(the next few posts were written over the past few weeks during my travels)
When I came back from my first trip to India in 2006, I caught an awful cold on the plane, and by the time I arrived in Los Angeles with my parents, 18 hours later, I was miserably sick.
That night, as I opted to postpone my trip back to New York by a day, and slept off a high fever, I had a horrible nightmare – I was completely alone in a big city, with very few friends and no family. I worked myself to the bone every day, trudging through snow and inhuman cold, and came home to emptiness and soggy takeout leftovers…
I woke up to realize: This was my actual life.
My western sensibility framed it very differently: I was an ambitious 20-something who was independently navigating my way through the beginning stages of a career in music. I worked hard every day, paying my dues so that some day I would be able to have a comfortable life doing what I loved. Yes, my family lived far away and sometimes I felt incredibly lonely, and yes, most days in winter, I would return home and stand in a steaming shower for 20 minutes to regain feeling in my fingers and toes, but until I had that dream, I had successfully convinced myself that mine was the stereotypical Howard-Roarkian rise to the top.
I write this from the Delhi Airport, on my way to Chennai. The moment I stepped into this beautiful, state of the art, glass building, I felt like I was back in America. Everything runs on time here. The surfaces are earth tones that are probably cleaned with Western, bleach-based cleaning products every day. Most of the seats in the waiting area are empty, and a few business men pace back and forth, talking in English on their Blackberries. I feel like I can walk out of here, hop on Metro-North, and be back in New Haven in two hours.
But the feeling is as comforting as it is unsettling. I experience so many new things every day — many of them I interpret through the eyes of a foreigner, looking at something in a different context. Throwing something that looked like potpurri into a bonfire in my landlord’s living room while he chanted sanskrit shlokas at top speed, eating gelato while discussing whether or not our made Anita should invite the garbage woman in for tea with such regularity, driving by a rickshaw with three goats or eight people in the backseat — these are things that amuse me as an American.
But then sometimes I feel my perception shift, and suddenly what seems to be two layers of removal (an Indian girl who is from america looking at people in India) becomes two 180 degree turns that cancel each other out. I feel myself completely bypassing my circumstance, and just existing as another Indian person in India. In the same way where you reach a point in the study of a language where you no longer think about that language through another language, I just feel myself slip into an Indian mind.
It’s wonderful to have these moments of complete connection, of seeing this parallel life that, had circumstances been different, may have been a reality for me. But it is that very thing that scares me: there are some things that feel more natural to me than they should, and even as I relish them, I fear them. Now that I know they exist, will I be able to go back to a life without them?
As much as I love the clean lines and efficiency of the western-style airport, in comparison to everything my eyes have been taking in these last few months, I can’t help but notice how drab it is — how devoid of color and of the vitality that makes up Indian life. People are so subdued here, lulled by their various solitary activities (yes, of course, I am aware that I am one of the aforementioned people, as I type this on my laptop). As unexcited I was to be woken up at 6AM this morning to the sound of a parade announcing the coming of Eid, complete with firecrackers and a guy yelling things in Hindi over a megaphone, the energy and vibrance that exists in every corner of India also constantly inspires me.
But moving to India for the rest of my life isn’t possible either. As a woman living in India, life is much more confined than it is in America. There are still such binding restraints on what is acceptable (and even safe) for a woman in this society. There is the constant worry of getting sick, and I don’t know if the precautions I can afford to take for a year can be taken indefinitely. And aside from those essentials, the life I have known and built as a western classical musician is in the west — it’s not something I can just let go of forever. I love and thrive in that world, too. There are many things about my American life that are as important to me as the things I have found here.
I spend nights awake in bed rehashing the same thought cycles: Why can’t the things I love about India and America exist together? Did the cultures really develop in an inevitable chain of events to include elements that are mutually exclusive? Or is it an accident that the same culture didn’t think of taps with potable water and amazing 7 rupee street chai? Why can’t we preserve the value of family in India without forcing women into subservient positions? Is the fact that life in America is more time-efficient also what causes us to be depressed more often? Are all the things I love physically possible in the same society, or does the nature of one society preclude the presence of elements of the other because of circumstances I’m just not perceptive enough to see?
These are big scary questions, and I don’t know if, in my lifetime, I will ever be any closer to their answers.
Maybe I don’t know enough about how the world works to understand the complexities of cultural integration on such an overarching level, but for all the big questions that I cannot answer in the world, their musical counterparts are where the soul of my work lives: Does the fact that western melody is less developed than Indian melody mean that we can’t have western counterpoint that incorporates an indian-style melody? Does creating harmonic progression within ragas diminish their effect when each note is contextually distanced from the drone note? If so, is the novelty of the new sound worth the compromise of tradition? If one end of the spectrum is mutual exclusivity and the other end is a perfect, complementary and interdependent yin-yang, where do certain elements of western classical music meet their indian counterparts along this scale?
Maybe these sound like kind of dry, theoretical questions, but in practice they are a colorful musical playground, and it is where my mind lingers. There may not be one answer, or there may be a multitude. In the case of music, it isn’t the questions themselves, but the journey that such questions create that interests me the most.
It doesn’t make the big discrepancies any easier to digest, but it’s the little I can do.