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So long, India

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: August 16, 2012, 3:35 PM IST
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"In the mind of a woman for whom no place is home the thought of an end to all flight is unbearable." -- Milan Kundera, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being"

The scorching dry heat of early June in north India has given way to cloudy skies and occasional downpours. The temperature is about 15 degrees Celsius lower than when I first got here. Ten weeks can make you feel like you belong somewhere. But just when you do, it's time to leave again.

Most of my Indian friends in the States are envious of my time here, for ten weeks is a luxury few professionals can afford. Yet, there is no other way to submerge yourself in a culture than such an extended period of time. In order to feel the pulse of a place, it's necessary to watch local TV, listen to local radio, read local newspapers and magazines, and live a routine daily life. This means going to the market to buy vegetables and interacting with the watchman, tailor, electrician, and auto driver. All this is possible only if you have adequate time to actually feel like a resident and not a tourist.

As a writer I find it impossible to write authentically about India in any form, be it fiction or non-fiction, without experiencing the country for myself as often as I can. For this my university very generously offered me a research grant this year to help me start working on a new novel set in India.

But even if I were to never write another word, a summer such as this one is invaluable. Changes happen every week. Anna Hazare's protests give way to Baba Ramdev's. Pratibha Patil gives way to Pranab Mukherjee. "Shanghai" gives way to "Cocktail". Sun gives way to rain. When I began this blog in May, I said I wanted to explore the changes in the country over the past decade. Even at the time I knew it was an impossible task. A country as heterogeneous as this cannot be summed up in a blog. All you can hope to do is capture a few fleeting impressions.

In the Olympics, Mary Kom crouches in the boxing ring, cheered on by millions of Indians at home. On Independence Day, a crowd of people, old and young, gather on the lawn of our gated community in Gurgaon to hoist the Indian flag. Thousands of people sit trapped inside Metro trains in Delhi during India's historic power cut. A man kneels on a mat at the side of the road just after sunset to say his evening prayers during the month of Ramzan.

Calcutta was sticky and wet, Goa was drenched in monsoon rain, Hyderabad was hot and sunny, Bombay misty and clammy. The lasting impression of India is a collage - green mountains, sandy beaches, crowded streets, busy bazaars, upscale malls, beach shacks, chaat shops, old crumbling mansions, colonial buildings, gated high rise communities, chawls, fancy hotels.

My blog has hardly been an ethnographical study. It was, in the end, just a tour diary, part travelogue, part journal. I have been critical, both here and in private conversations with friends. Many people wonder what gives an NRI the right to criticise a country. The word "unpatriotic" is often used to refer to someone like me for not valiantly defending everything India does. While I am critical of any place I live in, I do confess to feeling especially entitled to question the way things are in India. It matters to me, not because of principles or a sense of right and wrong, but with a deep emotional resonance that is unmatched anywhere else on earth. Nothing like watching an Indian flag go up in the Olympics to remind you of where you really belong.

By early tomorrow morning, I'll be on my way back to the States, across three flights, four airports and several time zones. Leaving is always bittersweet. Saying goodbye to friends, family and the sounds and smells of India never gets easier, not even after ten years. But I'd be lying if I said I'm not a bit excited about getting back to school and work, meeting new students, getting back in the thick of things and catching up with my friends in America. Besides, if I don't go away, how would I come back?

Very soon I'll be worrying not about how to cope with the heat but with the winter snow that is coming to Michigan. Soon there will be daylight until 10 at night. Soon I'll be listening to American commentators calling tennis matches instead of British ones. It will be back to watching "Chopped" instead of "Masterchef Australia". Back to watching movies in near-empty theatres instead of noisy, crowded ones. Back to eating salads and granola bars instead of kathi rolls and kulfi. And back to driving everywhere instead of being driven by other people. Soon it will be classic rock on the radio instead of old Hindi film songs on FM 92.7. Soon the news will be filled with the US presidential elections instead of Ramdev's rallies and Mamata Banerjee's insane quotes (I'll be gone by the time she sends her people to arrest me).

I live two lives. It can be very disorienting and not just because of the jetlag. One has to continuously realign. And yet the two worlds are different but not separate. For, on a cold, white winter's day near Lake Michigan, when everything is covered in snow and all around me is completely silent, the sounds, smells, and colours of a summer in India will come back to remind me that I have two lives, not one. And that home is what you carry inside you.

Until next time. India, be good.
First Published: August 16, 2012, 3:35 PM IST

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