India: A Nation Calling

Mid-twentieth century, American journalist Harold Isaacs once complained the world’s impression of Indian people boiled down to exotic (snake charmers), mystical (holy men and palmists), heathen (cow and idol worshippers), and pitiful (leprous beggars and slum dwellers). Centuries later, the stereotype has only been swapped with it being a region of computer wizzes, back-end customer support, and enticing spicy cookeries.

Even after six trips to the sub-continent, I was still unable to wrap myself around the true texture of this country that I have always been tied to wherever I go. I thought that as a 30-year-old American-Indian with thousands of questions regarding one of the oldest civilizations, it was time to attempt to properly peruse through my parent’s homeland.

Thus, I grabbed three of my whitest friends and trekked out East.

Navigating through India’s complexity can often feel like hitting a wasp’s nest of emotions and senses – an area that can overload you with its complicated history, rich culture, and diverse populace; it is a mecca of chaos for some and a haven of soulful clarity for others. With each region containing its own dialect, tradition, and way of life, a journey through India can provide infinite experiences. But one must start somewhere, and for us that was Mumbai.

India’s most populous city has always been the nation’s incubator for romance and allure. Home to India’s bustling movie industry, Mumbai was not long ago called Bombay. In her beautiful novel chronicling the lives of three Indian families, The Heart is a Shifting Sea, Elizabeth Flock explains before Bombay the film capital was formerly named Bom Bahia, Boa-Vida, Mambe, Mumbadevi, Heptanesia, and many other names that captured the city’s glamour. Before claiming its independence along with the rest of the country, Mumbai was once ruled by the Portuguese followed by British command. Mumbai’s nicknames always held an essence of seduction: the City of Seven Islands, City of Dreams, and City of Gold.  

Even amidst the sweltering heat, frenetic traffic, and heightened smog due to the bursting of firecrackers during Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that celebrates good over evil and knowledge over ignorance, the magnetism was evident – bustling streets, wonderful street art by young inspirational teenagers, and dazzling markets filled with the typical bazaar bargaining. Plus, a food scene that makes you want to slap yourself for each time you’ve had chicken tikka masala.

Luckily, the tantalization didn’t end there as we made our way down south to Kerala.

During the summer of 2018, severe floods affected the entire state due to unusually high rainfall during the monsoon season, marking the region’s worst flood in nearly a century. A million people were evacuated, 33,00 people needed to be rescued, 438 people died, and to this day 14 people are missing.

Voyaging through a ravaged area makes you pause and count your blessings. Giving you a profound realization of mortality that your time on this earth, your friendships with others, and certain places can vanish at a moment’s notice, making it important of being and present soaking it all in.

Luckily, the place nicknamed “God’s Own Country”, made being mindful quite seamless.

The backwaters of Kerala are a chain of brackish lagoons linked by natural and manmade canals, fed by 38 rivers. Ecological historians note the backwaters were formed by the action of waves and shore currents paving the way for low barrier islands across many rivers flowing to meet the seawater from the Arabian Sea.

Some have called the Kerala the Venice of the East, but with its ageless aquatic serenity that creates an atmosphere of tranquil rumination, it’s clear Venice is the Kerala of the west.

Our next stop was New Delhi. For those who want a geopolitical smog fact handy for cocktail parties, Delhi does not have the dirtiest air in India or the world.  But with 25 million people, Delhi dirt endangers more lives as the city’s filthy air kills some 30,000 Delhi-wallahs a year.

Delhi is a goldmine for any architectural history buff. The foundation stone of the city was laid by George V, Emperor of India during the Delhi Durbar of 1911. Many of its main monuments were designed by British architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens (as at times Delhi is referred to as Lutyen’s Delhi). Today, India’s capital is home to an abundance of monument gems such as Humayun’s Tomb and the Red Fort.

My group’s last stop was the Taj Mahal. Commissioned as a mausoleum in 1632 by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as the resting place of his favorite wife (how’s that for romance), to many this 42-acre complex of gardens in buildings on the Yamuna rivers is known as the “jewel of Muslim art” in India. During the time of the 1857 Indian rebellion, the British defaced the monument by chiseling out precious stones from its interior walls. Despite the colonial theft, it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen, capable of reducing even the most toxically masculine men to tears. Pictures, even with all the limitless filters, will never do it justice.

