Tag Archives: homesickness

Homesick for India

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It’s been two and a half months since I left India. Time has moved both immensely slowly, as it seems like forever ago that I was surrounded by autos and cows, and motorcycles trying to run me over on the pavements, and yet it’s also gone too quick. I don’t know how I’ve managed to squeeze in so much: writing endless job applications, becoming an Avon lady (needs must, and the makeup is cheap :P), getting a job on my first interview with a London-based charity, starting the job, and finally becoming one of those irritating London commuters who gets frustrated when a tube doesn’t turn up within thirty seconds.

“I heart India”

I’m where I was aiming to be. This was the plan all along – to reach India, get some experience and spend some time away delving deeper into the culture I love so much, and eventually return to land my first real job towards my career in the charity sector. Done. Box ticked.

But that craving and gnawing absence is starting to creep up on me again. It’s the same feeling I had after leaving India the first time in 2009, like an addiction that cannot be numbed or forgotten by anything other than re-immersion in the thing that first caused it.

Indian-born French Bollywood actress Kalki Koechlin…aka me, obviously

I don’t even know what it is that I am missing – surely not the lecherous little men, the misogyny, the hopeless inefficiency of every government office…? This time on returning to the UK from a starkly different culture, more strongly than any time before, I can almost taste my own frustration at the banality of some people’s worries and conversation topics. But that’s not it. Everyone becomes absorbed in their daily lives, and the issues relevant to their own bubbles. Indians are definitely guilty of doing it too.

When you’re trying to essentialise a feeling of longing though, for a place, a thing, an idea, it’s like trying to strip down what defines an entire culture to its bare bones. I can’t say what exactly it is about India that has me so hooked, but perhaps it can be most simply put as a sense of belonging, of being home. So many little things which come automatically to me are not shared with those around me in the UK. If I start humming a Bollywood tune, people won’t complain that I’ve got it stuck in their heads all day; when I try and cram myself into (what looks to me) a half-empty tube, people gawp at me; a freudian slip of ‘auntie’ in addressing a stranger makes you weird.

“…Excuse me, auntie…auntie!”

It seems natural to express the very Indian body language of bending my head side-to-side, or flicking out hand from forehead to emphasise a point. My syntax has been irrevocably changed, isn’t it. The non-verbal cues and signals I’ve internalised are now entirely void from the culture that presently surrounds me.

Perhaps then, it is these little everyday embellishments to human interaction which I miss. Without them, the act of conversing seems to fall flat. There’s an absence of nuance, of drama, of the complex social dance that constantly shifts and changes between two people in navigating and judging each other’s social status.

Body language

Whilst histrionics and tantrums can be symptomatic of how many Indians tend to deal with unwanted outcomes, they are part of a tapestry of lively and socially stimulating interactions, without which your life becomes filled with empty time. That dull task of catching your bus is suddenly a thrilling race to nab the driver’s attention, of listening with all your senses for information, a whisper of “is it that one” from the crowd, the satisfaction of navigating the confusing cacphony with practised ease. Like a boss.

Or maybe in England it’s that we’ve forgotten what significant problems really look like against the backdrop of the world. I recently read an article on Armpit August (or something like that), challenging the biased misconception that it’s unfeminine for women to grow out their underarm hair. Fine, go ahead. You actually already have the choice to do it anyway, so you’re not really changing anything, except your own self-acceptance of a certain body image. It’s a little bit sickening against the relentless conveyor-belt of honour crimes, trafficking, rapes, sexual harassment, incest, and gendered poverty that I was fighting whilst with SICHREM. I can’t help feeling disenchanted after having actively battled against such degrees of violence and for seemingly futile gain.

This is perhaps just a rant on my part, and so I shall end on a positive note: instead of grieving for something I know I can’t have right now, I’ll instead try to engage others in all that I find makes India amazing, and special, and irritating but hilarious as hell. Good job it’s Diwali coming up.

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Reverse Culture Shock

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Whilst at first the tea tastes watery, the food has no (spice) flavour, and there are too many middle class boys with hipster haircuts overly happy to share their yelled conversations with the street, I am glad to be back. Now that I’m into my fifth day back in England I feel much more at ease with all things England.

