A couple of days ago, I slept the night on the living room sofa bed. I woke up in the morning, and, through the haze, before I wore my glasses, I saw what looked like a mouse. Indeed it was a mouse. A dead mouse. I stared at it in horror and then looked around me at the house. How had he come in? From where? Was he seeking shelter when he knew he was going to die? Had he been poisoned? Is this how this little series of bungalows in this gated community kept itself so clean? My husband picked it up in a tissue and put him at the base of a plant outside. In India, people believe strongly in signs. Don’t sneeze on your way out, do not eat eggs when you are about to write an exam, that bat that hangs outside your window on a tree, that black cat, that girl who talks too much or laughs too much, that dead mouse in the house… For the fearful, for the superstitious- life, the decisions made, the steps taken or not taken are guided and formed by the signs. That dead mouse, it came to my house to die two days ago. This evening before I sleep I mourn him.
Mumbai was a city I secretly feared. I grew up in a small town. Mumbai, previously known as Bombay, was big, scary and glamorous; in my mind it was a city for mobsters and film stars and slums and crowded trains. I have never been to New York. My impressions of it are the same as those I have held of Mumbai.
We drove this week from Pune to Mumbai. I wondered what it was my children saw as I looked around me at this city. Mumbai has withstood many acts of terrorism. One against the very hotel in which we had booked a room. The view from our room was that of the Gateway of India, of a sea through which conquerors and traders had reached this country. Police security is visible everywhere- outside monuments, temples, malls, by the side of the beach. What I see is the common man who lives, strives, loves, works just as in any other place in the world, just perhaps the effort and strain a little harder.
I go for walking tours, for bicycle tours. Sometimes I go with Tom, sometimes with the children and sometimes I am alone. It is ironic that it is so easy to be alone here and yet not to feel lonely. I visit a church and let the deep silence seep into my bones, I stand in silence outside the first synagogue of the city and perhaps in this country, I enter a temple with a special queue for non resident Indians. I sit by the Arabian sea listening to Sufi singers at the tomb of a famous Muslim saint. It rains almost all the time. The mud, the dirt, the human and animal excreta are washed away and then accumulate again.
I meet a fellow writer who shares my outlook on the challenges of a woman’s life seeking her place in the world. She understands what I say and what I leave unsaid. I go to the house of a Parsi lady, ninety three years old. She makes me feel as though I have known her my whole life. Her hospitality is simultaneously one of this world and one of graceful times left behind. She speaks simply, she speaks without guile. I go to the house of another fellow writer for dinner. She has read my work and she offers words of support, and again that ear and a heart that understands what I say and leave unsaid. I find in these women traces of myself. I find in them a circle that pulls me into their midst without judgement or reservation.
America and the home I have made for more than a decade is half way across the world. What will we find here? The pilgrimages to homes and places of worship bring with it a melody to the solitudes and work of a woman. In Mumbai as in India, I find I am a stranger and yet at home.
I am sitting in Kitab Khana in Mumbai, one of the rare remaining bookstores that does not belong to a giant chain. It feels like a heritage site- heavy wooden furniture, iron wrought beams, statues and art on the walls. I am sitting on one of the leather couches, legs folded under me and for a little while I let my fatigue overwhelm me. As parents of young children, it is a luxury to allow yourself to be tired and just stop to rest.
A young lady, moderately pregnant, sat down on a chair near me. She wore diamonds in her ears and on her fingers and a big bag with the name of a famous brand printed on it. She ran her household from the bookstore. Chinese chicken fried rice and vegetable manchurian for lunch and paneer for dinner for her husband, light bulbs for the bathroom and a scheduled time for a driver to pick her up from the store. She did this all while leafing through Cosmopolitan and Vogue.
An old man was seated to my other side. He had been reading a big thickish book. He looked up at me and our eyes met. “Today, not many people read books.” he said. He wore old fashioned horn rimmed glasses, his shirt and pants neatly pressed; he carried on him, in the neat parting of hair, in the slight stoop of his shoulders, an air of faded dignity.
“We bring our children to libraries and book stores whenever we can.” I told him. “Good, good,” he said and then looking at the girls, he continued,”They are your assets.” “I hope they will be their own assets.” I quipped.
He smiled and pointed to his book, “So many great lives..” I peeked at the cover. Sugar in Milk, Eminent Parsis. “Are you Parsi?” I asked. “Yes.” he replied and for a while he seemed lost, gazing into space. “You miss the old days?” I asked. “Yes,” he said “Look outside, look at those cars. Where are they going to go? Where are they going to park? The young today are carefree, they do not think for themselves or for the world they live in.” He got up slowly, tucked an umbrella and a newspaper under his arm and with a slight nod of his head to me, took his leave. I watched him walk out into the Mumbai rains and hoped he headed to a warm home.
