Ask foreigners to imagine India, and they’ll conjure these images:
- A child begging barefoot in the street…
- Dust covering every square inch of the road…
- Women in bright, simple saris…
- Rickshaws recklessly careening down a lane bustling with people…
- The Taj Mahal smoked in by pollution…
Frame after frame of poverty, filth, color, danger, and faded ancient splendor. Throw these images up on Instagram, and they’ll go viral. Not exactly the Incredible India the tourism department wants you to visit. But, as I look back on my three-year Indian journey, I imagine a different set of images in my mind’s eye.
- Children playing on a swing set….I throw my patio doors open and listen to shouts of joy coming from the park across the street far below my high-rise. This is Hiranandani Gardens.
- An impromptu stop for vada pav on a Parsi food safari….The scent of cumin and potatoes fills the air. My taste buds savor the crispy, fried snack. This is Fort.
- A daughter’s wedding…My husband and I smile as we see the look of pure joy on our driver’s face as he gives his daughter to the man she loves. We shake his hand and thank him for the honor of the invitation. This is Mahim.
These images overrun my senses, reminding me of my Mumbai. This is (or rather was) my home. Mumbai is a city of neighborhoods large and small, rich and poor. A city that awakens, practically assaults, all my senses at once. This sensory overload is the piece of the India puzzle that’s missing for most foreigners. All the guidebooks, Bollywood movies, and photo galleries can’t quite communicate it. Yet, as one friend noted, there’s calm amidst this chaos, too. A powerful serenity that enrobes your soul in the quiet, still moments of daily life. But, only if you let it.
Moments like these flood my brain.
- A quiet tent sanctuary…An ancient noble family treats guests like maharajas and maharanis. Our hosts share their history, their village with us. We climb a hill that overlooks a serene lake and enjoy a breath-taking sunset. This is Rajasthan.
- Fishing nets along the shoreline…A street artist paints chalk drawings along the footpath that hugs the coastline. We stroll by, watching the waves crash against the shore. This is Kerala.
- A gondola ride up a mountain in Gulmarg…Far below our enclosed capsule, people shuffle from one home to another. We hike the mountains and are chilled to the bone in August. Our guide points over the ridge and says, “That’s Pakistan.” This is Kashmir.
- A young girl in her starched school uniform…She proudly carries her country’s flag at the Wagah border. Her classmates sing and dance as she runs to touch Pakistan. This is Punjab.
My mind is flooded with sights, sounds, and smells of my Mumbai, my India. Yet, there’s no Taj Mahal, no Slumdog Millionaire here. My India is the India of its people. All 1.2 billion of them. In my India, each person becomes a unique shade of saffron, blanketing the fields of Mother India. Each person is a thread woven into the India myth, the India story. Each story tells the same moral: If you love India, it loves you back. If you hate it, India hates you back. And, I love India with all my heart.
As I prepared to leave India, every emotion, every nerve in my body stood on end, raw and exposed for everyone to see. I found solace in writing and reading that helped me understand my experience. In my final weeks there, I stumbled upon Sahibs Who Loved India, edited by Khushwant Singh.The book is a collection of memoirs from expats who left India with more good memories than bad and looked back upon their time in India as the best time of their lives. Their words helped heal my broken heart.
Even now, I feel somehow half-American, half-Indian in my identity. I feel that I was born in America, but came of age in India. India has taught me more and given me more than I can offer her in return. This song from Lulu explains how I feel toward my greatest teachers, the people of India:
“As I leave, I know that I am leaving my best friend. A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong. That’s a lot to learn. But, what can I give you in return?”