The Cut and Paste of India


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Category: Travel 26 Jan 14

On the plane making my way home, I no longer want to write about India in a linear way. I want to write about the way she made me feel.  I’ve written many times about the 27 states and their many languages, about the 300 million and the growing middle classes, about the massive economic growth fed by the technological revolution.

But going to India is never about that. Nostalgia takes me there and brings me back. From the time I was a child, I learned always to lean this way and to navigate through an India of rigid classes and religions.

My nickname neutral— neither Hindu, like my father’s nor Muslim like my mother’s— “Dolly” was my flimsy passage to very different societies within India.  I learned early to cut and paste. To belong. To manoeuvre as every child of an army family does, to moving around India, each state, each landscape: from the Himalayas to the plains, a separate country.

“Where are you from?” they asked, often presuming—from my features, my English—Delhi.  Sometimes, I gave curious taxi drivers and women I got talking to in sari shops the long version.  The Hindu army officer father, the Muslim mother, the cities I grew up in: Guwahati, where the people look Chinese; Chandigarh, with tall strapping warrior-like turbanned Sikhs; Simla in the Himalayas, where the girls are as peachy-complexioned as the fruit grown there; Bangalore, with its complicated South Indian languages, silks, the dusky faces, inhabited by the most literate, the seat of technology, the brightest of India. The Bengalis, who produced the first Indian Nobel laureate ever in Rabindranath Tagore, may dispute this.

My mother, Zia, an only child, was born in a hotel in Bangalore owned by an Englishman quaintly named the Windsor Manor (that sort of thing happened in India then) but she is none of these, having descended from the conquering Khans of Afghanistan centuries ago. She was schooled partially in Pakistan. She has family in Bangalore, Bhopal and Hyderabad.

My father, a staunch Hindu, was born into a large academic family in the north, Aligarh.  After joining the military in the corps of engineers—army bases, frontiers, defending India against China—Pakistan became his home.

This trip, something changed.  After a long time, I went to India without my parents. For a grown-up woman I felt unnaturally bereft. I realised that each time I went with them I absorbed their memories, lived their nostalgia of the Great Gatsby, like army life they left behind when my father applied for jobs as an engineer abroad in the 70s. It was a choice between Australia and Tobago.

My parents have had an affectionate Indo-Pak banter going on for years. My father calls me up every time there’s a suicide bombing in Pakistan to see “what my cousins have done.”  My father finds the fundamentalism in Pakistan abhorrent, but typically, admires their beauty.

My mother, ironically—discreet, ladylike, correct, graceful, modest—is the least filled with nostalgia.  She’s absorbed her worlds. She never needs to go back anywhere. It was the sort of pragmatism it took to leave her community half a century back. She loves the West Indies, is grateful to the country that accepted her without judgment. When I ask her about things about her fantastical childhood as a child of Indian nobility, she dismisses it and says: “It’s all nonsense, darling.”

This trip I admitted finally that India is changed from my sepia memories. The world changed.  With my parents in Trinidad, I realised more than ever that to look for oneself in India is impossible. It’s like pulling water out of a bucket in an ocean only to pour it back, because that’s where it belongs.  India is what it is. When you are not looking for something, everything hits you in a kind of farcical way, like a madman randomly throwing out things from a very old house: a satellite dish in an alleyway with slum dwellers on a street with diamond shops; freshly-washed, brilliantly-coloured neat rows of washing; gated, leafy colonies of great red-brick colonial houses overlooking a 16th-century tomb and park that reminds me of Florence; seven lanes of highway going on forever, a winding road cut out of red stone hills; a sari shop as long and wide as a street; bells; the ubiquitous young white boys dressed like Jesus, looking dazed; exclusive old clubs where men play bridge in all male rooms and boys battle it out in billiards; a country preparing for republic day with forces from all over the country in rehearsal, each distinct as separate races.

A foreigner might see China, Nepal, Arab, Dravidian, Persian, Portuguese in all these faces that are somehow also completely Indian because of the way people carry themselves.  Indians have cannily transferred much touted virtues of humility and service into a gentle hustle.

I’ve seen foreigners respond to the handing over of room keys with both palms outstretched, with a big tip. No one can resist being treated like a king and Indians know this. For now, I’ve gleaned this. We are the sum of our own memories but also that of the people who’ve loved us our whole lives.

Next week: Hyderabad


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur