You are so difficult. You infuriate me and exhaust me and make me want to leave you in my past. I wish you would stop toying with my mind.
There are days I am ashamed of being yours. Of the crudeness, the insensitivity, the misogyny of a culture that is inseparable from body shaming and harassment. There are days when the insurmountable heat and hostility, the throngs of starving people, the stray dogs shitting on the streets wrench away even the defensiveness of an Indian abroad.
You have given me so many reasons to hate you. The constant battle between freedom and safety, the filth coating every inch of every road, the infuriating inefficiency conveniently coupled with throbbing, unabashed corruption. How can I be proud?
Yet you are everywhere. In my voice, in my words, in my music, in my clothes. The world sees me as a part of you no matter how much I try to distance myself. You are the abusive relationship I can neither escape nor condemn.
What a paradox. What a twisted, vicious paradox. I may as well say it. I miss you. I miss being in a place I feel welcome. I miss the spectacular displays of mangoes, litchis, dates. The early morning flower markets with marigolds and gladioli and jasmines. The magnificent tropical sunlight. I miss the music. The unending stream of Bollywood songs playing on every beat up radio in every seedy alley. The arrays of women wearing niqabs boarding metros and buying groceries and living their lives right alongside those who wear jeans and salwars and on rare, liberal occasion, shorts. I miss comfort.
I tried to pretend I wasn’t yours. When I was regaled with stories of dirty Indians, lecherous Indians, Indians who cooked Maggi in hotel bathrooms and left Haldi stains on bedsheets. When I walked down the streets of Delhi and saw the grime and the filth and the bodies slewn across pavements without food, clothes, homes. I saw a broken country. I idealized worlds beyond my reach. I felt a tinge of pride when people said I don’t look Indian, talk Indian, seem as Indian as most. I was proud to disavow my culture.
I was proud until I was ashamed. As I tried to hide you under folds of ambiguity and otherness, I could feel myself inching closer and closer, accepting the markers of Indianness you had placed on me. I was growing increasingly more conflicted.
Why do I feel happiest surrounded by people who look and talk like I do? Why am I most amused by crude, borderline obscene humor from the subcontinent? Why can the lilt of forgotten Hindustani classics have me sobbing into my pillow in a way that no other form of music can?
And why am I still bitter? At best apathetic about being labelled unpatriotic? Why do I feel an almost masochistic glee when sharing posts on rape and poverty and turmoil in my country, thrilled to be proven right?
I am no nationalist. There is too much truth in the accusations hurled at us for me to be on the defensive. How can I put a positive spin on government officials claiming girls should expect to be harassed if they wear “western clothes”? How can I pretend I didn’t feel stifled by an education system that decided my worth based on how I “conducted myself around boys”? How can I be proud of our stellar economic growth when we have maids eating on the floor to avoid classes intermingling? No, I am no nationalist.
But I am Indian. In listening to Bollywood songs from the 00’s and feeling quiet pangs of nostalgia. In the comfort of desi interactions in a language that only upon alienation became my own. In the Jhumkis I wear with immense pride. In the thrill of seeing Priyanka Chopra and the likes make it in arenas where Indians were never welcomed before. I feel my Indianness more than I had ever felt it at home.
I’m not going to stop being fervently critical of India; I can’t stop being Indian. I’m not sure where that leaves me. Conflicted? In a limbo where I am criticized for being too anti national as well as for being too passive. How can I acquit myself of either label without pledging allegiance to the other?
I should commit to being the angry Indian. Take the exasperation with the cultural elitism and continue to live my own selfish life without any promises to “make India a better place”. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But criticism without answers is not invalid. My anger comes from the helplessness I felt the first time I was told not to wear shorts in a public place because “India isn’t safe for girls”. It is an anger that will not be mitigated by “trying to find a solution”. It is an anger to which the easiest response is detachment.
But it is an anger soothed by Kishori Amonkar and Kaju Barfis and the inexplicable lump in my throat when lighting a lone candle outside my room every Diwali.