I sat on the crowded, cement bleachers watching school children rush down to the street in their wrinkled, white and navy blue uniforms. Old speakers blared grainy-quality bhangra and Bollywood music as dozens of girls formed smaller circles with their friends, their shoulders bouncing up and down while their hands circled the air above them. Indian soldiers stood by watching, keeping the boys in the bleachers to form their own lines of friends, making their best effort to show off their dancing skills in the crowded seating area. Keeping the boys separate from the girls was apparently the easiest way to assume nothing too scandalous—or dangerous—happened.After watching for a few minutes, I started to let my wander, watching some construction workers repairing the bleachers across the road. One of the worker’s toddler ran back and forth on one of the rows, keeping himself occupied while his father made money for their dinner.
Suddenly, there was a roar from the crowd, and I looked back down to the street. A few white tourists—again, only females—had joined the dancing students, causing excitement for the local Indians. The crowd cheered and clapped while school girls quickly brought the women into their circles, teaching them moves from the most recent Bollywood film. Pre-teen girls fought over the white women, and I watched as one of the tourists stepped back to pull out her iPhone and take a video of her friends with the school girls, then turning around to film the crowd cheering them on. I wondered how she would caption it when she shared it on social media.
I lifted my eyes again, first to the right, where the Indian flag flew in the wind above a portrait of Gandhi, and then to the left where the Pakistani flag flew above a portrait of Nehru. In between stood the metal gate, separating two pieces of land which used to be one. I looked down at the ground where I sat—at the breaking point of Punjab—between portraits of the two men who split an entire people into two.
After a delicious lunch at a Himalayan restaurant, I walked through the old architecture along the water in Hauz Khas with a friend from Michigan. She, Indian-American like me, had moved to Delhi after undergrad, and we were spending the afternoon catching up.
We make our way through holes and stairwells, jumping off ledges where a step or two have broken from stone to rubble. A few passerby hear bits of our American English and glance at us, but, after seeing our faces and the color of our skin, most assume their ears have played a trick on them, and they continue talking with their own friends.
My friend talks about living in India and passing as local, I talk about traveling through and passing as local, even though I know less about India than the ex-pats living here. We make our way back to the parking lot where we will go our separate ways. As we walk towards the exit, a group of three Indian boys almost runs into us, as two of the boys hold back one of their friends who seems to be running after something.
My friend and I follow his gaze and see a white girl, walking away, not realizing what is happening behind her. The boys laugh and shove each other playfully and my friend and I share a knowing glance, barely leaving a pause in our conversation as we continue walking.
“Aap kahaan se hain?”
Where are you from?
Sometimes I say Punjab, sometimes Delhi, sometimes I say both. Wherever I am, I tend to say somewhere besides there. But, for the most part, I’ve stopped saying America.
If I did, their faces would scrunch up with confusion, and I know they would want to ask the never-ending follow-up: No, where are you really from? Even in India, it seems I can’t escape this question.
When describing someone who has come to visit, or who is from another place, Punjabis will describe said person as “baahro(n) aaieaa,” or from “the outside.” In America, I am also often told that I am an outsider. White tourists in India look at me as if I am infringing on their perfectly manicured vacation and white Americans want me to leave “their” country.
So, although I feel a twinge of guilt each time I lie about where I’m from, how else can I describe everything that happened and continues to happen in the dash between Indian and American? How do I quickly explain that my dad came alone for better educational opportunities and my mom fled from government corruption and genocide? How do I explain in a few sentences that, even with my thick midwestern accent and American passport, I still struggle to find my identity in a nation I call home? How do I summarize that my parents fought battles I cannot even fathom so that I could one day travel the world on someone else’s dollar?
“Ham Dilli see rahte hoo(n).”
“Mai Punjab tho(n) hai.”
I’m from Delhi, I’m from Punjab.
At least here I am.
A Nepali man in Goa makes a circling motion around his head, then signals to mine and asks me, “You do this every day? In America, too?”
I realize that all men, whether in India and America, ask the same questions.
India may have gained her democratic freedom in 1947, but the minds of the people are still trapped in socially constructed ideologies from the West and fallout from the politics of more than one hundred years of British colonization.
Essentially every Indian I talked to—from a rich business man to a humble rickshaw driver—admitted that India’s government is as corrupt as it gets, despite boasting “the world’s largest democracy.” Yet, it is always in a matter-of-fact tone, as if reporting the weather. Apparently it is something that no one can change, as India has been ensnared in generations of bribery and family squabbles and a never-ending chase to please the Western nations that ruined it.
One of my favorite books I read in undergrad, perhaps for biased reasons, was Salman Rushdie’sMidnight’s Children. Reading it was one of the first times that I felt any sort of nostalgia for India as a nation, or motherland, and when I started to gain an understanding of the meaning of the dash between my two intertwined ethnicities:
“Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I”, everyone of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.”
In remembering this quote, I found some peace for my confusion, for why I actually feel at home in a nation that has caused so much pain for my community. Why, as soon as I landed, it felt like 16 years had passed in the blink of an eye. Even in a country whose government would blame me for my own murder, because I decided to be a Sikh, or my own rape, because I was stupid enough to be born a woman. Even here, I for some reason feel like I belong.
Despite all of its wrongdoing and injustice, India has reminded me that I am part of a larger world and a history that started before me and will continue after me. Nations will be born whose names I will never know and other nations will disappear before my eyes, just like my own Punjab has. But my duty is to remember that I am part of this, as we are all part of this world. And it is all of our words and actions together that will create a history for future generations, from which they can create their own version of the world.
For more information on how you can receive $20,000 to travel the world for 8 months as a Bonderman Fellow, visit the CGIS website.