In India Calling, Anand Giridharas painted a tepidly optimistic picture of what he describes as a complex process unfolding in India – a process of reinventing the self, a coming of modernity, and a deviation from traditional societal norms of family, marriage, and class. I deeply admire the way Giridharas transformed his astute observations from encounters with individuals and families in India into insightful and artistic observations with a broader relevance. Giridharas has catalytically provoked me to reflect on my own encounters with India on a more meaningful level.
Like Giridharas, I too grew up defining myself not by the blood in my veins but by the soil under my feet. I grew up in America as the product of a Minnesotan mother and an ex-pat Punjabi father. Throughout my life I have seen India through the looking glass of bi-annual trips back to my father’s hometown, Jalandhar, India, where my father’s six siblings and their families still reside. To me, India is being ushered through the chaos of the Delhi airport by relatives eager to serve us tea and biscuits even though it’s 2:30am. India is hastily weaving through the chaos of the tongas, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians and cars on the back of my cousin’s scooter. India is a never-ending stream of cousins to play with, all of who speak far more perfect and sing-songy version of English than I ever will. India is warmly being passed from one ‘Thaiji’ to the next ‘Chachiji’, accepting their warm embraces and enduring their cheek pinches.
My mother, a homegrown Minnesotan straight out of a Garrison Keillor story, has somehow comfortably embraced the Indian culture of my father. I can’t imagine what it would be like to carry a conversation with your mother-in-law through translating cue cards and generous hand gestures, or to experience the rich spices of Indian cuisine after growing up eating exactly one spice (salt). Did she too have to grasp my father a little tighter at the sight of the sleeping, blanketed bodies sprawled across the Delhi train station, like I did? Was she too taken aback by the beggars pulling an old crippled man in a rudimentary cart, waiting for the light to turn so that they can knock on the rolled-up air-conditioned car windows?
While I share Giridharas’ hopeful vision of an India that finally feels an “independence of the soul, not just of the nation,” I also share his hesitancy and caveats to this forward progress. As much as I see the strengths of India—its strong familial support system, its entrepreneurial spirit trickling all the way down to barefoot street vendors, and its rapid growth on the world economic stage—I also see a country full of paradoxes. It is paradoxical to me how my family can simultaneously so open-mindedly encourage all of their daughters to pursue careers, yet so traditionally insist that their daughter-in-laws do not. It is paradoxical to me how my aunts can show such compassion in their charitable endeavors in the outskirt slum areas, then how quickly that compassion dissipates when they return home and interact with their own household servants. It is paradoxical to me how despite a systemic lifting of the odds for all Indians that Giridharas describes, upward mobility rags-to-riches stories are still far more prevalent in Bollywood than in real life.
Giridharas heard India calling, and decided to answer. The question I ask myself is, if India calls me, will I answer?