Padmini Parthasarathy

West of East is still East of West.

CLOSE DISTANCE

A few weeks before I left New York, I found myself in a cab crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The skyline opened up before me, the familiar jagged teeth chomping at crisp autumn sky. I felt the city tug at my heart, evoke in me the moments I had shared with her, all the special people tucked away in her buildings. I remembered the promise she had held for me as an 18-year-old, freshly independent. The view reminded me of that one time I was on a descending plane when Manhattan unfolded for me, more clear and readable than a map. I could trace my first year dorm from Union Square, the long concave stretch of Central Park. I had chased sunrise from the Arabian Sea. I caught it on the Long Island Sound.

Last week, I ended up in a similar position with a different city. From a rooftop restaurant, I saw Mumbai sprawl, lights twinkling drunkenly. They winked at me, as if we were sharing a secret. Again, I felt that same swell in my chest that can only be described as love.

I feel this love sometimes when I walk the streets of these cities. It is a sense of belonging, a sense that I am possessed and that I possess.  But it happens less frequently than when the city is set at a distance. When I can take it all in at once. When New York is a whisper in the mouth of the Hudson River, when it is a cake on a pedestal that can be admired from a distance, it is easy to love. When Mumbai is something under me, when skyscrapers thrust upward as if they’re the exclamation point on PROGRESS!, it is easy to love. It is easy to love from distances. When all you have are pictures, smells, hour-long Skype conversations punctuating months without contact, it is easy to love.

The flaws fall away from our eyes. There is a reason why the Blue Marble, the picture that Apollo 17 astronauts snapped from their spaceship, is cherished as one of the most beautiful pictures of the Earth ever to be taken. The edges are smooth. The white swirls on the surface aren’t devastating cyclones, they’re God’s masterful brushstrokes. The Blue Marble doesn’t show famine or war. When the astronauts saw the Earth in the window, I can only imagine that they thought of the wicked sun coaxed to soften by our atmosphere, Thanksgiving, beaches, their babies. I am only guessing.

Tucked away, I am deafened by crows. I am blinded by sun. But pulled away, pulled back away from the rough edges of the corrugated tin that constitute the shanties, from garbage day in New York, from fights with my father and irritations with my friends, all the edges are smooth. All I can remember is love.

Worli Seaface at sunset

Worli Seaface at sunset

Boys posing on rocks

Boys posing on rocks

INDIA IS MY PENANCE

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.

AAM AADMI: THIRD PARTY POLITICS

The aam aadmi is the Indian everyman. He struggles to make ends meet. He dresses simply in nondescript short-sleeve button downs, sandals that have seen better days. He works hard to send his children to school. He uses a combination of public transport and his own two feet to transport himself to work and back. He is thrifty. He is as good as a corrupt society will allow him to be.

There is a new wave of populism thrashing against the never-ending beach of corruption. A beach that is littered with the remains of the fighter jet that exploded in mid-air because establishment politicians decided to line their pockets instead of invest in our air force. It is littered with corpses, wasted with hunger and thirst, battered and raped.

The results of state elections came streaming in today, in the papers, on television, on the Internet. Congress, the reigning party of India, came hat in hand to admit defeat. It has lost its footholds in five of its former strongholds in the north. Its most impressive defeat is in Delhi, a union territory that was formerly under its purview. Of the 70 legislative seats, it has only managed to cling to 8.

The Aam Aadmi Party coalesced a mere two years ago. Its chief concern originally was the passage of the Jan Lokpal bill, a piece of legislation designating an independent committee to oversee cases of administrative corruption and fast track them in the courts. The movement swelled to include the young and the poor, the marginalized, the despondent. Because despondence cannot be the permanent state of things in a democracy.

This electoral sweep (Literally.) is a victory for the common man. It is a reclamation of governance, a demand echoing from the corners of Delhi. A demand to be heard, respected and feared.

Seeing the Aam Aadmi party overtake Congress in Delhi has restored my faith—not only faith that progress is possible, but also my faith in other people to believe that change can happen today and that they can propel it. Faith that the aam aadmi can still believe in democracy, believe that he is in and of it, and can make the leap from faith to action. That he can use his own two feet to do more.

MUMBAI

When I was three, I would wrap my arms around the huge coconut tree in my grandmother’s garden, the limbless trunk nimble boys would scoot up to retrieve the fruit. It’s not there anymore. It was cut down because a neighbor complained that it was a menace to the car he insisted on parking under its shade. The touch-me-not, the unique little plant that shied away from my touch, closing its delicate leaves to my finger, is dead. The thick, hardy betel leaves to the left of the gate have been uprooted. Someone had told my grandmother they were unlucky. The side entrance to the garden, into what once was my grandparents’ bedroom has been bricked off. The room used to be pink; it is now white.

