I’ve been in India for more than 9 months now. The Sobti Fellowship is an (approximately) 9 month long fellowship. Even though expressing astonishment about the rapid passage of time is an overdone activity, I am going to do just that. I cannot believe it’s been 9 months already. It certainly feels like less. This sentiment of disbelief is coupled with wonder – wonder that I’ve not just survived, but lived happily in India for almost a year.
When I moved to India from Canada last year, I was warned by family and friends. It wasn’t the most intelligent decision to make, they told me, especially for young people who are still starting their professional lives. I mostly ignored their cautionary tales about friends and relatives who moved to India and had a terrible experience. But I couldn’t ignore them entirely because I realized that the stakes were rather high. If India didn’t work out for me, where would I go? To Sri Lanka, the country of which I am a citizen, but where none of my immediate family exists? Back to Canada, where my mother and sister live, but where I’ve never felt at home because I’ve barely lived there? I also couldn’t imagine hauling all my worldly possessions on another transatlantic flight so soon after making a similar move in the opposite direction.
But sometimes, impulsiveness wins over and we do what we need to do. But there were moments, especially at the 5 and 6 month marks, when I felt absolutely displaced. Most of these moments happened when I saw or experienced a part of India that made me unhappy. Examples include: peeing in a very dirty public bathroom, arguing with a auto-rickshaw driver about the fare, listening to someone burp very loudly and with a lot of relish. Once, when I travelled to a village in Souther Tamil Nadu to interview a theatre group, I was invited to have lunch with them. We all trundled into the cafeteria of a local university where they were performing that night. This cafeteria is nothing like 1920s Commons. There was mutton curry on the menu that day, and as I walked in to the cafeteria, I noticed that students and teachers would suck on their bones and then put the bone in the middle of the table. If there was some part of their lunch that they didn’t want to eat, like a tomato or a curry leaf, they would put that in the middle too. When I sat at a table to have my own lunch, I couldn’t take my eyes off the discarded mutton bones and squashed tomatoes sitting in the centre where there could have been a vase of flowers.
That evening, hungry after not eating much at lunch, I messaged a good friend of mine and lamented about how I didn’t know what I was doing in India. I vented and whined and complained, struck by how much I didn’t feel like any place in the world was home to me. In North America, I’ve been told how much my accent sounds British. In India, people make fun of my American accented Tamil.
But then my friend reminded me of how rich my life has been since I moved to India. The Sobti Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to meet people from around the country. I’ve been able to travel to different parts of the country to realize just how vast and diverse India is. I have interviewed people whom I’ve heard about and watched in popular movies. I have travelled to some very beautiful places. I have heard stories about some very interesting people who are challenging patriarchy in the arts.
It is very natural to compare places to other places we have been in, just as we might compare a lover to a lover from our past. But sometimes, it really is a case of “oranges and apples” – there are certain experiences that we cannot compare to others. Our desire for certain experiences sometimes defies mainstream logic (the kind widely espoused by my relatives). But when it does start to make sense, it makes it all worth it.