High tea

That’s not to say that I didn’t have some problems. Even driving to Bangalore airport at 2am in a taxi on Tuesday morning, a strange nausea started creeping up on me and a dizzying feeling – which I assumed to be the result of hunger (I’m always hungry) and tiredness. After landing and reuniting with my boyfriend however, and with a good night’s sleep, the next day it happened again. We were in one of Woking’s indoor shopping centres when I started feeling inexplicably exhausted and dizzy. He sat me down in the open cafe area where I felt a little comforted by the sight of a ‘Spice House’, and waited for him to get me something sugary.

Nom nom nom

After wolfing down a Gregg’s doughnut though, I realised it wasn’t just a bout of low blood sugar I periodically experience, but the onset of a growing sense of panic. Everywhere I looked, people were walking around in shorts, and spaghetti strap tops, and bras were hanging out all over the place. Given that it could have been no more than 25 degrees that kind of clothing was clearly absurd.

But it was more than that. I felt suffocated by the silence, the absence of traffic beeping and revving, the empty streets, the conspicuous void of incense-pollution-rotting refuse-cow dung-garam masala mix assaulting the nostrils. It was like being in an alien landscape where all the people had vanished.

Noisy, busy, blissful India

A couple more days in though, and my perception is changing again. Whilst I can’t shake the unsettling sensation that the world before my eyes is a mirage drawn across reality, that Bangalore will re-materialise in due course, it simultaneously feels like I never left. Did I even go to India? Was it all a dream? Though I’m not panicking each time I think about the empty street outside now, and my taste-buds have quickly relished a return to olives, houmous, pizza, and pasta, I’m craving rice and spice, and I’ve been mostly living inside the house of my boyfriend’s parents.

Breathe in that English suburbia

My life is no different being in England. I am still looking for a job, I still too many things to do in inadequately short spaces of time, and I still (apparently) wobble my head all the time. My brother tells me I have an Indian accent – well I pity him for not having one, it’s the best accent in the world.

I think the relative isolation period that I’ve put myself in within the confines of the house is vital to allow my subconcious to adjust. I never fully felt comfortable in India, but I think to some extent I understood it. Whilst I still rail against the misogyny and the corruption, the lack of female autonomy and the stifling social controls on personal movement, I’m finding that home is no longer home. I feel a stranger in my origin culture, and not just at the superficial level. I’m really starting to question the way society is structured in the UK, and gendered behaviours here too. The contrast in how British young men and women behave is too stark against their Indian counterparts not to notice – and I’m not sure I like it anymore. Or perhaps time will erode the harsh edge off my memory, and I’ll quickly come to love my country again.

More than ever though I feel I’ve become part of a British diaspora – a reverse cultural and migrational flow of people, ideals, and values – into modern India. Like anyone whose culture is rooted in one place, as their everyday continues in another, I feel suspended between the two. I cannot go back to being English, but the prejudice and hierarchy of my second home means that neither will I ever become entirely Indian. I want to live in both places, in both cultures, and neither entirely, at the same time. The difficulty lies in negotiating the contradictions between them. What to do, ah? I think several more visits to the land of Gandhi and Shah Rukh Khan, for better or worse.

Leaving India

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OK I think it’s time to accept that my blogging is not going to happen on a regular weekly basis – so skipping ahead of Parts 2-4 of my trip around South India, I wanted to officially announce that I’ll be leaving India early.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with ever since I arrived in India actually – the combination of homesickness, the longing for some sort of clean street environment, and needing to have a better placement than what SICHREM could offer me. I’ve been mulling and mulling it over for so long, that I’m surprised I managed to stay this long in actuality. Let me expand a bit.

