Monday, August 15, 2005

Another Life – Chapter II

So we boarded the flight, our lives seemingly spent, VT and I, together yet again on a journey to nowhere. But the main thing is: we’re together. VT and I have an uncanny connection. Many times we can’t stand each other, but we each think the other is dashedly spiffy (eat that, colonial masters). It’s not so much With or Without You as it is Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.

Anyhow so we meet new relatives on our way, similar expats from the US, as we consequently come to know. We profess our "expatness", and a connection is formed. A sidelong glance, a knowing expression, suddenly has a different meaning in the context of the “similars”. It’s the same story: go to the US, study for a couple of years, work for some more, fall in love, one person wants to stay in India, come back – bam! You’re an expat.

(To be fair, all those things may not happen to a person, and not necessarily in that order. All I’ve tried to do is be as exhaustive and authentic as possible.)

In UB there were some people inclined towards the above-mentioned status, wanderlust pulling them to the US and identity and belonging pulling them back. So the justifications went back and forth between the pro-US and anti-US contingents: a “What don’t we have in India now? You can pay bills online there too!” could be followed by “But what about mapquest??”

And so on.

The Diwali and Holi parties were always abuzz with this discussion, with many ideas and contradictions being bandied about. Treacherous lovers back home were berated; even as one saw many hearts break back in India, the practical ones deciding to get on with life anew. No one saw hearts being broken by friends back home: these happenings had already “happened”; and could not be discounted as a reason for many to come to the US in the first place, to put a physical distance between the pain and themselves.

People would be shushed for the song and dance performances of the Indian students, many desperately trying to hide the grimaces at the tuneless reminiscences, and others not even trying. The buffet, of course, was Indian, and a good deal for the $5 paid to attend the show to renew the feel of a fondly remembered past (and who knew, even the future!).

Some would escape out in the cold, especially the smokers, and others like me, walking back home with an unwanted companion, breath like smoke and a furry coat, totally lost to the world and missing home.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Another Life – Chapter I

Just today I was looking at some pictures of my university in the US, the State University of New York at Buffalo, SUNY as we used to call it in India. In Buffalo, the epithet changed to UB, as it was lovingly called by the Buffalonians. The University at Buffalo. It reminded me as if of a past life, something with which I am quite unable to relate, being in Bangalore now.

I remember going to Dilip Oak, the ol’ schemer in Pune, and choosing universities to apply to. “Mass communication? Why do you want to do mass communication?” he used to ask, “I’m telling you, do Computer Science. You’ll get a good job in the US. Complete your masters and then go. I’ll give you guaranteed admission!”

Well, since when have I been the one to listen to good advice? Although in retrospect, I am glad to have done what I did.

Anyhow, I remember the day of leaving, a terrible sadness and also a feeling of futility, that it had to be now or never. So there we were standing, VT and me, with our exactly similar, huge suitcases, and leaving behind exactly similar baggage in life.

I’ll spare you the journey details: let’s zoom to Buffalo. I remember vividly riding down the escalator to the baggage claim area, with no idea of who was to receive me. It was a distinctly scary feeling, as international traveling at that point had not penetrated my friends circle. I wasn’t too “cool” with it, so it was with relief that I spotted some Indian (ok I won’t say “brown”, its offensive isn’t it) faces in the crowd. Introductions were made, Indian men the same in the US as they were in India – all attention and sniffing a possibility (here again, I say Indian because they are the only men I really know well; I wouldn’t be surprised if all men would be the same).

Anyhow, the first thing that struck me was the speed. And the emptiness. Both were unbelievable, and distressing. My companions gave me the “been there, done that” look, and I tried to not shown the effects an alien nation and jet-lag were having on me.

I was dropped off to live with three girls, in a house of refuge as it seemed to me then. Living with the girls there, I found out how small and petty another country can make you. No, strike that, it’s not the country’s fault! I guess it was my first experience with petty people, the likes of which I had never seen in my beloved Pune. They exist everywhere, but as fate would have it, I met the you-owe-me-25-cents people in Buffalo, for the first time. What a welcome.

