[Text and picture by James Mutti; the author has a Master's degree in South Asian Studies. He hails from Seattle.]
Today is June 18. Tomorrow my wife arrives in Delhi.
In November, I received Government of India research approval to spend a year in India. In December we were married in Seattle. My wife is in school to be a naturopathic doctor and chose to stay in Seattle to take classes while I pursue my research in India. Our relationship has spanned nine years and we have often spent time apart. We have learned the value of being away from each other and of pursuing our different interests, even if it means we will be temporarily separated. And, hey, this time we’re married – we officially have the rest of our lives to be together.
Oh, and in February we discovered that Brita was pregnant. Feeling somewhat guiltier about leaving than I did before, I got on my plane for Delhi a few weeks later.
I arrived in Delhi on February 21. After a few days in Delhi, I spent a month in Mussoorie. I have been living in Lucknow since. This is my fourth time in India. I first came here 15 years ago and stayed in Chennai for a week. Five years later I returned and spent 3 months in Bihar and traveled the south for a month. Last year, missing India, I came back to travel UP, Uttarkhand and Rajasthan for a month. And here I am again, back in India.
I am now beginning to feel comfortable in India – a place I have for some reason loved from the beginning, but which has always been challenging. I largely know what to expect, how things work, what I will be faced with. India always presents surprises, but I feel as though I have developed some of the filters that most Indians must develop growing up here. The things that were shocking to me the first time I came here, I now accept and take for granted. I am able to better see through the perceived chaos that often dominates foreigners’ experiences in India. Of course, there are moments that remind me that I will never be fully at home here, but I don’t feel like such an alien here anymore.
Indians may not appreciate the culture shock that many foreigners experience when they first arrive here. Maybe it’s not so much culture shock per se, but the constant buzzing crowds, the cacophony of noise, new and strange sights, the attention often aggressively demanded by rickshaw wallahs, beggars, and scheming touts, the often extreme climate, the stark awareness of one’s difference and privilege.
OK, maybe this is culture shock. And these impressions are made all the more strongly in places that tourists tend to end up, making the simplest of tasks feel difficult and, if they are completed, like major accomplishments. – taking a rickshaw across town for example. The difficulties of everyday life can obscure the bigger picture.
This will be Brita’s first visit here, and it has caused me to think back to my first experiences in India. What will she be experiencing when she arrives? What will her impressions and reactions be to what she sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches here? And what can I do for her to smooth things out some?
I like to think that my presence and guidance will lessen the culture shock, that the excitement and joy of being together again will push the difficulties of adjusting into the background. But it’s me against India. Can I really expect to win that battle? The answer is no. Familiar companionship does not erase the impressions one has upon arriving in a new country and the mental adjustments required. Last year, Brita and I went to Vietnam to visit my brother and his wife. We still had to work through our personal ‘culture shock’, even though we had family to host and guide us.
This time we are in different situations. I feel like a pretty seasoned visitor to India, someone who can see past the differences and appreciate what India has to offer. Brita will be a rookie, and a pregnant one at that. Let’s see what happens…
I went to IGI to pick up Brita on the night of the 19th. After impatiently waiting for about an hour, I saw her come through customs, pushing her cart full of baggage, looking happy and a bit dazed. We hugged and said excited hellos. She regaled me with amusing stories of her flight from New York to Delhi – how at the gate in New York everyone had pushed their way onto the plane and brought on as many bags as they could. India had begun in the Newark Airport!
We stepped out into the Delhi night. It felt pretty nice to me. Brita was amazed it was so hot. She also thought the airport smelled. Our cab ride to Connaught Place was typical – it was noisy, stop and go, and felt a bit dangerous. “What are bidis?” Brita asked when I told her what our cabbie was lighting up now and then. What exactly are bidis? They’re bidis! I held my hand on her belly to feel our baby kick for the first time. We were both thankful for the pleasant accommodations provided by the organization sponsoring my research and slept well, except that Brita was awake by four A.M. for the next few days. Her preference for extra cold AC was very Indian, but the chill woke me in the night more than once.
I had big plans in mind for our stay in Delhi. I figured Brita would need at least a day to settle in and adjust. But then we would tour Delhi – see the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid, Humayun’s Tomb, Lodi Gardens. We would stroll CP’s inner circle in the evening and go to Agra to see the Taj. This was a little ambitious to say the least. Brita’s jet lag, her sensitivity to the heat, and the alien busyness of the city meant we did little exploring. Also, our desire to have some quality time alone together was no small factor in our staying in.
We still had to get food, though, and Brita’s sensitivity to spicy foods made that a challenge. When ordering food, I would ask if dishes were spicy. “No sir, not spicy,” we were often assured only to find that to Brita, they were far too spicy. The spiciness scale in India is much different than in the US. This meant she ate a lot of chapattis, zeera rice, pizza and ice cream. Staying away from spicy foods meant she did not have to face using her left hand in the toilet for a few days – a proposition she was not looking forward to (in the end it wasn’t even necessary thanks to the readily available toilet paper most places we went).
