Had I changed? Only in two years? Was this no longer my country, my home?
In late August of 1986,1 left India for the U.S. to get a graduate degree. It was not my first trip to the airport in my hometown, Patna. I had been there several times when my father, a government official, had to travel. But, this was the first time I had stepped on a plane.
Through the small window, I watched the rest of my family standing far back from the tarmac. They were all there for the event: aunts and uncles, my mother in a new sari, my father's mother who had been brought from the ancestral village in which she lived, several cousins and their spouses, my brother-in-law, and a young nephew. I was a little nervous. Getting the American visa hadn't been easy, and a fear remained that I would be turned back at any point. At the same time I was also tremendously excited and happy.
It was hot outside and my grandmother, alongside a few other relatives stood in the shadow of a small plane parked about fifty meters away. Although they were unable to see me, one or two of my relatives would raise their hand and wave. When the plane started moving, a cousin took off her long, scarf-like dupatta and held it with both hands so that an elegant span of bright orange unfurled in the strong breeze.
We were in the air. I removed from my hair the marigold leaves and grains of rice that my mother had sprinkled on me for good luck. Using the tip of her ring finger, my mother had put a spot of curd and red sindoor in the center of my forehead. I scrubbed it off as I watched the airhostess making her way slowly down the aisle toward me.
Two years later, after getting my degree, I was on my way back to India for a holiday. This time however, there was no one to see me off from New York City. But, when I landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, I found my father waiting for me. He had made the sixteen-hour train journey from Patna to meet me in the early hours of the morning.
That morning we were to catch another train back to Patna. Before leaving Delhi however, I needed to go to the Lufthansa office to confirm my flight back to the States. This didn't take long. We came out on the street, my father and I, and began to look for post-cards. I had promised two friends that I'd drop them a line from India.
In the store, I found a few cards that I liked. I asked the middle-aged shopkeeper what I could pay him.
"That much?" I exclaimed in surprise. In 1986, when I had left, I was certain they were going for half that price. Last year, I found out that prices have increased five-fold since then.
"This is quite expensive," I said to the shopkeeper.
"Not as expensive as where you are coming from," the man responded matter-of-factly. He didn't even bother to look at me while replying.
I was suddenly angry. "And where am I coming from?" I asked him. But, the shopkeeper didn't think he needed to answer me. I looked at my father and he said, "Prices have gone up."
When we had paid and were out on the street again, I saw my father smiling. He said, "Woh jaanta tha turn baharse aaye ho." (He knew you had come from outside.)
Had I changed? Only in two years? Was this no longer my country, my home? It wasn't as if I hadn't contemplated questions of this nature before. Now however, they seemed unexpectedly out of my control. Perhaps, it had just struck me that even the answer to such questions lay not with me, but with the shopkeeper who hardly knew me and had the power to dispense judgement. This irked me more than the fact that he was right.
For his part, my father was interested in neither questions nor answers. They were not as important as the central fact, his son had managed to go and live abroad — in the West — and was now recognized as such by an unknown shopkeeper.
And I? I was entering into the drama that was becoming the reality of thousands, no, more than a million Indians. In America, I would be asked if I was from India. In India, I would be recognized as being from America.
On my first day in America, I ate beef and drank beer.
A friend of mine from Patna, who had also gone to college in Delhi, had been admitted to the same university in Syracuse, New York. We went to a restaurant a few blocks from our apartment. In the restaurant, I ordered beef because I wanted to know how it tasted. I had also decided I wasn't going to pretend I was still in India. I then asked for a Heineken beer because I had seen it advertised in TIME and other magazines sold in India.
I realize that these are trivial and almost adolescent pleasures. When I think of that first day in the USA, I am forced to think of my earlier travels. For example, I recall the time I left Patna to come join a secondary school in Delhi. I had recently won a scholarship. I took one of my mother's small trunks to the market and got it painted a shiny black. In bold letters on the right, in white, I had the painter carefully write: A. KUMAR, NEW DELHI. To this day, some of my relatives call me by that whole "name."
I was sixteen then. The move had been made, I felt. I had left the provinces for the capital. Suddenly, I wanted to be better at English and would write in a notebook all the unfamiliar words that I encountered. The first entry in my notebook was the word "lambent." I had come across it, if memory serves me correctly, in Hardy's Tess.
Now, in America, I wanted to drink Heineken. That too, was a debt to my past. From Delhi, when I returned home to Patna, I took my parents used copies of TIME and Newsweek that I had bought for fifty paise in the chor bazaar, a thrift market, behind Delhi's Red Fort. Those magazines, as well as the school uniform, which I wore as I traveled back in the train to Patna, were for me, my own distinctive signs of modernity.
