The actual city that never sleeps

I came back from India over two weeks ago and I’ve been struggling to write about it. There’s so much I want to write about: complicated feelings of first world guilt, wondering how different I would be if my parents hadn’t immigrated, the feeling of belonging and yet being a stranger all at once. Being in Bombay makes me understand how tourists from the Midwest feel visiting New York for the first time.

I don’t know that I have anything new to say about being part of the diaspora. The culture that I am in touch with is often cheapened – filtered through the commercial cotton candy film of a Bollywood movie, further distanced by Catholicism, adrift in a sea of pretend Asian-American solidarity.

I arrived at the Mumbai airport in the middle of the night but I was wide awake. Partially because it was still daytime back on the East coast and partially because I was eager to be in a place I hadn’t seen a decade. The customs officer was deadpan when I said “good morning.” He didn’t say a word, even asking to take off my glasses for the picture they take by miming the act. He didn’t say anything until he handed my passport back to me. “10 years?” “Yes.” He twisted his lips in an expression that might have been judgement, surprise, maybe even an acerbic welcome.

The last time I was in India, I was 14 and still uncomfortable with my heritage, a side effect of the white suburb I called home. I spent the whole summer there – from late June to Labor Day weekend. My memories from the trip are less documented as this was pre-smartphone era for me. But I remembered the adjustment period. My grandmother making breakfast for us every morning, me reading the actual physical paper. Mainly for the celebrity gossip but I did catch some hard news. I came back to America with new books by Indian authors, 10 pounds lighter, and a diagnosis of depression by a high school social worker because I regularly thought of the Indian farmers who were committing suicide because they couldn’t feed their families.

I was so sure that this time my perspective on Mumbai  would be radically different, that the decade in between would offer a new context, a different light. But it felt the same. 10 years of finally learning the Hindi alphabet (please don’t ask me to actually say anything), reading feminist retellings of the Mahabharatha and wondering if it would be weird if I named my future daughter Draupadi, almost joining a South Asian sorority, and realizing my birth country has a very cool history (and present) of communism didn’t change much. Knowing more about Mumbai didn’t change the way I felt about it.

I realized that I blend in more on the yuppie downtown streets of DC, my current home, than I do on the crowded streets of Mumbai.

My mother and I sit in the women’s compartment of the train and I think about who I would be if my parents never left India. Sometimes I wonder if I would be a less complicated person. I would know more languages. Maybe I would have listened to my parents more when I  growing up. Funnily enough, the one thing I am incredibly sure of is that my politics would have moved left at a younger age. I know I am “better off” having had the chance to grow up here. But that seems too simple a conclusion, one borne of a western-centric perspective. Nothing makes me appreciate America more than being outside of it, but that is only because I miss the things I am used to. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that.

Mumbai is not just the city of my birth, but also the city my parents grew up in. Mumbai has 15 million more people in 80 fewer square miles. It’s not only the commercial center of India but also the home of Bollywood – so basically NYC and LA combined except with cows in the middle of the street. It’s hard to imagine my middle aged, suburban, sensible shoes wearing parents living in a place like this. It’s a reminder that the people they are are not what they always were, and that there are versions of my parents that I will never meet. The Grace and Malcolm that wandered the streets of Mumbai are not the same Grace and Malcolm that taught me how to read, or grounded me, or the Grace and Malcolm I call because I don’t understand my 401k. This trip was just my mom and I. And despite nearly 23 years of living in the US, she navigated the teeming city with ease.

My trip also gave me the opportunity to spend time with my aunt, uncle, and cousins who I have not see in a decade. My aunt and uncle looked the same as I remembered, but my cousins might as well have been strangers. It’s a reminder that even the people who seem the most solid, the most unchanging, are far more fluid than you know. It’s a reminder that we can only know people so well, because of how they constantly change. I’m sure the next time I meet my cousins, currently 12 and 14, they will be different people, and so will I. But because we’re family, we’ll find new ways to fit together.

I don’t know whether my relationship with India will ever be easy to understand, clean cut. It changed in the years I was away, and so had I. One day I’ll return without the shield of my parents, and I’ll experience the country as a true foreigner. Realistically, there’s not much difference between me and the goras (white people) that eat, pray, love their way across the country. I don’t speak the language, my stomach isn’t strong enough for road side food, and I don’t know how to drape a sari. But India and I, we’re family, and we’ll find a way to fit together, eventually.

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