ridden down the Ganga during sunset in Varanasi, listening to 7 Hindu priests conduct the evening arati; I’ve sat in a village in rural Jharkhand, where the houses are all the prettiest blue I’ve ever seen and the peace and quiet is almost overwhelming; I’ve scoured through hundreds of bangles in the carts by Charminar in Hyderabad; I’ve listened to Gandhi devotees recite evening prayers in his final home in Sevagram; I’ve drank the best iced coffee I’ve ever had with fresh coconut milk and forest honey on my first morning in Kochi; and, I’ve cheered for the Royal Challengers during a cricket match at the stadium here in Bangalore. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg–there are so many more places I need to see and experience.
As I try to make the most out of my remaining time here, I’ve realized that even a year here is not nearly enough time to see all that India has to offer. I am so grateful to the Fellowship for helping me fall in love with this country. I’ve also had the opportunity to spend more time in Mumbai and Ahmedabad (and not during the rainy, summer seasons!) and I’ve grown to love both these cities tremendously. I’m extremely excited for many trips back here to continue to explore all of the country—the Northeast, the south, the mountains, rainforests, deserts, and more—and to expand my knowledge of India’s vast landscapes, incredible people, addicting energy, and amazing food. As my 10 months in India nearly come to an end, I take a lot of comfort in knowing that I will be back again soon, and many, many more times in my life.