A native knows the scene, right? Wrong.
I was born in India and have been a fairly regular visitor for the last thirty years. Earlier this year, when my university in Perth gave me a travel grant to go to India to finish researching the book I’m writing as part of my PhD studies, to say I whooped for joy would be an understatement. In this series of blog posts I will describe my experiences as a visitor in the country of my birth. I speak Hindi and Gujarati fluently, and I understand Marathi, Sindhi and Punjabi – a consequence of a childhood spent in homes where the parents of my friends spoke those languages. You’d think that would qualify me as a native.
Everywhere I went I was asked, ‘Where are you from?’ My responses usually went like this – ‘Madhya Pradesh,’ I said, ‘a little town no one’s heard of.’ My interrogators would repeat, ‘Yes, but where are you really from? Where is your homeland?’ I’d say, ‘Well, my parents are from Gujarat,’ and they would nod. ‘You’re not a Hindu, though? And where do you live now?’ ‘Australia,’ I’d say, ‘Perth.’ Finally a wide smile indicated they understood my hybridity. The conversation would lapse comfortably into Hindi or Marathi and they’d ask me what I thought of the new airport and did I think corruption was much worse now than it had ever been and did my children speak Hindi. Cab drivers helpfully pointed out landmarks – Taj Mahal Hotel, Gateway of India, Flora Fountain, CS Terminus, until I said gently I had lived in the city many years ago so there was no need to treat me as a tourist.
In the crumbling University, students were on a mid-term break, preparing for exams. The academics I spoke to were distracted by lack of resources, time, dust and stray dogs who wandered in and out of buildings. ‘I teach a paper on Australian culture,’ said one academic, in between sips of chai in the desolate canteen. She mentioned a few names, writers, poets, she thought I might be interested in, then rushed away, promising to meet with me again. She never did. After waiting a week, I gave up trying to meet her and went to the library, with its smell of cold concrete and decay, handed over my backpack to security and carried my laptop into the English section. I walked along the shelves, noting the elderly books, the dust, the haphazard nature of the collection. I spent the day there – browsing, reading, sneezing. I looked at the book I held – Song of India by Anees Jung and thought I heard the melody.
I took an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel room with its all-male staff and relatively quiet location. I wondered where all the women were. I didn’t see many women in the week at the hotel, despite an all-girls school next door and a park where podgy couples walked briskly in the evenings. I rang my sister who lived a four-hour train ride away and arranged to go and live with her while I contemplated the next step of my travels through India as an observer.