India Diary – Part One

A native knows the scene, right? Wrong.
I was born in India and have been a fairly regular visitor for the last thirty years. Earlier this year, when my university in Perth gave me a travel grant to go to India to finish researching the book I’m writing as part of my PhD studies, to say I whooped for joy would be an understatement. In this series of blog posts I will describe my experiences as a visitor in the country of my birth. I speak Hindi and Gujarati fluently, and I understand Marathi, Sindhi and Punjabi – a consequence of a childhood spent in homes where the parents of my friends spoke those languages. You’d think that would qualify me as a native.

Everywhere I went I was asked, ‘Where are you from?’ My responses usually went like this – ‘Madhya Pradesh,’ I said, ‘a little town no one’s heard of.’ My interrogators would repeat, ‘Yes, but where are you really from? Where is your homeland?’ I’d say, ‘Well, my parents are from Gujarat,’ and they would nod. ‘You’re not a Hindu, though? And where do you live now?’ ‘Australia,’ I’d say, ‘Perth.’ Finally a wide smile indicated they understood my hybridity. The conversation would lapse comfortably into Hindi or Marathi and they’d ask me what I thought of the new airport and did I think corruption was much worse now than it had ever been and did my children speak Hindi. Cab drivers helpfully pointed out landmarks – Taj Mahal Hotel, Gateway of India, Flora Fountain, CS Terminus, until I said gently I had lived in the city many years ago so there was no need to treat me as a tourist.

In the crumbling University, students were on a mid-term break, preparing for exams. The academics I spoke to were distracted by lack of resources, time, dust and stray dogs who wandered in and out of buildings. ‘I teach a paper on Australian culture,’ said one academic, in between sips of chai in the desolate canteen. She mentioned a few names, writers, poets, she thought I might be interested in, then rushed away, promising to meet with me again. She never did. After waiting a week, I gave up trying to meet her and went to the library, with its smell of cold concrete and decay, handed over my backpack to security and carried my laptop into the English section. I walked along the shelves, noting the elderly books, the dust, the haphazard nature of the collection. I spent the day there – browsing, reading, sneezing. I looked at the book I held – Song of India by Anees Jung and thought I heard the melody.

I took an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel room with its all-male staff and relatively quiet location. I wondered where all the women were. I didn’t see many women in the week at the hotel, despite an all-girls school next door and a park where podgy couples walked briskly in the evenings. I rang my sister who lived a four-hour train ride away and arranged to go and live with her while I contemplated the next step of my travels through India as an observer.   Image        Image             Image


20 responses to “India Diary – Part One

  1. Lovely – feel I was there with you… can’t wait to read more.


  2. Am dying to read Part 2 , even though I know what you did in the rest of your travels! It is so well written.


  3. This piece is full of sadness and yearning, Rashida. That you didn’t feel how you wanted to or expected to feel on returning ‘home’—you’re not a part of your home country, but not apart from it either. Your longing and love for India comes through in this piece. It must be so hard to return but not feel as if you’ve gone home.

    I’m so looking forward to the next excerpt in this series …


    • Thanks Louise. You’ve nailed it. In the last leg of my journey I was invited to present on ‘Home and Homeland’ at a university in the foothills of the Himalayas. And if it hadn’t been for this straddling-two-cultures experience, I wouldn’t have known what to say.


  4. Ah the strange doubling and dissolving and reforming of identity! You’ve captured it so well. Put me in mind of the following quote from Miriam Adeney: “You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart always will be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.”


  5. So interesting, Rashida. And the university sounds rather… rustic. I’m looking forward to the next instalment, too. (And I think I heard that whoop when the travel grant came through!)


  6. You know me Amanda 🙂


  7. Louise Helfgott

    What a bitter/sweet experience you’ve had. I love the way you capture this blend of emotions. Look forward to reading more.


  8. Dear Rashida, completely captivated…as I sit sipping my Australia version of Chai tea before beginning the day’s work. I would love to read more!


  9. Oh Rashida, I resonate so strongly with this! Well, not the India-specific details, but the experience of going “home” to find part of you is not home any longer, and home has become a strange familiar, a familiar stranger. At least that’s how it was for me – simultaneously a deep feeling of belonging whilst everyone treated me as a novelty. In your piece, I see how you were both at home but home was not entirely with you. It’s a bittersweet thing, and Liana’s quote is absolutely perfect!


    • Yes, Karen, this belonging and not-belonging, this yes-but feeling is something that is universal, I think, in these days when we all belong to more than one place. And I love the way you put it too – being at home and home not being with us xx


  10. So evocative Rashida…it is bittersweet. Homecoming & indefinable loss (Liana’s quote is great). I can feel the alienation in your words, smell the city (and the books!).Brought back some memories for me. I think we’ve all been waiting with bated breath for your writings on India…can’t wait for the next instalment. xxx


    • Thank you Kim. Writing about it is also a way of working through the experience, as you know so well. And it was different in each city, town, region. I hope the memories were nice ones xx


  11. Rashida u pen your thoughts so well!I only hope u keep coming back to your native place inspite of all your experiences!


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