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?
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.
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/calcutta
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.
I stood this evening and watched the life in the ten storied apartment that faces our hotel in Pune. Very few curtains were drawn and I wasn’t sure if I breached any etiquette by looking at their lives. The lady in the apartment directly opposite our room who cleaned her kitchen every night was there tonight too. I wondered who lived with her and why they never helped. Televisions were on in many rooms, couples sat on couches, in many houses fans whirring wearily from the ceilings. The monsoons are almost here in this city. I can feel the promise in the wind. The dampness in the air.
I am tired this evening. The logistics of settling us down here have been mind numbing. A friend who was in the writing workshop with me and has two published books to her name called up some friends she knew and I had some virtual hand holding. I needed it so I could hold my family’s hand. This was my country, I wanted so badly for them to love it the way I did and every day the logistics fray away at my optimism. This community of women friends is growing out largely from the UEA writing workshop in Kolkata and it is something I missed in my life in America. It seems that women here somehow have more time to support each other even if they hold full time jobs, write books or have children and families they care for. The landlord’s wife came to help me set up the television, find a cleaner and even arranged to have supplies sent over to the house, the head of HR in my husband’s company accompanied me to the market place so I could avoid the malls and buy kitchen utensils at cheaper prices, my writer- friend’s friend spent a lot of time on the phone with me to see in what ways she could help. And so as I stood this evening gazing out at the road in front of this hotel, I think back to this women and feel a moment of gratitude. I am a story teller and India is full of stories. For now though I must acknowledge that I am tired and must rest. Tomorrow we move into our house.