A lot of this apprehension stemmed from experiences of desi friends who came back disenchanted from their annual pilgrimage to their homeland, complaining bitterly about the infrastructure dying a slow death from administrative apathy and negligence. Indians who felt like foreigners in their own country, sighing in relief when they finally came back to their adopted home.
It didn’t help that I had described India as this chaotic fairyland with never a dull moment, to my firang acquaintances. My eyes would gleam with excitement when I’d describe my city and its people – memories of its uncouth aggressiveness forgotten and forgiven. I had started craving for things I had never craved for before – the happy buzz before festivals, sights and sounds of a city that never goes to sleep, things that got done by jugaad. Where neighbourhood coffeeshops don't close by 5.
I was afraid that my sepia tinted memories would feel let down by the starkness of reality. After all, nostalgia has the seductive ability to chip away the dirt from the gems of memory.
Oddly, I felt none of the disenchantment that I had been warned of. Back home with my family and friends, I felt invincible. If I complained about the strange sensation in my throat because of the smoky air, I was rebuked loudly by my Mom. Yes, Delhi looked dustier and smoggier than before. The traffic snarls were exasperating. But these were minor inconveniences to the unbridled joy I felt in my heart.
It felt great to be ‘home’, where all you need to do is walk into a ramshackle store in a dingy bylane to extricate the sim card that you miraculously managed to jam inside the slot in a hurry. Your Mom asks if you’re hungry every 20 minutes and insists that you finish the entire lot of gajjaks and rewris because she bought it for you, calories be damned. Stores where attendants seek you out and not the other way round. Roads where motorists communicate with each other through loud honking and choicest of abuses.
An emotionally charged nation, whose people never shy of expressing rage, helplessness, unsolicited opinion – and joy is broadcast through loudspeakers. I would wake up with a start to namaz at 4.30 in the morning, followed by loud hahahahas emanating from the neighbourhood park and finally the gurbani. I sampled chaat from every thelewala at every gol chakkar unmindful of diarrheal threats. I shopped for kurtas in block-print, dupattas in vibrant colours, saris from Kolkata because I was dying to show off our beautiful textiles and weaves to friends in Australia. When my friends hugged me tight and said they missed my laughter, I had trouble holding back my tears.
I packed all that I had missed in these months of separation in the three weeks I spent in India.
I am not trying to present a Utopic idea of India here. We are a far from perfect nation that has been let down by callousness. Yet, when the unprecedented happened with AAP coming to power in Delhi, we were more sceptical than jubilant. We are so inured to being let down and disappointed that we have turned into a nation of bitter critics, refusing stubbornly to accept hope when it shows promise.
But it hurts me tremendously when I hear Indians settled overseas make disparaging remarks about their own country because I see it as an assault to my roots. I guess it’s a matter of perspective – we see what we want to see. So, while some of us will only see the garbage, third world mentality and exclaim nothing good will ever come out of this nation, many of us will choose to focus on the emerging India – positive and enterprising, a curious mixture of urban longing and pastoral belonging.
I guess mine is a typical case of rediscovering love only after I let go of it. Despite its many warts, failings and shortcomings, a polity that has not kept in sync with its people, one thing that will never change is that this is where we belong, a place that has shaped our ideals, our treasure trove of memories, family and friends.
The gods must have heard my loud sobs when I was about fly back to my new home. Or was it my tears that condensed into such a dense fog that almost all flights taking off from Delhi that night had to be cancelled?
I am lucky – I have two places that I can call home, startlingly different from each other. While one of them is calming, the other invigorates and sometimes stresses me out. I know when I come back for good, I’ll start cribbing about its aggressive attitude and a system that’s more anti-people than pro.
But it will still be my real home, that state of mind where I am in equilibrium with my surroundings. This rediscovery is not misplaced patriotism or jingoism. It simply is a selfish longing for a milieu that I relate to and where my heart resides.