So my problems with SICHREM have been manifold, and mostly I thought that I would be able to work them through as the result of cultural differences. The reality however has been that SICHREM hasn’t been able to offer me the research and career-building opportunities that I wanted. I intended to work explicitly on gender-related projects, and be involved in lots of advocacy, as this is my area of interest. Despite this being communicated throughout my placement and before it, I never got the chance to do any of this. Whilst I’ve been working on two fairly sizeable research projects, the absence of ANY gender-related work has been gradually grinding down my motivation. After the six months mark, I had to hold up my hands and accept that no such opportunities were going to arise, even with my repeated discussions with Mathews (the Executive Director of SICHREM).

The working environment at SICHREM has also been deteriorating in general since my arrival in January, for whatever issues I am not entirely sure. Whilst I’ve been volunteering, four members of staff resigned and moved on, for various reasons. A further two are now on their way out, leaving only two non-admin staff within the entire organisation, to run all of SICHREM’s different programmes and emergency cases. It’s totally unfeasible.

Whilst I am loathe to make this into one epic rant, the continued problems I faced at SICHREM are a huge part of why I want to leave. Never once being thanked for my any of my volunteered time, or efforts – particularly not for the more significant successes which took up so much time – never treated like a professional equal, and always dismissed when I raise suggestions or ideas for improvements. It’s been an incredibly frustrating and de-motivating environment to work in, but I’ve been fighting through it to the best of my ability, discussing things with staff, trying to communicate issues – to no avail. There’s only so much negativity a person can take.

Outside of SICHREM, life has had both high and low points. I still love India, I just can’t love Bangalore. I definitely will be returning, but to a place where the people speak Hindi, where you can see the horizon, where a clean breeze clears the air, and where the people celebrate life…not drudge heads down through rubbish heaps and grey air. I am physically and psychologically suffocated here.

Psychologically suffocated in the sense that if, as a woman, I look up and at people’s faces in the street, the men will leer at you or follow you or shout disgusting insults in Kannada, as if I don’t know what they’re saying. Or sometimes it’s just the man on a bike jeering ‘hey foreigner’. Whilst your movements in public space become policed in this way, I find the confrontation with people’s ideologies in personal interaction far worse. The number of girls who are visibly horrified by the realisation that you walk alone after 7pm at night, or that you use public buses (which are clearly brimming with lascivious men who will rip off your clothes at midday) is depressing. Even worse are the guys – ‘you shouldn’t talk like that’, ‘no you don’t understand [women not having any agency] it’s not safe/moral/right for women to go out alone’. In the UK, I have taken for granted my personal freedom to think, talk, act, dress, eat, sit, and breathe in the way that I want, that it feels like I am trapped inside a moral prison. I cannot be myself in India. Even trying my best to conform, to avoid confrontation (for instance I wear salwar kameez not shorts, I use Kannada words, I follow social convention on buses, in the post office, in SICHREM), I am constantly critiqued and rebutted by idiots who simply see a white face in a kurti. I am not expected or permitted to express ideological thoughts or contrary opinions. I should nod and smile and say ‘sir’ to whatever inadequacy comes out of a man’s mouth, so that I show respect, and am meek, and thus like a good Indian girl. I refuse to hand over my self-respect, however much has already been chipped away, in my upturned hands.

I don’t hate Indian men at all. I just feel that the undue respect and privilege that society has assured them is their right makes most guys totally unaware that other people have contrasting and equally important opinions. When you internalise, and receive daily confirmation of, the idea that you will automatically get what you want and people will listen to you, it makes men arrogant and self-righteous, and sometimes totally shocked when you argue them down.

I can’t wait to be back in a place where people are valued for being the person they are, not for their marriage or earning potential; where others will give equal attention to your voice and ideas and beliefs.

But like true love, you work through the bad parts and keep returning to strengthen that bond which attracted you in the first place. India will always draw me back, I just have to work out that where that perfect balance lies. The magic formula. Maybe it should start with a tattoo?

Airports, Homesickness and Buses

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 Well it’s come to writing my first post in India, and I’ve no idea where to begin as there’s so much to say.

To briefly skip over the less than thrilling trials of travelling by Air India, both of my flights were delayed, which meant I got to practice my skills at sleeping on metal airport benches…twice. Why do they always make them so uncomfortable? In Delhi airport at least they had considerately provided some reclining sleeper chairs, but being in such short supply, they were all occupied.

