Sometimes, major life decisions are made in mere seconds whereas other times, they involve intense deliberation and thought. Rarely if ever do the underlying factors that drive our decisions make sense.
Last year, in mid-April, while returning from a site visit to another Fellow’s organization in Uttarkhand, I travelled to Punjab and UP with a friend of mine from Odisha. We didn’t have much time to plan this impromptu trip, and so our travels involved a lot of purani buses, open windows, and dust. A blur of stops in the middle of the night, road-side chai stalls, colors, scents, gurdwaras, train stations and of course, the gurdwara.
The trip was a much-needed distraction from work and life in Bangalore, which was increasingly untenable due to problems with permanent housing, hours spent commuting to work each day, endless registration issues, and the stress of switching from Odisha to Karnataka mid-year.
At the time, I thought that my work in India was coming to an end, and that I would be heading home in only a few months. I was ready to leave India, but at the same time my work felt unfinished. I was just starting to understand what my organization was all about.
Somewhere in Uttar Pradesh, near Saharanpur, a musician came onto the bus and began singing. To say that he was half-dressed would be an understatement: he looked like an actor straight out of Ramayan. The expression on his face was tired and listless, as though he had been hopping in and out of buses all day.
Paardesi, pardesi, jaana nahi
Paardesi, pardesi, jaana nahi…
My friend and I listened silently, and I observed the musician, with his sunken eyes, as he paid the conductor and hopped off of the bus.
“What was he singing about?” I asked my friend.
My friend laughed for several seconds. “The song was about a foreigner, and the singer is asking the foreigner not to leave.” [This is mostly correct although, for the sake of accuracy, pardesi actually refers to someone who has been living away from their country for a long time].
At the time, I had been struggling with India. Really struggling. It wasn’t the cultural differences, lack of certain consumer goods, or whatever it is expats typically struggle with (a joke compared to post-Soviet Ukraine in the early 1990s). My mounting frustration was more intangible, a function of being treated differently, and not even in any outwardly negative way. Laugh if you will, but India has put me through a meat-grinder of twisted, privileged “otherization,” and by April of last year, I had vowed to leave for good.
Which makes it difficult to articulate why I ultimately choose to stay for another year. I enjoy my work, which is intellectually challenging, but this was hardly the only consideration. Perhaps India has some lessons to teach me yet about patience and acceptance, or maybe an ektar-wielding musician dressed like an extra from a soap opera about Hindu mythology struck a chord with me somewhere between defeat and Saharanpur.