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England or India; India or England?

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I’ve now been back in England for seven months, and working for a substance misuse charity in central London for most of that time. My job is ending in March however, so I’m increasingly reassessing whether to stay in my native country, or to return to India. The daily routine of my seven months in Bangalore last year were fundamentally the same as my routine in London since – wake up, commute, work in the office, go home, eat, sleep – but it was the weekends that made the difference. Travelling around the incense bazaars of Mysore or seeing the damage wreaked by the Tsunami along Tamil Nadu’s coast, set against sitting inside hiding from the English rain. By writing this article I hope to aid my decision to some extent, and try to pinpoint the crucial element in each that inexplicably grabs at my heart strings.

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The things I miss most about Bangalore are of course the things I miss most about India: the colour, the smells, the sounds. I know it’s leaning towards a stereotype here, but there really is no easy way to describe and deconstruct such a complex and heady mixture of texture and culture and movement that is the chaotic way of everyday life. Whilst Bangalore has its share of pollution, waste heaps, stray dogs, beggars, corrupt officials, and murders like most other cities on the sub-continent, it also benefits from all that draws so many travellers to this country. I don’t know whether it’s the garam masala permeating the streets that is the secret ingredient, or the hot chai drunk at the roadside as it is best enjoyed; maybe it’s the times when a neighbour or business owner down the street brings round barfi and halwa sweets to celebrate a family marriage. How to distil such a deep-rooted longing for another culture into its essence? It may be simplest just to say that it feels like home.

I like the way that when you wear a sari to work men suddenly start calling you ‘sister’ (instead of ‘foreigner’) and auto-rickshaw drivers forget to extort you. Instead they just flip on the meter and drive straight, as if wearing jeans at any other time would make me forget what it costs to travel to the office. I like that I can cover myself in a different mehndi design every other week if I want and people wouldn’t comment that I’m strange – it’s just part of a normal fashion statement. I like watching the latest Bollywood hit (or miss – take Yeh Jawaani Hai Dewaani for example) to the exuberant wolf whistles and applause of the cinema-going crowd and losing yourself to the story, the songs, and the dances. It’s almost a way of life, and I can be happy in the knowledge that I am surrounded by others who love it as much as I do. 

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More than the clothes and the sweets and incense though is the history, India’s political past, corrupt present, and the complex intersection of class, caste, and religion. The ticking bomb of racial and religious tensions is ever-present – as evidenced by a bomb blast in Hyderabad during my stay, which exploded in a bus station not dissimilar to my local one in Bangalore. It is also responsible too though for a melting pot of cross-cultural influence, when so many groups, sub-groups, political alliances, caste boundaries, and gender roles are shifting and blurring. This fusion space is increasingly occupied by civil society and women’s groups and helping to foster movements like the first One Billion Rising event in 2013.  

Of course I could not forget to mention the temples, the monuments, the festivals, the landscape: attending ceremonies for moving into a new house, ceremonies for reaching puberty, ceremonies for a new betrothal, ceremonies for marriages; doing puja to Shiva, Lakshmi, Krishna, Ganesh – whichever god you need the most to fulfil your desire for a safe journey or a prosperous business venture. The landscapes that on a single train journey shift between horizon-wide swathes of banana and coconut trees, to Ooty tea plantations and later, to Rajasthani desert. India is so vast it truly deserves the name ‘sub-continent’, and I only wish I had enough years in me to make enough journeys across its face.

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The dull winter skies of the London commute are unbearably suffocating by comparison. Emerging from the tube each morning like a burrowing creature covered in dirt and pollution, I see grey streets with grey buildings and everyone wearing black. Everyone. The more days I work the 9-5-London-office routine and the greater numbers of London breaths I take, the more toxic and transparent I feel I become. It’s not just the monotony however. There’s an absence of joy, or kindness, or warmth in the passing of hundreds of faceless people each day. There are more people jammed into buses and streets in Bangalore, but the natural inclination is to assist and accommodate others, not ignore them.

England does have it benefits – the obvious one being fewer lecherous stares and wondering hands for a start. They do still exist though, as I was nicely reminded by a slimy little man on southwest trains last week. More strikingly it’s the absence of such overt sexism and gender inequality in everyday life though, that really changes how I inhabit outdoor space in the UK. The dominant ideology in this culture does not assume that women have no right to occupy public space, and instead allows me to wander unhindered and un-harassed as I please, though I’m sure that if I was to be attacked, we could rely on rape apologists to blame my dress-sense instead of the perpetrator.

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Then there’s the better pay, the better quality of fresh food (meat especially), and the efficiency, for the most part. Commuters might bemoan the national rail service, and colleagues decry local authority bureaucracy, council incapabilities, and ineffectual police forces – but from my perspective we’re incredibly lucky. These services are free, and you don’t have to bribe anyone to get justice, or your entitlements, or be insulted by the guy behind the desk for daring to give him some work. The system does function here, and it’s transparent which is the most important thing.

All in all, drawing London and Bangalore, England and India, side by side is as difficult as comparing chalk with cheese. How do I reconcile that my right to move and do and speak as I like, which I have taken so much for granted growing up, is not only frowned upon but actively discouraged in India? How can I be the outspoken feminist that I am in a country which values duty and respect over equality? The simple answer: shout louder, and alongside the courageous women already doing it.

But what about England. At what point do I accept that English culture doesn’t hold the best value for me? Is it about perspective and the contrast with India, or does it run deeper than that? When can I pass that invisible threshold which tells me that I am definitely going to be happy or not here? I feel like I’m in a constant state of flux trapped between two places and two lives, present in one and always wanting the other at the same time. Coming to the end of this piece I actually feel no wiser, so in my best interests, perhaps a quick trip to somewhere warm and Hindi-speaking would help settle my mind a little…

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Moi, proof I was there!KG Babu's portrait of yours truly

 

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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.