As at our time at this exotic location wrapped up our trip, I hoped to have found clarity in my understanding of India, the true nature of its people, and what it means to be Indian. But I can’t say that I immediately did.

In 2011, second generation Ananda Giridharadas penned Indian Calling, a remarkable work providing an intimate portrait of Indian’s remaking – how one of the oldest civilizations infuses western influences while preserving its history. Through his examination, Mr. Giridharadas is more of a narrator, keeping an arm’s length distance between his and his parent’s roots to this country as he examines the transition of India and what it means to everyone.

I wish I could mirror his journalistic discipline and synthesize this rapidly transforming civilization while disentangling my connection to the sub-continent. But I can’t. My observation is influenced by a heightened desire for an authentic attachment to the condition of the Indian soul – their hopes, avenues of cherishment and joy, dreams, points of despair, and even body language (the side to side head bob is something I can’t shake two weeks later).

There is a yearning to feel included on the inside Indian jokes, having the ability to seamlessly transition from Hindi to English to a local local in one sentence, be known as a local tribes member despite being a ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), and hoping to transfer what I know to my pale brethren. There is a greater desire for me to be more associated as a Chatterjee than a Chad (offense intended).

But even with my bias, I unabashedly conclude, in the nearly forty nations I’ve set foot on, I have not experienced warmth and generosity that rivals this cohort of spice lovers and masala tea gulpers. As nothing matches the intelligence, wit, and reverence for learning of the common Indian soul.

After traveling through most of the world for her fieldwork on the behavior of men around the world, Lavanya Sankaran, former London global investment banker and author of the illustrious novel The Hope Factory, noted that “Indians can be among the kindest people in the world.” (Ms. Sankaran also chronicled Englishwomen marrying Indian men for their cherishment of family and hospitality unseen in the UK).

This sense of kindness was on display as our pre-guide to the Elephanta caves, near Mumbai, embraced us from the start, gave us souvenir pens, and hugged us tightly as we embarked on our tour. On the other side of the journey,  our guide on the island was eager to take countless pictures of us, followed with an invitation to his house for sweets.

However, most Indians I met would be remiss if I failed to mention the shortcoming of the world’s largest Democracy. For many, the frustration stems from the underwhelming performance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In 2014, the former self-proclaimed chaiwala, was ushered in with great global fanfare (even selling out at Madison Square Garden) in hopes of continuing to build upon a decade of promising growth, installing a framework of modernizing the nation, and taking concrete steps to purge the corruption stifling the nation. By in large, Modi has failed to deliver.

Others express grave disappointment in the mannerism of their fellow tribe members Indians– being untrustworthy, having bad hygiene, amplifying the rampant corruption it seems to disavow, and allergic to the concept of process. In his book, Games Indian Play, finance professor V. Raghunathan scribes a harsh assessment of the modern day Indian man. Raghunathan chides his fellow countrymen as being privately astute, but publicly imbecilic, and often being morally bankrupt. In addition, the part time journalist chastises his fellow citizens for being disturbingly indifferent to the burden and hassle they place on others (Raghunathan highlights that extra airport staff assigned to outbound India flights due to its passenger’s habit of ignoring airline boarding protocol).

I was baffled by Ragunathan’s analysis of the country that filled both my friends’ and my heart (and stomach) with utmost bliss for three straight weeks. Was my time all a charade? Was there part of Indian that I purposely overlooked? Is this what happens when you travel with white people?

One week after my trip, I emailed Ragunathan to ask him about his thoughts (as any good Indian he welcomed debate). What started as a few emails eventually turned into five phone calls of Ragunathan meticulously explaining his disappointment of his native land well into the night. With each point of frustration over what he loved and adored about his country, I was mentally transported back to India and all its mesmerizing chaos.

To the tour guides bewildered by the nation’s troubling history, but still overly gleeful to share it with us. To the overwhelming haphazard traffic, but also the exuberance that comes with it. To the autorickshaw berating my broken Hindi, but adoring my tattoos in Sanskrit. To the judgement from natives questioning my ethnic connection, but also passionately quarreling over the top five all time Bollywood heroines, and to the throngs of stares as I strolled along the street with three Caucasian men, but to the adornment of selfies taken with them at every stop of the way.

This is the Indian that will always be seductively vexing, that I will forever love, and currently so very much miss.

But more importantly, this is the India that has always been calling for me.

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