I can’t believe it’s April already. I just sent in my request for a return ticket, and I will be back in the US on May 15th. Six weeks from today. I am sitting here, kind of dumbfounded, looking at this itinerary. I don’t even have mixed feelings: I just really, really don’t want to leave.
Even before I came to India in August, I knew that I would have a much harder time leaving here than I would leaving America. There is something about India that has always felt natural to me, even though I’ve spent so little time here until now. I can’t even describe the deep contentment I feel walking down a crowded street where everyone has some variation of my features and color, where I’m not ‘the Indian one’, where I blend seamlessly into the relative homogeneity that surrounds me. I feel a sense of belonging that reaches much further back than the short months I have spent here, and that alters my perception of myself on the most fundamental level. I feel more beautiful in India.
The longer I spend here, the more I find a different side of my personality, an ‘Indian Reena’ emerging. The Indian Reena is more fiery, more dramatic and colorful, and depending on the situation, even a little more forward and confrontational. But she can also be more reverent, more elegant, less goofy and awkward. I can feel the difference in my mouth, too, when I speak Hindi – my syllables form a little closer to the front of my mouth, my voice is a little more nasal and higher pitched. My head moves more and my face makes different expressions.
Every interaction I’ve had here, large or small, has contributed slowly to developing these traits in me. Each exchange is marked by the other person’s expectation that I will respond in a way that an Indian woman of my age and perceived status would respond – not only in what I say, but in my manner and gesture. People look at me, expecting that I will innately understand — Hai, na? — and as the months go by, increasingly, I do. Haan, haan. Bilkul.
I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Since I first came to India, I have been painfully aware of my lack of “indianness”, whatever that meant. That I couldn’t pick up on those cues when they were given, or respond in the way that the situation demanded. That I didn’t exhibit those subtleties that I admire so much in other Indian women. Even in America, I felt like a foreigner around other Indians. But I get it now. To a greater extent than before, I am starting to understand how to be.
Even with material things, it’s interesting that I’ve quickly adapted to need and want the things that are available to me here. When I used to stroll through our local market last summer, I was amazed that shops could stay open that sold only goods that seemed to have very little use: incense, strings of mouth fresheners, gullies full of garish gold costume jewelry… But these days my shopping list is different – I find myself walking through the market looking actively for some of those exact things — being concerned with whether the fruit stands are still selling bunches of rasbharris, making sure I have the perfect gold sandals to go with my saris, meaning to buy a few kurtis from the guy in the alleyway between the purse store and the vegetable market, spending the better part of a week fixated on eating the perfect bhel puri, joking with the omelet guy on the corner while he makes me a masala omelet. It had never even occurred to me to actively desire these things in the states – now I am having a hard time imagining life without them.
When I graduated from Yale last year, I felt a true sense of satisfaction – that I had come there for a reason, I had worked hard, and I had accomplished what I set out to accomplish. Of course it was impossible to take advantage of every opportunity, but I felt that I had done a reasonably good job of taking out of the experience what I had wanted. (And funnily enough, I’m returning to Yale for two more years, so there are still plenty of chances to enjoy what I missed the first time!)
A year in India, though, is a whole other matter. It’s like the difference between knowing ten pieces in the western classical music canon, and knowing 100. Ten gives you a vague sense of understanding of the general differences between that music and music from other genres, but once you know 100 pieces, you begin to see layers and levels within the form itself, and worlds begin to open up that beckon further exploration. Ten is comfortable. One hundred is not.
It’s the latter circumstance with my time in India: I just know enough to be aware of how much more there is to know and experience in this country, and each thing I have experienced has made me aware of other worlds that I have yet to explore.
I still haven’t been to the folk music archives in Gurgaon or spent any extended time at the Sangeet Natak Academy Library (both have some of the best Indian musical resources available). I haven’t yet gotten a pair of shoes made by the cobbler in Nizamuddin West market, or been to hear the sufi singing on Thursday evenings at the mosque there. I didn’t have the chance to study yoga in Rishikesh, or go the the music season in Chennai, or the Saptak Festival in Ahmedabad or the Jaipur Literary Festival. I haven’t been to Calcutta or Bombay (this trip) or Hampi or Ladakh. I haven’t had enough time to hang out more than once or twice with some of the wonderful people I’ve met here. I still don’t know how to make aloo paranthas, and even my regular paranthas look more like a flattened version of a David Smith sculpture than anything that can be comfortably consumed.
But there’s one thing that scares me more than anything else about leaving India: that the person I am here will not be able to exist in America – that I will lose this part of myself when I leave. Five years ago, my grandmother died, and I lost not only one of the closest people to me, but the culture and the language that I shared with only her. For some time after she died, I would try to speak Gujarati to myself in the mirror at night, trying to keep the language on my tongue, but I have slowly lost even that with the passing of years.
Being in India, the secret world I shared with her, a world of sewing carefully selected sequins and beads onto wildly colored ribbons for dupattas, of singing ads for Pari: Basmati Rice along with the TV between weekend Hindi serials, of stealing unfried samosas off the tray to eat before a party – all these little occurrences that made up the little enclave of India nestled in our house in Los Angeles – have exploded into a whole world that surrounds me and draws out a certain version of me that feels full and natural and complete. I know how hard it was to lose that once, and now that the contrast is so much more pronounced, I am even more terrified to lose it again.
It was probably, in part, that subconsciously perceived lack that beckoned me here in the first place. And it may be this feeling of complete fulfillment and wholeness that will keep me coming back again and again. I hope so.