One Thursday morning, we walked to India Gate and enjoyed a pleasant morning in the park, people-watching under the shade of a big tree. I went to the tourist office that afternoon hoping to get ourselves a taxi or a tour to Agra. Unknown to me, the Taj is not open Fridays. See? I’ll never quite be at home here. We were leaving for Mussoorie early Saturday. When I returned to our room, I broke the news to Brita in my bad Hindi-accented English, “So sorry madam. Visiting Taj Mehel on Fridays – not possible.” She laughed. We watched Bunty aur Babli instead. That’s as close as we got to the Taj Mahal.
Our trip to Connaught Place for dinner that night was traumatic. Two young friendly street dogs greeted us as we got off our auto. Brita laughed and played with them. They pawed her and even jumped up on her, but she didn’t mind. The dogs made me a bit nervous and I wanted to get into our restaurant.
As we neared, a private security guard quickly stepped to the dogs with his lathi and smacked one sharply. Luckily Brita’s back was to the guard, and she was blocking my view. She wanted to know if he had actually hit the dog. I said I couldn’t see, but my gut told me that he had not missed his target. We stepped inside of the restaurant. At our table, her eyes filled with tears, feeling guilty that she had “gotten those dogs beaten.” I don’t think her sadness was simply selfish guilt, but also at the hard life faced by the street dogs and at the cruelty of the security guard who probably thought he was merely helping us.
On the way home she asked me questions about the disfigured people asking for money, about the young children desperately trying to sell us wood carvings. Questions I couldn’t answer. She was so sensitive to the hardship on display around us. I had largely blotted it out. I felt it was necessary to do so in order to live my life here, but what had happened to me? Had I lost my humanity, my sympathy for others? Our night ended with an argument with an auto driver.
The next day we returned to CP. Because of her pregnancy and the heat, Brita’s clothes from the States were not cutting it. She was hot and uncomfortable and it seemed to me that a nice thin cotton salwar suit would be perfect for her. We went to Fabindia. From the moment we walked into the cool air-conditioning Brita was dazzled. The shelves and racks of colorful clothes suggested so many possibilities. But she needed a whole outfit – or two or three – and we needed to do some serious matching and accessorizing.
After finding the right sizes for her we started mixing and matching. I have to admit that I hate shopping for clothes at home, but this was fun. I actually felt like I had some fashion sense when it came to Indian women’s clothing. Who would have guessed? So we bought clothes for Brita. And then for the baby. And then for Brita’s mom. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and about two hours after we walked in, we left for dinner with our paper bag full.
We left Delhi 2 days later and drove through the city’s early morning streets. People lying on burlap sacks or the bare cement lined the sidewalks and medians. Brita stared in awe. I recalled myself similarly amazed by such a sight on the way into Delhi from the airport 10 years ago. Now I did not think much about it.
She wondered, “I knew people slept on the streets, but like this? And so many?” I felt I should be responding like Brita – more saddened, more enraged, more disgusted by this unfairness. But to make it through the day, I no longer was. I had begun to see past these things and maybe somehow rationalize them. And I felt guilty about it. I felt I was betraying my convictions about making the world a better, more compassionate place. Brita’s fresh eyes were making me see India anew.
Our ride on the Shatabdi to Dehra Dun was pleasant. We enjoyed the pampering and the views of the countryside through tinted windows. With the rest of the vacationing Delhiites, we trekked to the taxi stand from the Dehra Dun train station. I left Brita with our bags while I discussed our ride with taxi drivers. It was hot, crowded, noisy, and smelly. Brita later confessed to feeling like she was about to pass out in the middle of this taxi stand. Imagining a circle of Indians surrounding Brita’s unconscious body in the mud of the taxi stand and a big middle-aged woman loudly asking what had happened to the white lady, I chuckled.
Mussoorie was even more crowded than I imagined it would be. It was not the idyllic beautiful mountain town I wanted to share with Brita. We elected to spend most of our time away from the maddeningly bustling Mall and our stay was very pleasant and relaxing. While there, we made the momentous decision to open the envelope that told us our baby’s sex. We had agonized over it. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Did we really want to know now? Or did we want to wait until it was born? Anyway, now we know, but it’s still a secret.
Brita more than once said our stay there made her forget where she was. The guesthouse struck her as being very British, a comment that surprised me. It seemed like a thoroughly upper middle-class Indian establishment to me. Perhaps I had reached a point of effectively internalizing the multiplicity, the diversity of India, of the variety of the Indian experiences available. Perhaps Brita was still attempting to make her surroundings familiar by comparing or relating them to places and experiences of her own. Perhaps the quaint guest house and the laid-back formality of the locals didn’t quite fit her idea of India.
