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Drenched by India’s nostalgia

Monday, December 6, 2010

“Is India Indian? Does it matter? The majority of India’s citizens will not (to this day) be able to identify its boundaries on a map, or say which language is spoken where, or which god is worshipped in what region. To them, the idea of India is, at best, a noisy slogan that comes around during wars and elections. Or a montage of people on government TV programmes wearing regional costumes and saying Mera Bharat Mahaan (My India is great).” Arundati Roy: Booker prize winning author of “The God of Small Things.” The flight from Delhi to Bhopal is delayed. Hearing flights called out for Chandigarh, Bangalore, Hyderabad, cities of my childhood, I felt like I was missing bits of myself.  

But which piece? Who was I? Are all immigrants condemned to a gripping nostalgia that excludes them both from their motherland and adopted country? The feeling is one of damage. There is no fixed sense of what is home. In these four cities alone as well as Simla (parts of the Himalayas are not accessible by air) I was exposed to Punjabi, Tamil, Kannada, Urdu, and the ubiquitous English and Hindi. These cities are an eclectic mix, tug in opposite directions. What did the Bangalori South Indians with phenomenal IQs (the highest in India) oiled coils of hair adorned with fresh jasmines, jewelled coloured silks, graceful dances have to do with the tall proud Sikhs with their turbans speaking Punjabi in Chandigarh? In Simla to the backdrop of the snowy tall Himalayas we skated in winter and picnicked in sunflower fields. In Hyderabad, where a lot of my mother family still lives, there is a Mogul nostalgia so strong, courtly manners of the dead Mogul Empire so alive that I remember a time when my grandmother delivered invitations to dinner in Urdu poetry on a silver tray.

And how does one reconcile the vast landscape of this country of 1.1billion people with ones blind spots? There was so much I haven’t seen in this country/continent. Thousands of train miles of villages, rivers, mountains, communities and festivals. Can India ever belong to anyone? There are hundreds of passengers at the Indira Gandhi International Airport—flying all over India. Everyone looks different. No book is required here. I play the guessing game I haven’t outgrown. Match the Person with the Language and the State. In this sub-continent, of 28 states, (inhabited originally by the Dravidians) conquered by Persians, Arabs, Central Asian Huns, Alexander the Great’s armies from Greece, the British and finally, globalisation there is no such thing as a quintessential Indian.

I watch a new bride, her hennaed hands, jangling with gold bangles, fingers moving like lightening on her blackberry (I feel sorry for the groom patiently waiting for attention) is wearing a bandhani sari tied Gujarati style. I recognise a couple of words in Tamil in the dusky skinned clear eyed family that could be from Kerala, Bangalore or Chennai. The blue eyed gentleman in a suit makes me think of Simla (now Shimla—why did they change all the names—I disapprove of such jingoism, which appears like a denial of history). The girl next to him is clearly Muslim. She is speaking Urdu. She is beautiful, looks Arab could be from Bhopal, Hyderabad or Pakistan. But she could be a Mumbai-ite.

The slight pale boy with a backpack is definitely a Parsi with Iranian ancestry. The men are a little harder to figure out. I can’t tell the Biharis apart from the Madrasis and Bengalis but others can I am sure. Then there are the Bengalis (known as Bongs in Mumbai) who we discover after a brief conversation are “fourth generation” settled in Mumbai, in the state of Maharashtra. Each Indian with a separate identity. Each state a different country. Thrown together in institutions such as the army they would all speak in English or Hindi since they can’t speak one another’s languages. Then there are mixtures dressed in western clothes. Indira Gandhi may have “abolished” the caste system amongst the Hindus but many remain absurdly attached to their space. There are hundreds of fragments: communities, thousands of dialects, millions of nuances and customs, prejudices and superstitions.

Despite education, globalisation and modernisation it can come to blows if a daughter or son decide to marry outside their community. It is almost unheard of for a Sikh to marry a South Indian for instance. Both communities would be appalled at such a liaison. In my fathers’ community as in hundreds of others sects, Mathurs tend to marry Mathurs. There is little cause to look outside. In my mother’s Muslim family, the elders will travel the length and breadth of India to find suitable matches, invariably of Pathan Afgani decent. The dozen separatist movements From Khalistan, and Assam, to Meghalya and Nagaland are almost to be expected in this country that is a continent. The most troubled and complex spot by far has been Kashmir where hundreds of soldiers and civilians have and continue to lose their lives.

Having landed in Bhopal, (infamous for the world’s worst industrial catastrophe: the 1984 Union Carbide chemical disaster which killed and maimed thousands) I get a genuine sense of home starting with a laugher that is close to tears as a cousin garlands us with bright gold marigolds on our arrival at the airport. It is the city of my mother’s ancestral home. My mother stays in the rooms where my grandmother came as a rebellious horse-riding, piano-playing, avidly-reading bride who would not stay in the background. The weight of ancient traditions and a powerful family shattered her confidence but not her will which was intact even as she rode out of here living out her life in India England and Pakistan as a single mother. The past is palpable amongst these pillars and palms, its play of morning and night shadows, its beauty and desolation.

It is here in this home where a courtyard divides four family homes, where we stand up respectfully when the matriarch walks in, here, in where in an attic a trunk full of letters holds the story of my grandparents; here with the nearby jungles where my grandmother shot a tiger, here where I see my features in my cousins face that I feel that all the strands of India are drawn together. A sudden downpour, a translucent silver curtain of rain over the lake and land, releasing the earth’s crushed offering of the fragrance of dead rose petals and newly fallen blooms comes like a blessing on my last day in Bhopal. I have a sudden urge to do like the “Indians” in the first rainfall of the monsoon: to rush under the open skies, no longer thinking but just “being,” drenched by India.

Next week. Farewell to India in Mumbai.  


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