Anyhow, after many-a-travail, I “settled in”. Going to Baldy Hall became a routine which I came to enjoy. After a visit to the CSE department, which seemed more Indian than any other, I would climb up the stairs and see Baldy Hall looming over me. I would climb the stairs to the third floor and enter my office. Unpack: turkey sandwich (es), an orange, an apple, orange/apple-cranberry/wild berry tea. I would switch on the computer and log on to msn messenger and yahoo messenger, and wait.

Friday, August 05, 2005


We went to Dalhousie in 2003, a long time after the English left India in the hands of the natives. Being the smug Kashmiris that we are, no mountainous terrain can elicit unimpeded praise from us, as nothing can beat the pristine and internationally acclaimed beauty of Kashmir. We grudgingly admitted that the mountains here and there (there being Kashmir) are comparable, the ones here almost as beautiful when smothered in the almost similar clouds.

We check in to a hotel, and Vijay Kumar, who is assigned to make our stay pleasant in the Buddha-namesake hotel (Hotel Guncha Siddhartha), is a mystery. I simply cannot say whether he is a haircut-Punjabi, a Himachali or one of the indeterminate northern Indians. The hotel is well placed, set at the top of a valley from which we can see the lower lights glowing in the cantonment area or the other nether reaches of Himachal at night. Vijay Kumar unravels the secret of the origins of these lights (That is the cantonment area, sir. Yes, you can go to the market there, no problem).

We venture out into the Dalhousie market the next day, vaguely looking for the sign I remembered from yesterday: Welcome to the Tibetan Refugee Market. These northeast-Indian and Tibetan markets are famous all over India; good stuff for cheap. I, being a souvenir buff, eagerly plunge into the market, looking for cheap and sturdy stuff. The first five or six shops here are open to the crisp hilly air, and after that the pathway is closeted: bordered on either side by shops no more than three or four feet apart. We see a lot of Punjabi tourists here; the highway to Dalhousie passes through Punjab for a considerable stretch and makes it a cool and hilly getaway from canals and endless fields. I end up buying stuff that isn't remotely souvenir-ish: two handbags. On my way out I pass a shop in which a TV is playing a program that sounds distinctly Chinese, but with a difference. I ask the owner which language the program is in. Tibetan is the answer. I make the mistake of enquiring whether it is similar to Chinese. Of course it is. Of course the Tibetan shopkeeper doesn't agree.

My waiting and exasperated brother and father are sent to get our car while I and mother wait outside the dilapidated looking building with the sign Raizada Hans Raj Memorial Library near it. Noticing the Entry free sign, I immediately want to go into the building. There is a small gate and a big gate, but both are locked. Peering in, it seems that the place is overgrown with stray grasses. I look to the left and espy another passage. My mother dismisses this: it must be the bank. I go in further… why here is the library. I ask the librarian what the other building is. That’s the church, he says. Can I go in; is it open, I ask. The front gates open on Sunday, you can try the back gate, is the reply. I have taken the young man off-guard. The way he jumped up from his seat to deal with my queries makes me wonder if he has ever been asked such questions before.

Mother and I browse around the place. We see the history of Dalhousie laid out in photographs, printouts and charted labors of students (About Dalhousie - By so-and-so, Sacred Heart, Dalhousie). My impersonal interest in Lord Dalhousie turns into mild contempt for the rigid governor-general of British India. I wander around looking at the pictures which show Dalhousie in stages, since its conception to its present. I pause at a picture which mother finds offensive: a photograph, to be precise, of Danny Dalhousie standing in front of a palanquin filled with White toddlers, being carried by native Indians. I find that I too am filled with disgust, looking at the faces of the children, snooty even in infancy, and the wary puzzlement in the eyes of the palanquin bearers, who look suitably poor in their tatters and rags of clothes. The filth-laden British, they completely sucked the blood out of the poor Indians, fumes mother. I myself find objectivity hard to come by.

