Tag Archives: India

An Indian but a foreigner or is it the other way around?

Into our fifth month in this Indian sejour and I think the novelty might finally be wearing away. We had applied for the OCI or otherwise called the Overseas Indian Citizenship which would allow me to stay in India without needing a visa. All the required paperwork was filed in the FRO, Foreign Registrar’s Office in Mumbai. I was told nothing further was needed from me. Then the calls started to come. A constable from the local office in Pune called every few days, ” I need to come and verify your house address.” He would say. “I will come today,” he would say and then not turn up till he did this evening- unannounced. I was feeding the children dinner and stayed away while my husband met him.

I could hear his loud voice through the concrete walls. After a half hour he left. He had given my husband a long list of more documents he wanted and had said he would return. My husband offered to go to his office. He insisted he would return. While showing his badge, he showed my husband his wallet full of thousand rupee notes. Asking for a bribe is punishable by law in India. I see it on road corners every day. Police in dusty brown and white uniforms stopping hapless motorcyclists, the furtive exchanges in return for freedom. And even though every single document he requested to see today were all already shown, verified and given to the main office in Mumbai, the officer today wanted those and more. Documents like the C Form which all foreigners must have but which we were told on arrival at the police station that we did not need because my husband had a PIO card, a Person of Indian Origin card. He insisted today we needed it. He wants my birth certificate even though I am an American Citizen and was born in Iran. He wants bank statements. While our rental leases and utilities bills proved our residence, apparently these were not enough. He has promised to return.

I feel a dejection in my heart. So much pride, so much nostalgia, so much joy to be able to return to one’s country after more than a decade on foreign lands. And today I feel I have been wishful and whimsical for that which does not exist- India, my motherland. What rights do I have to claim residency in a country I am more bound by my ancestors, language and skin color than anything else? Does it matter that I am more alive here than I have been  in a long time? Does it matter that my tongue revels in the other languages I can now speak freely? That my body thrills in clothes I shy away from wearing in America out of an abhorrence towards being stared at? I told my husband I would like to leave. Maybe not to return to America. Now a foreigner in so many uncountable ways in India, perhaps other shores shall always beckon till the whole world can symbolically become home?


India is becoming America. Imagine the squiggly border lines turning and twisting. No, imagine its spirit shape shifting to reach out and become another country. Every day, little things that I turned my nose up at in America turns up to taunt and mock me here. “Doors are always open in India,”  I used to tell Tom when we would go for our walks in Berkeley and Kensington. I would count the closed doors as idle past-time. There, no one sitting on their porches, no grand-parents playing with children, no friendly neighbors stopping to say hi and catch up on gossip and news and impromptu discussions over chai, no faces at all there actually on those walks, solitariness amidst rows of houses, surreal amidst fogs and mists rising from the bay. Plenty of faces here on the roads, plenty of impromptu tete a tetes over chai, but now no open doors, not at least where I live, an upscale neighborhood with bungalows and security guards. Doors decorated with artificial garlands of marigolds, myriad colored chains with images of deities and inscriptions hanging around wooden frames and sometimes the deities themselves lording over from atop and center of the closed doors; all shimmering and faded in the dust and smoke from cars and burning garbage.

A Birthday. It took me a while in America to get used to the concept that siblings were often not invited. “What? Why? Splutter. Mean. Rotten. Inhospitable.”  I never bit my words then, and now I have to unfortunately swallow them. ” S.. would like to have this birthday only among her friends,” wrote a mom in one of my daughter’s classes in reply to my husband’s question if we could bring her siblings, especially as this event was particularly far from our house. But, but… this is not supposed to happen in India. Athiti devo Bhavo, the guest is God, even India tourism uses the line now to entice foreign visitors who have presumably never been treated as a God. This is how we do it in the West, we do not accommodate beyond our perceived limits. This is how we used to do it in India, no one is turned away. Apparently not any more.

What do I do now with this new India, in this new India? One can never run away. To belong no where is the plight of the castaway who left child-hood homes, got lost in waters and stranded then in new lands, islands with unknown names, strange inhabitants, customs and habits, continents you try to call home, lands where you even build a habitat, where you pretend to belong until the pretension seeps your life force out slowly, gently, surely through your ears, through your nostrils, through your toes and the tips of your fingers until finally through your heart, you can feel life and love gently seeping out like… death and that is when you know you must leave. This happened in America for me. Such curiosity now for India, this land that was mine and now no more, for this country so old, so new, for myself who belonged and now perhaps no more?

Revisiting myself

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?

McDonaldsThe 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.


Three girls

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.