The ten year switch: passage through India
Nearly 10 years ago I travelled from India to the US for the very first time, to join an MFA program in creative writing. Like most people who make that journey, I thought I'd be back home in 2 or 3 years. Three presidential terms and four universities later, here I am, packing my bags for another trip to India tomorrow to renew my visa. The last time I visited was in the summer of 2010, also to renew my H1B visa.
I used to always describe my idea of perfect happiness as that moment when, after a long, tiring flight or series of flights across several connections, the airplane descends to the Indian ground and the proverbial heat and dust rise to greet you. This week, I'm headed back to India, no less excited than before about seeing old friends, spending time with family, eating all my favourite foods, and researching my novel. Oh and did I mention renewing my visa. Again.
But this time, there's a difference. Maybe it's the Ten Year Switch. Or the fact that I'm now a professor, finally, not a grad student, and that my Green Card is in process (which basically means I'm paying for both the Green Card and the work permit at the same time, Thanks INS!) Or maybe it's just inertia. Whatever the reason, for the first time, I'm not sure I'm headed "home". Where is home anyway? Is it where your parents and oldest friends live and where you grew up? Or is it where you have a job, a driver's licence, and health insurance? Is it the past or the present or the future if we can see one? Does it even matter? Isn't it enough that when the plane begins its descent, and the foggy Delhi skyline rises up to meet you, the heart still skips a beat?
Ten years seems like a significant milestone. It seems like a suitable time to take stock. In the last decade there have been enormous changes in the Indian landscape, economy, and culture. People are always telling me, "India has changed," with a disdainful look, as if I am just another ignorant expat who lives in the past and writes about dated stuff. I don't blame them. Every time I return, I see the change. Another mall in Gurgaon, another 50 rupees for a Barista coffee, another children's reality show on TV.
When I left India in 2002, there was no Facebook or Twitter. Social networking naturally makes it easier to stay in touch, not only with acquaintances but also with trends and issues. But it also creates, in my opinion, a false sense of familiarity, both with people and with places. It's easy - and naïve - to assume you know a culture because of someone's tweets or status updates. Sitting in my apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan - no doubt an unknown city to most people in India - I get glimpses of life in my home country. The infectious joy of Calcuttans when the Kolkata Knight Riders wins the IPL evokes long ago echoes of a city bursting with excitement over cricket. Posts about the West Bengal chief minister's high handedness, Aishwarya Rai's baby's weight, the hike in petrol prices, even the broadcast of Junior Masterchef, all lend a sense of immediacy over distance. This is comforting and misleading. But most of all, it whets the appetite.
Time then to get a taste of the real thing. Lucky people like me get to spend summers in the blistering heat of north India and winters in the brutal cold of West Michigan. In a less twisted world things would be the other way around, but, hey, I can't complain about the opportunity to live between countries, to belong in more than one, to have the freedom to go back and forth. And yet this going back and forth makes us gypsies, homeless and rootless. Constantly moving between lands, we nomads hover between liberation and loneliness. There is perhaps no better vantage point from which to observe a culture. Or two.
As I prepare to spend two and half months of soaking up the Indian sun - and hopefully a little monsoon rain -- I thought I'd share my observations and experiences on this blog as a little bit of an outsider and a little bit of an insider. Maybe these attempts to categorise and label are ridiculous. Maybe I'll just review all the different kinds of chaat I'm determined to sample over the next few weeks. I promise not to complain about the heat. This isn't really about me. It's about India and America, and the inevitable comparisons and contrasts. Most of all I have a question: has India really changed in the past 10 years? I hope the next two and a half months will provide some answers.
India, see you very soon.