It’s been a little over a decade now that I have been perceived as a representative of India — a nation of 1.2 billion people, over a thousand different languages, many more dialects, and a cuisine that’s as varied as the sub-cultures pervading the day-to-day lives of fiercely religious yet surprisingly secular communities.
How do you represent such a diverse country when you’ve seen only 20 percent of it first-hand? How do you answer questions about the magnificence of the temples in the south or the grandeur of the Himalayas? How do you describe the feeling of being above the clouds in the vast tea estates of the east or the perpetual thirst one experiences in the arid west? How do you help someone plan a journey you haven’t been on yourself?
Born and raised in Lucknow, a small town in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, I didn’t identify myself as “Indian” until I traveled to Iowa City, IA, as a 23-year-old pursuing a master’s degree in journalism. I hadn’t had the need to. Everywhere I went in India, people would ask me which city I was from and that was the end of that. You can’t say that to Iowans. They wouldn’t know what to make of it. Within a week I had realized that I was expected to know the answers to all the political, cultural and social questions that arose in people’s minds when they saw their token “brown” student in the department. While there were the handful of ignorants, there were many folks who had been to India on numerous occasions. They would expect me to “relate” to experiences without realizing it’s one-third the size of the United States and traveling isn’t part of the culture in this third-world country.
I was one of the lucky few who did get to travel in the summer vacations because of my dad’s wanderlust, but even so we didn’t cover much ground; a day here, a week there and then it was back to the same ol’ neighborhood.
And now when I visit, it’s only for a week-to-10 days. Where people sit in an uncomfortable economy-class seat for well over 18 hours to fulfill their dream of “visiting the Taj,” my sole purpose is to spend quality time at home, with the family, eating love-soaked, home-cooked meals. That’s the India I know best. And that’s the India I share with you.
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