My entire life I have been afraid to go to India. I grew up in a predominately white upper middle class town, and spent most of my childhood trying to avoid any mention of my heritage. I prayed that that my grandfather would stay in the car when he picked me up from school so that kids wouldn’t see his turban. I begged my mother to pack me sandwiches and chips instead of rotis and subzis. Metaphorically, I bleached my skin.
Thus, when my mom asked my sister and I if we wanted to go to India during our longer December breaks. I vehemently argued against it — blaming my inability to travel on school work instead of the obvious internalized racism and negative perceptions I had of India and Indians.
And perhaps some of my fears, regardless of why I had them, were not misplaced. My shoes are ruined from the mud, my skin is covered in mosquito bites, and my life is almost always at risk when I cross the street. My laundry has been rained on twice, my kitchen is crawling with cockroaches, and most of my time has been spent stuck in Bangalore traffic.
But despite all of these major and minor inconveniences, I have fallen fully and deeply in love with India.
In these past 9 weeks, I have seen brown people take up space like I have never and will never see in the West. People are unabashedly and unashamedly loud and bright and colorful. Their lives, their habits, their customs are vibrant, celebrated, and everywhere I look.
I went to Amritsar on a pilgrimage to visit the Golden Temple, which is an important religious temple for Sikhs. It was huge, gleaming white and gold, and bursting with opulent artistry. I had never seen such a large and unbelievably beautiful place of Sikh worship. And I had never seen so many men with turbans. Everywhere I turned to in India, I could always see a Sikh man wearing a turban. It reminded me of my grandfather, and all the times I had felt ashamed of being different, but it also made my heart swell with memories of him. Experiences I was so embarrassed by live and thrive in India with such vibrancy.
I didn’t have much of an Indian community in my hometown, so for me this is a completely different experience. I feel parts of my soul, parts that have long been locked away, no longer holding in their breaths to shrink themselves smaller. Instead they take deep, long breaths, taking up space just like the people I pass by in the street. Despite the air pollution, being in India has constantly felt like a breath of fresh air.
While I have been frustrated on this trip, it has been nothing compared to the sheer joy and carefreeness I feel everyday. My long black, curly hair, washed with Indian herbal shampoo, dances in the wind as I travel in auto rickshaws. My nose seeks the sweet, soft perfume of white jasmine flowers like the ones my mother keeps on our home’s stone porch. My steps are lighter because I no longer carry the weight of being Indian in predominantly white spaces.
And while obviously my comfort in India is mostly due to my privilege as an upper-class American, especially considering the power the US dollar has here, I know that my happiness is primarily spiritual, not material. A part of me has always felt restless, uneasy, and uncomfortable in the US, but when I landed in Delhi, despite the overwhelming sensory experience of India, I felt completely at peace.
In the US, sometimes Indian things just don’t fit right, or are somewhat off. The paneer I grew up eating and loving is actually a poor imitation of the paneer I have gorged on during my internship. Here in India is where her food, culture, and history thrive in a way that they are not allowed to in the West. Being here has allowed me to feel comfortable and secure in myself and my identity, something that I have struggled with my entire life.
The last Saturday I spent in Bangalore, I went with my fellow interns to get henna done on our hands. We went to a woman’s house and sat together on comfy leather chairs. As I excitedly watched them get their designs, I thought about how embarrassed I was that my mother had gotten a henna artist for a cultural celebration my elementary school in the second grade. How could I be ashamed of something so beautiful? It seemed ridiculous that I was ever not in love with the smell of henna on my hands – a combination of earth and herbs and warmth.
Typically, Indian women get henna during their wedding, since it’s meant to be a part of a celebration. As I sat on the chair and felt the cones pipe a cool paste on my hand, I realized that I was celebrating something: a homecoming.
And so when I look back at India, I probably will not remember the traffic, the piles of trash, or the dust. Instead I will look back at who I have been here. My skin is brown, my hair is thick, and my heart is full. My soul firmly rooted in culture, home, and family — a girl unafraid.