I arrived hassle-free into Bangalore’s airport however, collecting my bag and walking straight out in literally five minutes. I guess Karma has to kick in at some point, right? Driven straight to the door of my homestay, I met the family I’d be living with over the coming months.

Initially I was confused by the large number of people present in the main room, who all turned out to be friends, or various relations of complicated connection, leaving only four family members in the core household:

The mother, Vanita, is a fantastic cook, and she has been gleefully teaching me random words in Kannada. It turns out my efforts (though pitiful) to learn Hindi were indeed in vain, as my family and most of Bangalore speaks either Kannada, or English.

The father, Paul – or Sunil as he’s known by friends – has his own business making door frames and the like, which he commutes to at very late hours on his moped. He’s been incredibly welcoming so far, though he’s a very eager Christian convert, and gets the family to sing and pray twice a day. I’ve already been dragged to church this Sunday. I just hope it’s not catching.

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Daniel, or Ardesh, is the eldest son at 19. He speaks great English and is my main translator for conversations with his parents. Not only is he a good laugh, but he kindly took me out around Bangalore and helped me to register for my visa. This may sound like a small effort, but trying to register took seven hours and five buses to do so. A great lad.

DSCN1829

Finally the younger brother David, or Sandesh, at 17, is studying commerce (or something like business or management studies) at college. I haven’t seen him as much because of this, but when I do he always seems to either be rolling out roti flour or watching TV.

To reference the second part of this post title, one of the main problems I’ve been facing in these first few tender days has been, surprisingly, homesickness.

I didn’t expect to ever get it that bad, as I’m already so familiar with India, and thus things like the food and the traffic and the people aren’t nearly so daunting. It was more the thought of being away for a year which started to press down on me – so much so that I barely slept at all on my first night. Being away from home, and my boyfriend, for so long seemed utterly unbearable, and I was ready to go straight back to the airport the next day.

After several texts and phone calls though I managed to calm down enough to finally get to sleep, and my first spontaneous lesson in Kannada from my host mother (“Vanita Auntie”) made me feel human enough to actually take my mind wholly off escaping India altogether.

As the days have progressed, and I’ve come to appreciate how lucky I’ve been in my homestay allocation – my own room and en suite bathroom with a flushing toilet (!) – the feeling has begun to diminish. That’s not to say it hasn’t disappeared, just that I have started to function enough to get up and occupy my mind with other things.

My first day at the SICHREM office was one of those other things. Luckily for me, Daniel announced on the evening beforehand that he’d been offered a part-time position at the charity through family contacts (apparently he is somehow related to everyone in this city), and so I gladly let him guide our journey to the office the next day.

Again, I was very happily surprised with the set-up and facilities at my placement. The office has three good-sized rooms and each of the fifteen or so paid staff has their own desk and projects. There are several other volunteers – though the label interns might be more appropriate – from local Indian universities on placement as part of their course, and another international volunteer from Germany who I have yet to meet.

My introductory meeting with my supervisor Anitha (again, related to my host family) outlined the tasks I would be given and the specifics of SICHREM’s human rights work. I’m sorry to say that a combination of her softly spoken manner and some residual jetlag (maybe) started to lull me to sleep, and I had to fight every blink back open again whilst she explained everything to me. It’s probably why I can’t really remember much about what she said.

Before you start thinking that I’m lazy though, I’ve been busy reading SICHREM’s previous reports on different issues, impressively published in small paper-back format. My head has been so full of ideas in response to the different challenges proposed to me, that I’ve been itching to go into the office all weekend. This is despite the fact that tomorrow is a public holiday, in recognition of a Tamil festival, meaning that I’ll likely be amongst a minority of staff.

All in all my first few days in India have been totally different to the expectations I had – no running into the first shop on the street and filling my bag with mehndi cones, or buying sarees in ten different colours and fabrics just to throw around my room – but it’s starting to become normal very quickly. After my first week in the office, I’ll hopefully be able to judge the pattern of events in the longer term, and get an idea of how things will pan out. Even better, I’m going shopping next weekend!