Bookstores can be resting places, they can be meeting places. By their very nature, a refuge at all stages of life. I hope they will still be around when I grow old. My daughter comes and asks me for a book on Vishnu, the Hindu deity. She is wearing a pair of shorts and an Indian tunic. “I am American inside and out.” she often tells me of herself. “Maybe, not so much.”I think to myself and smile as I get up to help her find her book.
The trains are busy in Mumbai. Driving by one of the stations, I stopped to watch them pass by, criss crossing slowly through the tracks like the lazy meanderings of lovers on a Sunday afternoon. I was standing and watching them when she called out to me. She was sitting on the side walk, watching the trains too. “Madam, madam take a picture of me too please,” she said in perfect English. “Ok,” I replied and knelt down on the ground.
Then she started to laugh and changed her poses a few times as I clicked. I was turning to leave when she called out to me again. “Can I talk to you please Madam?” “Only if you are not asking me for money,” I replied. “I am not,” she said as she slowly got up and walked to me, “Not money, just a can of milk powder for my child.” “Hmm. ok,” I replied, “Where do we go for it?” She pointed vaguely to a side and said there was a medical store that way. I beckoned to her to walk with me but she said she would like to go in the car. “See, I have a limp.” Off we went. Outside the medical store, she pointed to the milk tins she wanted- the number 2 Lactogen. She held them close to her and turned to me and said, “You are a queen.” “I am nothing or we are all queens,” I murmured embarrassed before taking my leave.
In India where Karma is the real ruler, the queen, the arbitrary decider of our joys and sufferings, life is almost easily accepted and explained. For both of us, this was a debt I owed from a past life.
What does happen when you get used to living in a bubble? I am not a queen and yet my life is set up as one and like the prince who became Buddha, sometimes I wonder what lies outside my palace walls. We went to the mall yesterday. The other choice was climbing the hill near the house that leads to a temple or horse back riding. Both options seemed fraught with difficulties and possible dangers. The sun was uncharacteristically out and it was hot. I worried about the children hiking in the sun. For the horse back riding, I worried about the children not having close toed shoes. Malls are safe and enclosed. Of course there could be a terrorist attack but how much could one live in fear?
The lady at the information desk pointed out to a children’s play area two stories above us, “Take the ascalator two times. “she said. She pointed out the escalators behind us which was lined with people trying to get on or off. I liked the sound of “ascaltors” and repeated it to myself a few times. Everyone in Pune was in the mall especially those who did not know what to do with themselves. A boy cried in fear as his parents tried to get him to get up on one of the escalators. I imagined them promising him earlier in the day or the week, a visit to the mall if he behaved himself well or passed a particular exam. I imagined him traumatized for ever after this visit. Would he ever believe in the promises his parents made?
The McDonalds was crowded. They had rides, water balloons and bungee jumping. At a McDonalds? How come all American things are so much nicer in India? Whether the Marriott or Dunkin Donuts, whether McDonalds or Forever Twenty One; places I didn’t much care for back home here express themselves in all their aspirational glory. “Wait a second”I thought.”Maybe that’s true for me too?” Chastened at my insight, I determined not to look down my nose at anything especially not at the mall.
I imagine myself now telling visiting friends especially those coming from outside India, “Come to the mall if you want to see India, come and see the country for what it was, and what it is, jostle side by side for space and expression in this modern market place. Come and meet me when you are here because I am at that juncture too.” Hopefully I will have the courage to look on the other side of these castle walls some day. The girls would really like to go horse back riding and I would like to be enlightened.
The car accident in Berkeley happened the first day I moved there. I had not yet slept a night in the house I was going to share with two other girls. Tom had spent the day painting the room for me. I liked bright colors and we had chosen a rusted orange for a wall. I came home after a mile walk from the bart station. I remember humming a song along the way. I remember watching my shadow. I remember the black backpack I carried. I put the bag down when I entered the apartment and smiled. Tom was listening to Bollywood music on my cd player. The room smelled of fresh paint. The mattress we had bought at Ikea on the ground. He offered to drop me to yoga class before heading out to a Buddhist class he was taking. We hadn’t moved in together yet. It was just a little over a month ago that we had met. I wanted to bicycle to yoga but my tires were flat. I changed and we left the house and turned a corner and in that moment as I turned to look at him, we were hit. I remember thinking as the sound of metal on metal crushed my breath out, ” I hope he is not hurt.”
