Not Another Bollywood Love Story
As the only gori on the flight from Calcutta to Bangalore, I stand out. Cal was an old friend; beautiful chaos marked by the familiarity of a place I’d never been before. Now, in line for airport security, the historic architecture is a distant memory, and the security line is just as robust as any city street. Throngs of color and, scents of jasmine push against one other and jostle to get towards a small curtained booth. There is no formed line. One must hope for the best and push through the herd, eventually finding order in the chaos. When I finally get behind the curtain, and stand upon the platform, the security woman’s tough eyes go soft. While scanning me with a metal detector she curiously asks curiously “You look so nice in this dress. You like Salwar Kameez?”
Being a foreigner in India is met with all; resistance, curiosity, and wonder. When I tell Aunties and Uncles my brief story, they are both overjoyed and dismayed. Forget my career as a journalist and professor — they seem to overlook that part of my life. Everyone wants to know about my family and where I am from. Once it is established, I am not extremely light skinned from Kashmir, we move forth to the heart of the story.
In India, there are two reactions received by the foreign partner of an Indian. The first is “How nice! It’s lovely! Best of luck to you both” but the eyes say, “Thank God it’s not my son!” The more common reaction is more cautious, “How do the parents feel about it — they emphasize the feel as if I am some contagion that might infect the family unit. And then there is the wonder and curiosity of it all. While waiting at a bus stand in Bangalore, my partner got the equivalent of a medal. A small man who helped throw luggage on the bus came up to us. Looked at me. Looked at my partner. Looked at me again, then shook my partners hand. In Telugu, he said “You’re doing very good for your country, son.”
My feminist side wants to argue with this, and say “This is not about foreign policy or heroics!” But I can’t, I am not on my home turf, and culture is different here. Besides, the man did not mean harm, he was happily taken aback.
The moments when I feel like a dupatta-weilding doll are challenging. Because of the local dialect and language barrier, it happens often. The reporter who went to Bhopal and Uttar Pradesh to interview government officials and village protesters is completely washed away. I am judged on my external look alone.
I’m still me, and I still carry my subjectivity proudly, but there are limited ways to change peoples perceptions of an intercultural couple. Like when a group of rich kids from Delhi shouted “Welcome to Goa!” when they saw us, I want to say “We met in America, brother! — Or when other foreigners look at me in awe; one yoga moonbeam-type assumed I had picked myself up a nice “beach boy” for my entertainment, and I was forced to exclaim, “We’ve been together for years, and he is going to be a doctor!”
I often get stared at with intrinsic curiosity in most countries, but India takes it to a level of penetrating gaze. During my more frustrated moments, I start doing a Miss America parade wave as I depart the bus. But during my best moments, I break the stare by talking to people, and using the moment for cross cultural exchange. In the villages, where language barriers ensure no one will listen to me anyway, all I say is “NRI. Kerala. Love.” to get the message across. But sometimes the genuine curiosity we often get is inspiring, and moving.
At a Jain temple, the small daughter of the Hindu priest, followed me with giant opal-colored eyes, until she poked her older sister enough to muster up the courage and say, “Do you LOVE him?” Later, their inquisitive aunties fed me an apple, pulled me inside the temple, and whispered “Is it love?”
The same question happens when we don’t expect it at all. A Muslim auto rickshaw driver, who at midnight, assured my pretend-husband that he would take good care of me, both of us blindly trusting him and hoping for the best because I had no other way to get back to the hotel. The driver not only went out of his way to ensure we were on well lit roads, but under the Bangalore streetlights, but he asked “do you love him?” and when I answered Yes, he replied “May Allah’s Grace be upon you both” He didn’t overcharge me either.
It is these moments, in the new India, that I cherish. There is still much hope and dreaming. Maybe the world isn’t a Bollywood movie, but for a few seconds, my partnership can catalyze a strange notion that there is possibility.
Parting ways at another bus station with rain pouring down, we kissed goodbye. Only to realise that this public display of affection is out of line in India. Rather than being met with angry stares, and citizen-police, we were looked upon with big smiles and pats on the back. How funny that our difference can break down taboos.
And that is the adventure and challenge of pursuing this global love, I guess. One never knows how far it can take you.
When my partner was banished to some podunk village in the South of India for medical school, and I was living-it-up in Thailand, I never realised quite how far I’d go to support him. The school itself one of those for profit-medical junkets where families send their kids to live out a nostalgic dream, and to speed up the medical school process. No one really knows if their kids will actually be doctors. The amount of scandal at the school from suicide, to corruption, to a beheading at a local club was incredulous, but somehow on parents day, administrators made parents believe the kids get quality education when in fact, what they are learning is rote memorization, and perhaps how to pick up handfuls of hashish for five dollars.
Its a sad place, that saps creativity, and passion from students and rather than promote innovation. The students are intelligent, determined, and have few options. The oppression of being stuck in the system produces a stagnant disenchantment. With high school drama that gets magnified, mean girls that make pitbulls scamper away, local gundas, and a dysfunctional administration, the only way to realistically survive is to stay under the radar and do what your told. The only reprieve is to flee.
And we did….. All over the country. From Goa, to Kerala, to Coorg…to more random places like Shimoga and Agumbe, we got around.
Balancing Tradition and Modernity in the New India.
As we traveled, we learned. We learned about public heath, economics, international development. We learned how we were perceived, and how at the cusp of groundbreaking innovation, people were still in awe of outsiders. We learned more than we could ever in a school. And we made connections with people, who we never thought we would. It is our own small impact. Like when we built sandcastles and Malpe beach, and local children had never seen it before. Once they understood it was ok to break the status quo—- to play in the sand, the kids engineered magnificent castles, adding creativity and spark to linear architectural techniques. Laughing in the sand, we all built sandcastles until the sunset and tide washed the scuptures away.
It is symbol of the change and progress happening when migration, inquiry, and democracy unfold. To break free from just being “schooled” and to start learning and listening to the environment around. This privilege of travelling we engage in, this challenging of traditional ideas that we stand for, is all about openness.
We have learned many things, but the biggest lesson, is when travelling, you just have to be courageous and say yes. The waitress that brings you coke instead of orange juice, will look at you and smile, and instead of both of you losing face, decide you should be happy with what you have. You reluctantly agree. “Maybe I wanted coke all along” you think to yourself. It’s not settling, is earnest. In India, this pattern seems rational. “Yes, I want to be on a speeding metal tube on a cliff with three hundred people. I wanted this.” “Yes I will buy five meters of cloth of Kashmiri cotton. 300 rupees a meter? You betcha.” “Of course I will spend my day watching Khali Khabi Kushi Gham with you! It is indeed, the greatest film of all time.” Just keep saying “Yes,” and India will open up
Finally finding happiness in being who I am, no matter what soil I stand on.
its doors to your heart, creativity, and possibly, intestines.
I said “Yes” and I found myself in an incredible partnership. The fact that our existence makes people stop what they are doing and inquire, and makes them think about their surroundings, and question norms. That’s progress.
I will keep saying yes and embracing what comes to me. And I continue to find myself in on of the most unique journeys of my life.