Our trip to Lucknow did not go so well. We happily boarded the night train – I splurged on a 2AC car – and left Dehra Dun. Partway through the night, the AC broke. In one fell swoop, my attempts to shelter Brita from a hot, trying train experience were dashed. After 3 or 4 hours without AC, the train made a long stop.
We stood on a dark platform at 4 AM somewhere in UP. It was cooler outside than in the stifling car. Brita was a bit nervous among the dozens of sleeping forms on the cement and the agitated men from our car pacing next to the train and speaking a language she didn’t understand. Then, a middle-aged man from our car wearing glasses asked in English if this was our first trip to India and if we had had this kind of experience here before. My response that I had many such experiences made him laugh and we all shared the misfortune together in the hot night. The AC was repaired and we continued our journey.
Our arrival in Lucknow did not go so well either. After the night of bad, interrupted sleep, the heat and crowds and smell of the Lucknow railway station were even more abrasive than usual. While I had become accustomed to this station, it was unlike anywhere Brita had been in India so far. Then I made the mistake of hailing us a cycle rickshaw instead of an auto. Our slow ride in the muggy heat through the packed streets of the city, exposed to the stares of passersby, was too much for Brita who just wanted to get to my home. When I saw her eyes wet with tears, I put my hand on her leg to comfort her. She was exhausted and overwhelmed and we were both glad when we arrived home. It was an oasis from the hardship outside, but I also felt that I was no longer forcing a world on her she couldn’t bear at that moment.
One of the most difficult aspects of being in India for foreigners is interacting with people begging. Most people from the US just don’t have to deal with begging much in their life. And if they do, it’s often from adults with some type of substance abuse problem. Not that these people are not deserving of help, but it’s easier to justify saying no to a middle-aged drunk holding a sign than to a persistent shabbily-dressed 8 year old girl tugging at your sleeve. Over lunch with my aunt and uncle who had also arrived in Lucknow, we all had an intense conversation about giving money to people begging.
I think our points of view during this discussion reflected our experiences in India. I like to think I spoke from experience. I had been told that, despite appearances, certain people begging in this commercial area of Lucknow were in fact quite well off. I had interacted with others who were very rude and aggressive. I also noticed that the group of young girls tailing us had watched dozens of well-off Indians walk past before they jumped up smiling and made a beeline for us. Not everyone begging had a similar story and motivations. But peoples’ stories were not always apparent.
Brita, who did not carry any money on her while she was here, asked why we didn’t give money to everyone. Why wouldn’t we, given our privilege? My uncle got flustered and agitated, giving abstract arguments about putting kids in school one minute and the next minute expressing frustration with the lack of small change that one could conceivably give to people begging. In the end, we were all left to grapple with the difficulty of being well-off foreigners in a land where there is a lot of need. Everyone’s point of view had validity. But what had become clear was that daily life in India forces you to acknowledge your own selfishness in a way that you rarely have to in the US. It’s a hard experience for do-gooders to endure.
After lunch, the four of us went to Big Bazar. Since being in Lucknow I had rarely gone there. For my necessities I liked shopping at the small shops and stalls that were closer to my home. I knew the owners and liked the idea of giving my money to them, not a faceless chain store like Big Bazar. But my aunt had showed us some clothes that they had gotten for some young relations at Big Bazar in Bhubaneshwar. I was impressed and so was Brita. So we wanted to see what our local Big Bazar had to offer.
A few months ago my brother in Vietnam (whose wife is also pregnant) asked, “Has Brita gotten into baby shopping yet?” As far as I knew, she had not. But Fabindia had been the first step. We stayed in Big Bazar for some time, looking at the funny English slogans on the tiny baby clothes – King of Dice, Hungry Crocodile, Don’t Eat Bad Cream. Then we pawed through the 49 rupee bins where we found bright orange velour baby track pants. They were fantastic! We got pairs for our baby and all the other new babies we knew – 6 pairs in all. None of them had a price tag though, and so as I waited at the cash register with a pile of outlandish baby clothes for a clerk to figure it out, other customers and clerks looked strangely at me. Some laughed. It was admittedly ridiculous and I laughed too.
We came back to Delhi a few days later, and Brita experienced what I had 10 years ago. On arrival, Delhi seemed so foreign and unfamiliar to her. Now she remarked that it seemed so normal and like any big city after where we had been. I smiled. She was beginning to adjust to the experience of being in India.
She was sad to leave. We wouldn’t see each other again for 3 more months. We had genuinely enjoyed our time together. She looks pregnant now, but not that obviously pregnant. When we see each other again she will be less than a month from delivering. Our life will be much different. I asked how she felt about leaving India. She paused and thought. “It’s kind of like eating meat,” she said as an off-again, on-again vegetarian, “I’m glad to be doing it, but I feel guilty that I feel glad.” I liked this. It was honest and succinctly expressed the conflicting feelings that India often raises in foreigners.
Picture by Mayank Austen Soofi