Why do I remember that evening, this evening here in Pune? The children are playing after a pizza dinner and Tom is in a meeting with India. Every day that we are here, I am over taken by a surge of emotions and thoughts that I struggle to arrange and give voice to. It is but natural for me to turn my gaze backwards at America and the life we led. The contradictions in India are apparent and in my face. The contradictions in America more subtle and harder to decipher. On one hand is a country of immense wealth and yet getting medical care even with a health insurance is a challenge. I remember the day after the accident when Tom took me to the hospital and the numerous forms we had to fill, the questions we had to answer. I was not insured.The care in the hospital was perfunctory and for months afterwards, we struggled to find care. In many doctor’s offices, you will not get an appointment without a health insurance. This is in what is considered one of the most advanced countries in the world. Here, in India, we get medical care more easily. No doctor will ever refuse to see you. It is against the grain of this country and yet no system is yet in place for traffic to make way for desperate ambulances.
“How do you like it here?” I am often asked. I do not have a clear answer- yet.
Every morning I wake up to the rains. It is green outside my patio doors and beyond that are high rise apartment buildings in every direction but one. Builders are working hard and quick to rectify that lapse. Pune is green. Beneath, beside and under all the upcoming high rise buildings are patches and sometimes stretches of greenery. This is what differentiates this city from other Indian towns. As a hub for Information Technology, it has money, as is visible in the cars on the road, the numerous malls and the ubiquitous high rise apartments with names such as Galaxy and Paradise. People I have met are more laid back, and life is comfortable here due to the availability of jobs, the gentle weather and a landscape that is flecked by hills, lakes and open spaces- still.
As I have written previously in other pieces, author Amit Chaudhuri, my writing instructor at the UEA workshop has started a campaign to preserve the fading architecture of Kolkata. The architectural history of a city being replaced by the monotony of modern high rises. If you have not signed the petition, please consider doing so, for the sake of beauty, if not for the unique nature of a time in Kolkata as recorded and witnessed by the architecture under seige- www.avaaz.org/
In the month that we have been in India, I have been watching his movement gather momentum. At the very least what it is doing is waking us up to the onslaught of all that is cement and concrete, banal and uniform- a modernity that around the country is gradually edging out India’s beautiful. The heritage of architecture- a metaphor. As I look around me at Pune, at the possibilities of beauty, its natural landscape, alive but gradually getting buried under blocks of cement, I think of Amit Chaudhuri because I wonder whether the city of Pune will need a writer with the zeal of an environmentalist to save it.
On the day after the former president of India, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam passed away, I lifted my pen, as I must every day. Thirteen years ago, when I got married for the first time and was ready to go to America, my mother’s professor- a freedom fighter who had been beaten up by the British and jailed several times had asked me sadly, ” For whom did we fight? What will happen if the future generations of this country, the educated citizens leave India? How can this country prosper?” I remember holding his hand, I remember looking into his eyes and I remember wondering, how many men like him remained in India? My mother’s professor, Kapila Chatterjee passed away ten years ago. Yesterday we lost A PJ Abdul Kalam, a man who once said about himself that he was made completely in India, a man who was proud of his Indianness. He died doing what he loved most- teaching.
Somewhere on the other side of this world, in a storage container in America I have his books. Ian Jack who was my writing instructor at the UEA writing workshop, once told me that he believed people bought more books than they actually read. He was right. Today, I will go buy again “Ignited Minds” by Kalam and finally read it.
Sometimes I feel we are living in a bubble. For the well to do in India, everything is taken care of. Doors are opened for you, rooms are cleaned, food appears on the table- almost magically. You are aware that outside this realm there are people who go hungry but you avert your eyes when they knock on the windows of your car, hoping fervently or feebly as may be your mood, that they will go away. The women who come to work in the house, tell me about their lives sometimes, about open sewers or husbands and sons who do not work, leaving the burden of running the house on them. I listen but do not want to listen too much. I have been instructed by neighbors and friends that “they” can sometimes make up these stories to gather sympathy. I think though that no matter whether these stories are fabricated or not, their lives must resemble their stories.
I ate Pani Puri from a road side vendor two days ago. I had stepped out of the car into the monsoon rains to buy decorations for the house. It was the littlest one’s birthday. Outside that store, a man stood next to his cart selling what I consider one of the most delicious North Indian snacks ever. Fried, puffed balls of wheat stuffed with beans and mashed potatoes which you dip in sweet and spicy tamarind water. You open your mouth as wide as you can and you pop one in, letting all the flavors wash together in a deliciousness that must be eaten to be understood. In Kolkata, during the UEA writing workshop, I desisted from eating with the others on such outings because I was aware that coming from abroad, such a venture could only lead to a regrettable gastronomical disaster.