Later, I think about the photograph of Danny and her White litter with their indigenous Brown servants. I think about the tale of apathy, maybe even mistreatment, that the rags of the servants tell. I think about present India, where the concept of a servant continues to be accepted with an obviousness comparable to that of the Dalhousie children. I wonder if we would be as outraged at the photograph if the children had been darker, Indian; it seems to me that although we would condemn cruelty irrespective of the perpetuating culture, the distinct British flavor of it is particularly unpalatable to the Indian tongue even now. I marvel at the ability of a snapshot of time to stir emotions that, perhaps, are woven into the fabric of being a modern, post-British Indian.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Goodbye, Kashmir

I clutched the shawl tightly around me and walked quickly, all the time expecting a bullet in the small of my back. I cast furtive glances to the left and the right, looking out for potential terror; but was greeted only by the ominous silence that has become so common in Kashmir. The marketplace was almost deserted, as if expecting a jolt to bring it back to life. There was only the rustling of chinar leaves to be heard in the broad, beautiful avenue lined with the unleaving, autumn trees. The fallen leaves formed a carpet underfoot, the leaves scrunch-scrunching with every step I took. I winced with every sound produced, each unleashing an intangible and irrational (under the circumstances) dread within me.

I quickened my pace further, making my portly companion pant in the effort to keep up. She cast me the amused look of the experienced indulging the naïve and allowed me my fearful and unfounded paranoia, a smile playing on her lips.

Being back in the state after ten odd years was an unnerving experience, to say the least. I was disturbed by the glances we were receiving, by the surprise registering on the native, 'majority' faces, on recognizing the 'minority' (i.e. we). I felt like the returned prodigal - wasteful, superfluous. I cursed inwardly the blatant proclamation of our identity because of my companion who was wearing the dejhour, the mangalsutra equivalent in Kashmiri Pandits. It is usually a gold thread with a bauble hanging at one end, worn in the inner ear like a mutant, shoulder length earring.

We walked quietly, barely exchanging words in the near-empty street. I had a persisting feeling of impending doom, expecting at any moment a calamity. It seemed to me that the excursion, undertaken for pleasure and refreshing old memories, was turning into a throat-knotting, sweat-breaking flight unto danger.

Of course my reaction was exaggerated. But ten years of bad news and horrific stories are ammunition enough to introduce into you an instinctive fear of the previously known and loved.
I could vaguely feel the anger and frustration bubbling in me, rebelling against my apprehension and unease. This was my home, my land. And here I was skulking through it, walking gingerly as if through a minefield, expecting a catastrophe at every instance.

The leaves of the chinar trees rippled at every hint of a breeze, the rusty brown ones falling down and adding to the crisp layer underfoot; and the reddish green ones clinging on to the trees as if for dear life, giving the huge trees a youthful prettiness. I looked up at the azure sky through the trees lining each side of the avenue on which we were walking, and it seemed as if we were watching the sky through a wreath.

I felt a sudden pull of sadness in my stomach, and at that very moment I placed my personal mental wreath on the grave that was my land. I couldn't keep coming back to my land which was not mine anymore, where I felt afraid to walk in the street, where I was now the stranger despite being born on that land, of that land.

I looked around at the tall mountains dwarfing entirely all that came before them. I inhaled the sharp, sweet air - so fresh, so native. I wouldn't find it anywhere else on this earth. I looked around for the last time and tried to cram all the details into my mind for posterity.
Goodbye, Kashmir. I cannot bear to have and not have you. So I shall leave and not look back, but I will always love you.

I hope I am not talking out loud.

My companion is concerned. It seems I look dazed, in a trance. I smile, shake myself and walk on.

If the bullet is going to come now, I hope it is fast and painless.

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