I was born in Mumbai, India, a city on an island. I was taken away from it before the language was set, before my skin was burnished, before these roads were navigable. My small feet dangled over the side of the wall that was built to keep me safe, skimming the murky surface with my toes.
Every subsequent trip, I was an asparagus, par-boiled and then dunked into an ice bath before the boiling water could really cook me. Blanched.
I came back to India at 22 for half-formed and ill-advised reasons. To anyone who asked, I said I was going back to collect the thoughts I had as a three-year old, chasing after the milkman and poking at touch-me-not leaves in my grandmother’s garden. I said I was going back to be confused, to be humiliated, to be an outsider looking in disguised as an insider looking out. I said I was going back to find answers to questions I hadn’t even formulated.
I’m getting to the truth of the matter now, two months in. I came to be cooked properly. India is my penance, my masochistic version of justice. I came to be groped in public spaces, to feel debased. To feel the violating gaze of auto rickshaw drivers, red spittle dribbling from their lips. I came to see poverty, to see the empty eyes of children, mirroring their empty bellies. I came to be told that I should get married. To feel the vice-like grip of society, squeezing my convictions out of me. To dress modestly. To feel resentful about it. I lacerated myself every time I listened to my new friends tell me that their parents disapproved of their choice of partner, not because the man was flawed, but because they had chosen him. Every time my grandmothers told me they had to fight hard and dirty for their jobs because being a woman automatically meant they were not enough. And a part of me couldn’t understand it. I punished myself for that as well. I came to feel a twist of guilt every time I sat, reading the English newspaper with tea, while a maid swept around my feet.
I came here to feel the black tendrils of love that stroke my heart every time I traverse the land on a train now. I came here to understand the pride and shame every Indian feels about her country in equal parts. I came here to be resented for what I am—someone who left. Someone who can only drink boiled water. Someone who doesn’t have to fear being gang-raped after seeing a 6 pm showing of Life of Pi. Someone who doesn’t have to fear twilight.
None of this will ever be enough. India is my half-formed and ill-advised penance for living a life of safety, education, love, and comfort. And just feeling guilt knowing that I have benefitted from this privilege will be penance for a lifetime.