The middle room, that once connected to the first room, is still blue. The glass cabinets that held the troll dolls and toy cars I would play with, the Archie comics I would read, have been removed. The pink bathroom is now white. The pungent smell of Tiger Balm that my grandfather hated rarely lingers on my grandmother’s pillow anymore. The heavy velvet blankets are gathering dust. One is torn. The three stainless steel plates, designated for Sudha, Maya, and Vijay, sit in the cupboard, only used when they cross three continents and two oceans to reclaim them. There are pictures of all these things in a box covered in floral paper, tucked away in a cupboard in Connecticut.

The round glass table is still in the room that connects all the other rooms. I still feel short, the sharp glass cutting me horizontally at the chest as I read the morning paper.  The marble is still cool and pale under my feet. The crows are still sharp, murders circling Adarsh Nagar for scraps of food. The oblong field is still in the center of the complex, muddy in the monsoon season, dusty otherwise. The water tank, the one my grandfather lobbied and organized to have installed, the one that always looked like a giant cement turtle shell to me, still sleeps in the same corner of the colony.

The bhel walla still comes some evenings, with a giant wicker turban on his head filled with sweet and savory chutneys, boiled potatoes, onions, cilantro, lime. He still fashions cones of glossy magazine paper, still mixes the puffed rice with the chutneys, still concocts an impossible combination of flavors to balanced perfection. He still squeezes a bit of lime onto the bhel and finishes with a flurry of cilantro. He still shoves the parcel into my hands over the chain link fence. He is the third generation of bhel wallas the family has done business with.

The place is still standing. The home I saw before my eyes were open and seeing. And I am still in it, and I can see now.

 

 

 

 

 

QUESTIONS

I was sitting on the train from Chennai to Bangalore. The sun rose, a red bindi in the diffuse light. The train coiled itself around gentle hills. Farmland, lush green flowering trees, people, and villages all flashed in the window. The train stalled at one point. From my vantage point, I could see a boy washing clothes. He couldn’t have been more than 15. He was crouched behind a concrete building, near the side of the tracks with just a meager bucket of water and a bar of rough green soap. He would methodically lay out an article of clothing, dunk a smaller mug into his bucket, and douse the garment until it was wet enough to lather with soap. Then, he scrubbed his clothing against the rough stone floor, vigorously rubbing it back and forth with soap until it was clean. He would take water to it one more time to remove the suds and then wring out the excess water. The newly clean garment would be added to the sopping pile of clothes to be hung up on the line. I marveled at how quickly he moved, how hard he scrubbed, the fact that he was a teenage boy doing this. I thought about how much water a washing machine wastes, how efficiently he used the small bit of water spared for the task.

I imagined myself washing those clothes. Talking to that boy. What would we talk about? Did he go to school?

I feel like I’m circling around the “real” India. I’m in the right neighborhood, but I haven’t found the house. There is a notable distance between the average person on the street and me. My lack of language limits communication. I feel really frustrated by this. I feel as if I’m not in “real” India. Real India is anywhere but where I am.

I was at dinner with my cousin and several of his friends in Bangalore this weekend. They were discussing two friends of theirs who had recently stopped dating. I asked why.

Nitya, sitting to my right, said, “They’re from different communities, things are—”

Karan, to my left, cut her off. “Why are you talking to her like she’s a bloody foreigner? She’s Indian!”

I burst out laughing. It was the dilemma I’d been grappling with, perfectly manifested. I know how to cook a full South Indian meal, but I have some embarrassing gaps in knowledge. I can’t even name all the states of India (and there are far fewer than 50).

There’s one degree of separation between India and me, but I’m realizing that other Indians are grappling with this issue. Indo-Anglian authors (Indian authors who write in English) have been accused of not being as Indian as their counterparts who write in Hindi or Bengali or Tamil. And then there’s the impossible complication of the hundreds of dialects and landscapes that fit together like a puzzle to make India. Is it north or is it south? Is it sea or is it jungle? Is it blood or is it experience? The boy washing clothes near the train tracks is necessarily more Indian than me, right? Because he isn’t anything else? Because he knows how valuable water is?

ON MYTHOLOGIZING

As a writer, I think I have the tendency to mythologize my experiences. I want to provide vivid descriptions, exaggerate the smallest details and give them significance. In some sense, I’m trying to bridge a gap of understanding. I couch a lot of my explanations in my American upbringing.  I came to India assuming that the purpose of this blog was to explain a world that was very far away from my world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to describe this place and the events that have unfolded while I’ve been here. Some days are trivial. Sometimes I’m irritated by the fact that a mosquito got trapped under the net and bit me on the face while I slept. Sometimes I experience small, relatable pleasures like playing catch with my cousin or streaming Law & Order: SVU after a long day at work (holla, Palmetto Street ladies). And sometimes very uniquely Indian things happen, like that one time a buffalo winked at me (I swear it really happened), or when my co-workers and I share lunch, potluck style every day.