Two more years passed in Delhi, and I cannot say exactly how, but those markers of modernity changed. I got interested in poetry, Marxism, Indian New Wave films, street plays and theater at the National School of Drama, the paintings of ordinary Indian people that I saw coming out of Baroda, and the authors whose books I found in the Sahitya Akademi Library. Books that I would later recognize among the imports under the PL 480 program.
That was nearly twenty years ago. Most of those interests have stayed with me, and as I think back, they give my life some continuity. One thing has changed however. Now, when I walk on Delhi's streets, men walk up to me and ask me if I have any dollars to sell.
There are more and more Indians living abroad, and many of them travel back to India for business and vacations. The Indian population in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and other areas that Indians have settled has undoubtedly begun to reflect broad class diversity. From the perspective of Indians living in India however, Indians living abroad are continually perceived as a privileged group.
In any case, in Indian writing, Indian-American travelers have begun making their appearance. In Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, an account of his travels through small-town India, he describes meeting an Indian-American family "that had arrived some time back, filling the silent empty courtyard behind us with their twangy American accents and voluminous suitcases."
Halfway through his spiel, Mr Tomar was interrupted. It was the teenaged boy from the India-American family that had arrived some time ago 'Excuse me,' he said, 'may I have a boddle of Bissleri wadder?'
A nonplussed Mr Tomar looked at us first, and then, at him. 'Sorry,' he said, shaking his head in apology, 'I didn't hear you.'
The boy repeated, 'May I have a boddle of Bissleri wadder?'
On my first day in America, I ate beef and drank beer. Now, When I walk on Delhi's Streets, men walk up to me and ask me if I have any dollars to sell.
Mr Tomar heard him attentively, then lunged at the only word he could guess at. 'Oh, Bisleril' he cried, 'Yes, of course! How many bottles?'
In the writing that is being done or the art that is being produced by Indians, we will need to think of the children who are being born abroad, in the U.S., England, and Canada, or France, Africa and the Caribbean, as the inheritors of our new modernity.
This reality hasn't entered the popular or dominant fiction, which in the West has been given the name "Indian writing." Thus, in the work of someone like Salman Rushdie, perhaps because he is drawing upon his own autobiographical details, childhoods are located in cities like Bombay rather than London. The changed perception that I am calling for, of Indian lives in the West, and of the protean mixings that result from this presence, will mean a break from the purist fictions of the guardians of more antiquarian, classic representations.
Consider the unexamined and simplistic assumptions behind this account by a British writer Andrew Robinson, a biographer of the film-maker Satyajit Ray:
Ray was in London again for a few days to see friends and answer questions at the National Film Theatre, following a session of nearly all his films. He spoke well but this time he seemed a bit tense. I watched how his normally mobile face would sometimes glaze over at a question that did not engage him. 'Would you ever make a film about Indians in London who are fifty-fifty?' a London Indian in the audience asked him. There was a pause. 'Fifty-fifty... ?' queried Ray in a heavy voice almost a drawl, and then lapsed into silence; he obviously wished to avoid giving offence, but clearly people without roots — whether in London or in Calcutta — did not much interest him as an artist.
The idea that relocation disintegrates roots, and that impurity is an enemy of history, is both arrogant and ignorant. Robinson, in his attempt to read Ray's mind, does the film-maker acute disservice. Ray's films are artistic because they graph numerous displacements and subtly negotiate the tension of origins. In his famous Apu trilogy for example, the country and the city define a charged space in which Ray's male and female characters, some young and some old, dramatically confront contradictions.
What was true of the Indians in Ray's films, is also true of Indians in the diaspora. This is a fact that escapes the imagination of older writers like Narayan, and those younger ones who want to stake exclusive claims to authenticity. In these writings, it is only the white (okay, "red-faced") American who is the traveler - never the Indians.
More disappointingly, the Indians in these narratives are mostly India-born adults, who are imagined as some sort of Americans on parole in India. Adults born in the West who locate their origins in the subcontinent, or for that matter, the children of Indian immigrants, are only beginning to find their space in the work of writers like Hanif Kureishi. There they emerge as the creative, volatile, bearers of difference.
Their questions, even their confusions, fascinate me. When I talk to my students who share that history, I can sense the freedom they find in being different from their parents. They are not only modern, they are liberators of a narrowly Western modernity. When they bind themselves to a careful consideration of what it also means to be non-Western, they become more modern, negotiating history and change.
Even if they have never been to India, I am confident that they would be amused, but also very understanding if I told them the story of carrying a trunk to Delhi from Patna with the freshly painted sign "A. KUMAR, NEW DELHI." We have something to learn from each other.