Being an accidental ambassador is probably hard no matter where you’re from, but I believe India makes it particularly difficult.
I had just arrived in America. My two-seater dorm room was stark and infantilising. A bright and dislocating odour of cleaning fluids permeated the shared showers. My feet were visible to the outside world when I was locked in a toilet stall. All this had caused a shroud of insecurity to congeal around me. The person with whom this shroud always slid off was the janitor who worked our floor. She used to take her break in the shared kitchen, often while I was in there balefully confronting my culinary incompetence. She was large and black and really, really warm. At some point, she popped the question.
“You are Indian, right?”
“How can you tell?” suddenly homesick.
“My sister-in-law is Cherokee.”
We were reliving Columbus’ error, but I was in too cold a place to resist such disarming warmth. I looked like a Cherokee to her and hence was worthy of her surrogate affection. She knew all about Indians, just not about India. And I didn’t want to start.
Over a decade later, I heard the question at a friend’s wedding. The bride was from the Philippines. At the reception, I found myself afloat in a sea of exceptionally friendly Filipino women. They plied me with delectable dishes they had spent hours preparing. In the ensuing state of gastronomic hypnosis, I barely heard the question: “You are Indian, right?” Which was fine since she went on without pause: “We really want to know something.” No time to brace for what came next: “Why do your men always stare? And why do they stink so much?” There was no rancour or malice; they just wanted to know. Yes, I was the resident expert on my men since there were no other Indians in sight. But before I could adjust to this status, another woman volunteered that the whores in Manila have a separate rate card for my men.
I have heard the question innumerable times, asked from a place of admiration (infrequent), of indictment (more frequent), and everything in between. I have given the obligatory crash courses on arranged marriages, female foeticides and dowry deaths. More memorably, there is the man in Istanbul, who lit up when he heard I was from Tagore’s city and lamented the fact that he had only read translations. There is the woman called Indira from the country once called Yugoslavia, who told me about the rash of baby Indiras born in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb after a visit to her country by Mrs Gandhi in the early ’70s. There is the stocky steakhouse cook in north Thailand who cooed: “India? Vely lich cunt-lee, vely guth in com-poo-thah.” The gloat that tried to rise in me was quickly jammed by images of naked kids scrounging for scraps in the dumpsters of Calcutta, and I had to burrow deep into my papaya salad.
Being an accidental ambassador is probably hard no matter where you’re from, but I believe India makes it particularly difficult. Wherever the question comes from, such an exchange leaves me off-kilter, every time. I would like it if I could say, “Yes, I am Indian. And what that means is…” Instead, I end up with, “What you say is true, but…” I get dragged to the vast hairball of contradictory things that is India, and am forced to take a look. And every time I feel a vague spasm, like a tic, of ownership over this hairball.
Ah, India. She stands like the storied elephant as we blindly feel her up from within and without, and exchange wildly discordant notes. India: fractured by language, culture and ethnicity along one axis, by Sula wine and farmer suicides along another. India: the land of wife-beating nuclear physicists and fishmonger-poets, her feet firmly planted in several centuries at once. India: whose “territorial integrity” has more or less defied the dour predictions made since her birth, yet her real integrity seems diaphanous even at 62. India: a textured palimpsest so rich that a year-long taste of it can be a book, for some. But I don’t want to write the book. I want to live it.
At moments when I wonder if the elephant has in fact left the room, I think of Revathi. She runs an idli-vada shack outside the Baratang ferry terminal, at the edge of the Jarawa Reserve in the middle Andamans. Her parents came to the islands from Andhra Pradesh, but she has never set foot on the “mainland”. Her Hindi is just as bad as mine but we chatted anyway. On the rattan wall of her shack there were grimy old calendars bearing pictures of all sorts of Gandhis. Her vadas were stunning, as was her smile. I can’t think of anything we share, except the Himalayas and the Kumbh Mela. And yet we connected. Not a me-traveller-you-local-colour sort of connect, but something easy, and gluey. A plug-and-play sort of connect.
I am going to sniff out this glue if it’s the last thing I do.