This is my second month here in Delhi, India. Delhi, a place I once considered my true home, now seems like a foreign land for me filled with contradictions. These paradoxes continue bombarding my senses, my sense of comfort, and my sense of self, while keeping me at the edge of the seat pushing me to yearn for more in this journey of self discovery.
I was born in Delhi, India and lived here until I was ten. After a childhood full of tasty food, visits to the Gurudwara, a Sikh temple, lectures from nuns, childhood games, my family and I moved to Easley, South Carolina, in the United States. In Easley, I was the only Indian in my school in a Southern Baptist town where I often felt disconnected. I yearned to come back to Delhi those days and dreamt of living in Delhi again with my friends, going to the gurudwara or visiting Apu Ghar, a popular theme park at the time where I spent countless hours as a child. For many years during my time in South Carolina, I only considered Delhi, my true home. I even remember forming a plan to attend college in Delhi. Yet, as time passed, U.S. became a home for me and Delhi, a distant memory. My memories of Delhi slowly became just a slideshow of random memories that would occasionally appear in the back of my mind to remind of the life I once had. Slowly, dishes like macaroni cheese and grilled cheese became my staple food replacing my beloved paranthas.
Fourteen years later, I returned to Delhi to work for an legal internship. I witnessed and learned many things. The seven week internship quickly came to an end before long, and I had to return to law school in the States. I realized then that only seven weeks in Delhi was not enough to truly understand my heritage. I then decided to pursue a path that would allow me to return to India for a much longer time to better understand India, my identity, and my biculturalism.
When I returned two months ago, I realized how much both my once home and me had changed and evolved. Delhi, sprawling with giant malls, corner shops, automobiles, jarring stares, and an amalgam of noises and smells, was overwhelming. Me, with a new law degree and my own sense of space, ethics, and ideas of morality, had also changed from the wide-eyed ten-year-old who yearned to return all those years. I received a fellowship with the America India Foundation to work with a non-governmental organization, the Counsel to Secure Justice (CSJ). CSJ provides aid to juvenile victims of sexual assault by providing each victim with a lawyer and a social worker to provide them support throughout their court proceedings.
Getting Mehendi done for Karva Chauth. Hindu married women celebrate Karva Chauth by fasting for their husbands’ longevity and good health from sunrise to moonrise. It is also now common a practice for girlfriends to fast for their boyfriends. Women get mehendi done generally at late hours of night. So at midnight when I saw groups of women getting mehendi done, I could simply not resist.
Dushera festival. Durga Puja.
After these two months, these are some of my observations. There are some things I struggle with daily, whereas other things I welcomed heartily.
I struggle daily with the contradictions both in myself and in the environment around me. While I look Indian and am able to understand the language and some cultural nuances, my foreign upbringing has left me feeling foreign in most interactions around me making me feel as a foreigner to this strange, yet familiar land.
I struggle daily with the subtle micro-aggressions displayed by men from all ages and backgrounds that jarringly illustrating the patriarchal nature of society through my experiences at CSJ or through my daily interactions with people. Whether that means having strange men brush against you as you are walking down the street or going to a Dushera festival with a crowd just filled with men or even men only shaking hands with the males in my company. Everyday, when I leave the house, I have to mentally prepare myself for the stares, the shoves, the lack of public space, yet through some practice and mostly from the support I received from my co-workers and my roommates, I have learned to navigate the public space better.
Another thing I grapple with is the pace of Delhi. Similar to the traffic in Delhi. For example, through my work with CSJ, I’ve observed that in courts, often times, witnesses, attorneys, and judges are absent from critical hearings delaying the trials by months at a time. This glacial nature follows almost all interactions including meetings and appointments with local services. For example, to fix a few things at my house, I had to wait weeks and make several phone calls before getting results. Ultimately, I downloaded an application and ordered services using that app instead of relying on the landlord. Thus, through these experiences, I have learned to use more creative tactics, Jugaad, in achieve solutions.
I am truly grateful for this support system that I have found in my co-workers. Since my first day of work, I have found a small family at my job where we not only share food but experiences. Using our shared experiences of the struggles that come with navigating the various micro-aggressions whether it is on the bus, the train, the street, or in our daily interactions, my co-workers and I have developed a safe space where we discuss these issues in an open and free space. Through these, often heavy discussions, we, as progressive feminists, have formed a bond that is everlasting. I have formed a newfound appreciation for these women’s strength who, despite the odds, continue to fight for victims of sexual assault. In a way, I have found my voice because, despite living in the U.S., I feel less inclined to speak so openly about these issues there because as a developed nation, there is a presumption that American women do not face such issues any more, despite the fact that the pay grade differences and statistics surrounding sexual assault in the U.S. would indicate otherwise. (One out of three women is either physically or sexually assaulted in the world according to the United Nations Population Fund.)
Some things that I will not trade for anything is the warmth of the people. I have met some of the friendliest and kindhearted people through my time here. The culture is a collectivistic culture, which meant that people are incredibly warm and welcoming and at times, intrusive. For example, whenever someone is sick, almost of the co-workers find ways to make the person feel better, or when I mentioned traveling to a place, if a person hails from that place, they automatically offer me their place, even though I was virtually a stranger. My roommates and my workmates are all people whom I consider my new family members with whom I have formed new bonds. The familial and warm nature of people made me feel like I had just returned home from a long journey.
I am also thankful for the mountains of food choices available in Delhi. The number of flavors, spices, and varieties of choices available in dishes is truly mind boggling and doing wonders for my taste buds. Having a sweet tooth, I am in awe of the multiple restaurants that are just willing to deliver cake at odd hours of the night.
Now, it has been two months since I returned to Delhi. While I struggle to daily to come to terms with the many jarring things, through my a strong support group both at work and home, I feel that I am slowly learning more about this beautiful, yet overwhelming culture, country, and myself one step at a time.
Coffee with some friends.
Durga Puja Mela.
Lunch with workmates.
Bombay Bhel Puri, a delicacy that that has become of my favorites.