What prompted me to eat this now? I think it was out of fatigue or boredom of living in the bubble. Fifteen years ago when I did a graduate program in Pondicherry, my classmates and I would head out after classes to forage for food and the food vendor outside the university was our favorite haunt. Maybe it was nostalgia? Maybe it was a test. If it was a reality check, I failed miserably. I spent most of that night and yesterday drinking massive amount of electrolytes and in misery. My stomach was in a turmoil and I could almost hear it asking me in a state of disbelief, ” WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”
“What were you thinking?” the four year old’s birthday gathering asked me too. I had no fitting reply other than “I like pani puri?” muttered feebly. “No one, not even us who have lived here our whole lives would eat pani puri off a road side vendor especially in the monsoons.” they all said. “Sniff” is what I said in response. Pani means water. “Imagine the tamarind water made of rain water, tap water and…” here they would trail off and I sniffed some more.
What I did not tell anyone is that I was almost glad it happened. I needed to step out of my bubble, it will just have to be a little more informed here on. The way to experience a country, the way to perhaps even live cannot be in a bubble. By the way, that pani puri was the best I have eaten- ever.
Our three girls fly around us like sparks of fire. In India, we are often met with questioning and very pitying looks. Three girls? No one would like to exchange places with us here. The reactions vary from open concern, “Three girls? How will you get them married?” to covertly concerned, “Three girls? It must be hard to plan for that no?” to the more genteel comments such as, ” Three girls? How lovely to have daughters.” or the most outrageous of them all, ” Shouldn’t you try again? Maybe this time it will be a boy?”
The male child in India is a prized possession. Traditionally, the upholder of the family name, the care taker of parents in old age, the one who has to light the funeral pyre of his parents, the one who shall bring in a bride with a hefty dowry. A win-win social set up if ever there was any. And so it would have continued if it was not that somehow, somewhere girls started to get educated, dowries became an outdated proposition (except in some very interestingly backwardly forward states and communities), and the tradition of sons who lived with their parents faded. Women friends of mine take equal — if not in many cases more care of their aging parents compared to their male siblings, and most of my girl friends are as educated as any man I know.
Yet, real emancipation in India for women is still an arduous road, a struggle fraught with difficulties and often very serious dangers. In recent times India came under international notice for the rape of a girl in a moving bus in Delhi. There were nation wide protests, change was imminent, reform was promised and proclaimed. In India where the name of a rape victim is still not legally allowed to be revealed, she was called India’s daughter. Such irony in the moniker. But change didn’t happen. How can it in a country where the birth of a male child is largely more celebrated than that of a girl child?
Rapes, female infanticide, sexual harassment and in certain places even child marriage are a part of the darker fabric of this nation that is simultaneously dashing head first towards a modernity it is not prepared for. Look up Uber and the sexual harassment cases in India for just one example of this. My friend and writer Sayantan Ghosh recently published a piece about how a popular singer has glamorized rape, sexual harassment and the general state of women subjugated to the male gaze in his very very popular songs. That there have been no protests or outrage against songs that glamorize humiliations of a girl, is in itself a discouraging sign of how things still stand here-
Freedom for women, women’s rights — such glory, such glamor in these words — but even in a country like America, women are infamously paid less for the same jobs done by their male counterparts. Yet, I must acknowledge that as a woman I have experienced the greatest freedoms in my life, in America. Whether a woman wears a pair of shorts or a bikini, in America NO ONE will ever ever say that she deserved to be raped or harassed, or that she was asking for it because her revealing curves were justifiable temptations for a man. Such indignity, such shame to have to live under these social conditions, where politicians, law makers and even the police can blame a woman for her own abuse.
And yet, I have come here to India. I have brought with me my American husband, our three girls. I have loved this country where I have called as a brother every man I have not dated, wanted to date or marry, where we still touch the feet of our elders with respect, where a doctor will see you without first taking payment from you or even making sure you can. My country of origin, how your heart must bleed at the injustices against its women. Swami Vivekananda said, “The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women and it is impossible to get back India’s lost pride and honor unless they try to better the condition of women.” So, as I stop to hail that Uber today, even as I love it that I can buy Kellogg’s cornflakes or shop at Sephora or go for a drink with a friend, I know that there is still a long way to go till I will not be an object of pity because I am the mother of three girls.