Indelible India

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time travelling to first world countries. A faux duel goes on in my mind, them versus us. I like leaving the chaos and noise of Mumbai and admiring the more disciplined environment of the West. I laud people who stand patiently in serpentine queues instead of jostling and milling around a desk or counter as they do back home. I enjoy the clean and wide streets where car drivers aren’t honking to frighten pedestrians off the road. I control my reflex to jump out of the way and marvel when they slow down to let me pass. I appreciate the glitzy facades of tall office buildings, gleaming stores and large parks. I like roadside cafes where I can relax without the guilt of faffing amidst less privileged people. I watch graceful cyclists crisscross their way through the city and wonder what might happen to such enthusiasts on Mumbai’s roads.

I see people wearing muted colours that soothe the eyes as opposed to our multi-coloured hues. Also, pedestrians walk, they don’t saunter. There are rules while stepping on an escalator that entail standing to one side so that people in a rush can run up or down already moving stairs. Most people are in a hurry, others in a tearing hurry. People aren’t snacking and slurping away at roadside stalls. They pick up rolls as they walk with a shopping bag, handbag and heels, and I’ve never seen a crumb fall off. There are no stray dogs to dodge or hawkers to shoo away. They don’t have to write “Do not spit,” on their walls. I don’t see giant posters of their politicians or party slogans. Every task is digitised including the placing of an order at a food stall. I feel at ease because no one interrupts when I’m fumbling with all the choosing and tapping, although it takes them a few seconds while it takes me a couple of excruciating minutes. They know what they want and they don’t linger. They’re minding their own business. I could be anonymous. In fact, I am anonymous. That’s when it hits me and I realize with a twinge of despair that I miss home.

As much as I like to travel, I like coming back home more. Suddenly, all the throngs of people milling around the airport and streets are a sight for sore eyes. I replace the word lackadaisical with laid-back in context to Indians. There is room for error, for stopping, for gawking, for laughing aloud and for chatting on mobile phones. It is life, I am reminded. ‘Let it ride,’ is the oft repeated saying. I like seeing the trees with their dust laden leaves, roadside hoardings with posters of Bollywood films and messy construction sites which remind me that the city is growing to accommodate people, who unlike me don’t travel abroad and then make unnecessary comparisons or complain about inconveniences. They have greater issues to worry about than rampant construction. I like being greeted by everyone from my security guard to my staff members and being addressed as a relative. I like returning to the sun-drenched balcony of my home and reuniting with the sounds of a city rising and the call of the muezzin.

It strikes me that there are some intrinsic aspects of my personality that could not be westernized in spite of the overwhelming western influences in my very urban upbringing. I often wear western clothes but I am most comfortable in Indian outfits made of cotton. I enjoy music from all over the world but only Zakir Hussain’s tabla seems to play to the rhythm of my heartbeat. Even if all other music fails to drag me to the dance floor, bhangra gets me gyrating. I think, speak, read and write in English but I prefer to joke in Hindi or Gujarati. I can sit through a terrible Hindi film but not a terrible foreign one. I studied Tennyson but quote Ghalib. I can never waste food or touch a book with my foot because the value of hunger and knowledge have been drilled into me. I think medicine and engineering are up there on an imaginary career pyramid. I try to quell superstitious beliefs such as ‘evil eye’ but I have resorted to ancient voodoo on a few occasions. I applaud the work of great thinkers such as Darwin but secretly fear karmic repercussion. I have at various phases of my life indulged in palmistry, astrology and blamed my kismet. Most importantly, I can (by and large) make an accurate appraisal of almost every Indian I meet, whether they’re from the North, South, East or West and everything in between. I can figure out their antecedents, anticipate their thought processes and understand their customs. In turn, they know me too. I never have to feel anonymous in my country.

Pic courtesy: Raj Rana

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