As someone who is relatively well-acquainted with Indian culture and customs, during my time in India I have never felt obligated to take photos of cows walking in the road, or of myself with sindoor on my head, nor have I been bewildered about what daal or parathas are or find Hindi films exotic and fascinating. All the stuff that enamours people to India merely frustrates me and I have always scoffed and rolled my eyes at those who go to India and come back all spiritual, talking about Buddhism and chakras, wearing bindis, and talking about their life changing experiences helping poor people and going to the toilet squatting over a hole.
India – or at least the idea of India – feels like second nature to me, an identity bestowed to me when fate stole away the life that was intended. The fit between the two identities however certainly hasn’t been an easy one. My ambivalent relationship with India – and my Indian sense of self – has only been confirmed in my time here. This feeling of ambivalence will never change. Even before coming to India, adopting an Indian identity has brought a myriad of challenges. It taught me to accept new cultural norms that were often disagreeable; it taught me to eat more saturated fats; it forced my introverted self to express my emotions and open myself up to others.
I also learnt about the importance of family and how to care and depend on others; I learnt (some) Punjabi; I learnt how great and awful Hindi dramas can be; I learnt how rajma and chawal is the best dish ever (as well as saag); I went to many, many weddings and danced to bhangra until my kameez was soaked with sweat; I did seva in the Gurdwara on many occasions, working alongside the suspicious glances of the elder women in the kitchen who finally accepted a gori as one of their own. I realised how easy it was to win over the hearts of people by simply showing respect – and a white girl understanding Punjabi never fails to amaze – and I learnt to make the best chah (chai) ever.
So the point of this little sentimental babble? (stimulated no doubt from reading Shantaram and relating with the lead character and how he finds his spiritual/emotional home in India). I suppose I have realized how I have been clinging on to discovering a family that doesn’t really exist. I thought I needed the reassurance of biological ties, to look at people who resembled me in order to feel at home. But I have been thinking about belonging all wrong.
Though I know that I do not belong here in India. Perhaps I don’t even belong to the Indian family I know back in England. In some way I will always be the white girl – never quite part of – I will always be expected to leave. I am not their daughter, I will never be fussed over in quite the same way, I will never incur the same protective feelings. And so the price of this freedom – of not being tied – is the absence of phone calls from a worried parent back home; of someone being concerned for me, happy for me, proud of me. The childish desire to fill this absence will always be there. Maybe past life regression (or knitting) could help me overcome my recurring hamster dreams and stop my continual return to a phantom home. Yet my gaze has been too fixated on eradicating this desire (this weakness). And then the other day, in one of those moments that seems like an epiphany in retrospect but at the time was in fact very commonplace, the thought appeared clear in my mind, as clear as the image of my grandmother’s tombstone: ‘I have to let go’. Now letting go is a problematic concept for me (as discussed here) but in this instance it finally made sense. It wasn’t so much letting go of my past – and the ghosts that shape that past – but letting go of the belief in answers, in a timeless essential truth (about my self, about life) from this past.
The search for origins – it all goes back there (and Michel Foucault it seems). This is where the journey all began, the stimulus for escape. And now I look to returning back to the place I fled from a number of months before. Returning in what form? To return, to find one’s home, to belong – these do not have to be definite (or definitive) states, they are not things one accomplishes once and for all. As I change, as others around me change, and as the world changes, so does my sense of belonging, where my home lies, and what the act of returning means. My own life is evidence that home is open to transformation. I have found home in places that society (or the boundaries of my skin colour, nationality, ethnicity, religion) didn’t agree I belonged.
And then today in another retrospective epiphany/in reality commonplace moment I was sat in conference listening to Sharath’s stories and feeling as I do every Sunday, with the very exceptional feeling of knowing that I am in precisely the right place at this particular point in time. And afterwards I sat outside on a bench opposite the front of the shala enjoying how the elevated height of the bench easily allows my legs to swing haphazardly in the air, and in my immature delight at this activity I knew, that eventhough my departure was pending and that everything will change tomorrow, I knew for this moment at least, that I was home. And that was good enough.