But blogs are curated. We spin our lives into myths because they’re more interesting or seem more rare when we do. I don’t think adventures are adventures 100% of the time. Neither are stories. They are cherry-picked facts, omitting the times we wait, the times we’re bored, the times when we’re surfing the web in our underwear. All of these things happen in Nungambakkam, just like they would happen in Brooklyn.

I’m constantly tempted to write the myth of my own life. But is it right to omit these banalities? I’ve always hated when westerners romanticize India. Some people really think that India is just one huge ashram. Incense, kush, yoga, and traffic. Where you go to “find yourself”. Yawn. How limiting. India is a country of Internet and scriptures, booze and chai, housecats and crows, violence and peace. Latent passion, anger, and hope are constantly at risk of erupting here, just like they are in every democracy.

Indians spin their own myth too, for different reasons. Poverty, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread corruption make it nearly impossible to live a fully invested life. Some things need to be written out of the story. Politicians hide behind Hinduism, saying that it’s inherently peaceful. How could they be embezzlers and assassins? They’re Hindu after all! It is easier to shroud the country in mysticism than to even begin to understand the infinite contradictions that present themselves here. But, as one famous American would remind us, we do things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Isn’t it our responsibility to try and understand?

India is not Through The Looking Glass. You won’t find the Red Queen. You won’t find Tweedledee and Tweedledum. You won’t find The Jabberwock. Instead you’ll find a maid trying to make ends meet to send her children to school. You’ll find a grandmother and her grandchildren. You’ll find a housewife. You’ll find a businessman. You’ll find a yuppie. You’ll find a stoner. You’ll find a teetotaler. You’ll find a schoolgirl. You’ll find a banker. You’ll find a depressive. You’ll find a lover. You’ll find a hipster. You’ll find a dreamer. You’ll find every possible combination of every one of these characterizations.

It is very important that I don’t make a myth of what is home to 1 billion people. 1 BILLION people. It’s too easy, and it doesn’t do justice to the people whose stories should be told honestly because they’re raw and real and interesting all on their own. To them, this is the real world and my world is but a myth. Also, this is my world. Life happens here.

DIWALI

After nightfall, I decided to take a moment to head up to the terrace and see the lights that preceded the THUD-THUD-BANG shelling that the city had been taking all day. Not war, anarchy. The ultimate celebration of freedom.

My eardrums had blown out earlier in the day. We had set off atom bombs at my great aunt’s home. Light the match, let the fuse catch, run, cover your ears. I forgot to cover my ears. My father’s cousins laughed at me. This was the first time I had met them. I stumbled back into the house, feeling like I was underwater. My balance was shot.

Appa, I can’t really hear.”

Appa laughed at me, faint, distorted, burbling. I laughed too and drank some buttermilk, waiting for my hearing to rejoin the party.

We drove back through a battleground. Rows and rows of children were setting off chakras and flowerpots, atom bombs and sky shots. There was a very real chance that we might drive over a bomb, mid-detonation. Later, I would raise the same hell on Krishna Street with my little cousin, Abhijit. Our pyromania would escalate to the 5000-walla, which would sting our arms and make us quiver with power. The same pattern. Light, run, duck, laugh.

I had been awake since four in the morning because that’s what you do on Diwali, so I’m told. I lay in bed, thinking that this is what children on Christmas must have felt like. Waiting. Waiting and knowing that millions of other people were waiting with you, rising with you. It was raining. White Christmas, wet Diwali.

We sat in a line on the floor. Viji Athai sang as she adorned my forehead with kunkumam and chandanam. She sang as she spread a cool red paste along the sides of my feet, creating a hatched pattern with a dot in the center. She sang as she rubbed oil into the crown of my head and stuffed a betel leaf into my mouth.

“Chew,” she instructed. I did. Today was not a day for asking questions.

We lit crackers in the rain. The smoke was thicker, the air was heavier, and the light was brighter. My hair responded to the electricity. We broke to take real showers. Bloody rivulets followed the path of least resistance, toward the drain. I realized that the red paste had been mixed with turmeric. A faint yellow outline of the crosshatch emerged as the paste fell away from my feet. Clever.

My hearing came back suddenly on the roof. I was surrounded by damp clothes on the line, the stillest outlines of figures in the night. Clothes that were waiting for people to wear them. I was waiting for something too. Cartwheels of light surrounded me. Showers of gold, emerald necklaces adorning the hollow of the sky’s throat, the light danced for me. I spun around, slowly, out of my body. I felt like I might sink to my knees and cry for the beauty, or maybe just for the sulfur stinging my eyes. Light was everywhere I turned. I was in a story. The ascent to the roof was the rising action. The view was the climax. I felt like I’d lived three days in one. Bed was the denouement.