To think that I am almost halfway through the Sobti Fellowship is a pretty startling thought. If that is the case, then by now, should I not have at least half a clue as to what I’m doing in India and what this experience means for me?
In terms of the actual work that I am doing, I do have “clues,” and I am getting more enthused and excited about my interviews and scholarly research. I see patterns developing in what I study, and as a researcher, that excites me. In terms of “processing” India and making sense of my time here, I am not so sure that I have much of a clue. Over the past month, I travelled within India: first a trip to nearby Pondicherry to see Aparna! Then to Bangalore to meet friends for New Years’, then to Bombay and finally to Delhi.
My time in Delhi was quite amazing. I’ve been to the city a few times, all in 2011. I was there during the hottest time of the summer. I remember sitting on a pavement stone at the Red Fort, drinking the last drops of water from a Bisleri bottle, and wishing myself away from the scorching heat.
This time around, I landed in the smoggy winter, grateful for my North Face jacket,but also feeling left out when I saw local aunties rocking the sweater over a Salwar-Kameez look. People exchanged quips about how Delhi was experiencing the lowest temperatures of the winter. It felt like a pleasant Fall day in Toronto or Philadelphia, and I was happy.
I stayed at the Habitat Centre in Delhi, and spent some amazing time with Aparna, Nathalie (currently a Fulbright ETA in Kolkata), Kristie (working for LEAP Skills in Delhi) and of course Alex Polyak (Fulbright Researcher in Delhi, and the casting director for a play that I directed at Penn).
In Delhi, I was interviewed by Aparna and a formidable looking film crew for a CASI video; we were invited to the homes of Patty Dhar, Penn Alumna, for an Alumni Mixer event. In defiance of a typical Penn stereotype, I never became a good networker, and so, it took a lot of my willpower to not sit at the couch eating guacamole and chips. When I did get off that couch and converse though, I met some very interesting people and heard some great stories. The alumni community in Delhi seems very vibrant and I keenly miss that in Chennai.
During my three days in the city, I also tasted copious amounts of tea in a wonderful tea shop that Alex took me to (with frequent visits to the loo to relieve my full bladder). I met up with some theatre friends of mine, and explored Delhi Haat. I got late night kebabs at a stall with Aparna, drank beer and ate goat cheese ice cream at alumnus Anant Ahuja’s family owned clothing store Bhane. On my last day, I spent some time at Khan Market, buying books about English theatre, and then explored the Afghan quarter with Alex, ending our outing with a wonderful meal at an Afghan restaurant.
Delhi was good for me. The conversations with the other former CASI interns helped me situate my emotions and feelings within my experience. Even though I grew up in the Indian subcontinent, I had a very different experience to how I live now. I grew up in a small city in Sri Lanka, in a middle class family that worried about money. And yet, I lived in a big house with a sprawling garden, a father who was ever obliging to take me to my various social events and extracurricular activities. I was immersed in a society by merely being born into it. As much as that society felt small and stifling at times, I never questioned that I was a part of it.
In Chennai, where I have lived for the past four months, life is just different. It is not comparable to my life in Toronto, Philly or Sri Lanka. And it is, to an extent, defined by the fact that I didn’t grow up in this city. I have extended family that I am close to, but the journey of feeling like you are a part of something is a very individual and personal journey. Moving from A to B is sometimes a mental challenge. I wanted to live like a local and take the bus, but whenever I have tried to do that, I’ve found myself exhausted. Chennai is hot; getting to the bus stop is difficult because there are few traffic lights with pedestrian crossings; buses during rush hour can be extremely crowded and suffocating. This makes me feel like an overprivileged human, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t change myself overnight and I need to be a bit more patient with myself.
Of all the major Indian metropoles that I have visited, I find Chennai to be the most insular. It has been easier for me to connect with like minded people in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi, either through the alumni community, or by reaching out to theatre companies and theatre practitioners. I know kindred spirits exist in Chennai, but I don’t know where they are, and what the public spaces for community building are. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge that life in Chennai has been difficult for me, probably because I thought it would be an admission of my inability to settle in faster, but it’s actually been a relieving realization.
I had an insightful conversation with Alex about energy. The amount of energy (mental and physical) that one dispenses on small, seemingly innocuous tasks in India, can be mind boggling. Receiving an Amazon package, getting an electrician to fix something in your home – these tasks take a large amount of time, disproportionate to their importance in our lives. Alex and I both agreed that probably the best reaction is to laugh about it, because it is funny in a rather absurd way when you wait five hours for an electrician to only discover that he hasn’t brought the correct tools with him.