It’s been 3 years. In 2007, after graduating from undergrad, I last made a trip to India, not realizing it might be my last time in three years. Before that I had been back to my home country every summer. I never got a summer job; I always reserved my summers for India- to visit family and friends. I usually went with my parents, stayed in Mumbai for a couple of weeks and spent the rest of the time in Chennai. Mumbai was home to us in India; we had an apartment that stayed locked up until we came to air it out and occupy it every summer. The people who lived in that apartment complex from 1990, when we first bought that apartment are almost like family, as is often the case when you know people for so long. We know the good, bad and ugly about each other and each summer we would visit all of them and we would bring gifts with us. Both parties pretended like everything wasn’t already available in India; somehow if it came in a Target or Office Max bag, it added prestige to the item in question. In return for gifts, we ate wonderful home-cooked meals and gabbed as if we hadn’t been separated by oceans for the last 12 months.
After the usual stint in Mumbai, we would go to Chennai, my hometown, where we split time between my paternal and maternal grandparents. Visiting the maternal grandparents usually meant I also got to see my baby cousins (ok, they are teenagers now. Paternal grandparents usually meant a more subdued time, but an A/C private room and visits to the neighborhood temples. It was always the usual rituals; I participated partly because I didn’t think I had a choice in the matter and partly because it connected me to a land that I didn’t think I could bear to feel disconnected from after moving to the USA.
Fast forward to June, 2010, a day after my 25th birthday, I am sitting in the Heathrow airport on a 6-hr layover en route to India writing this blog entry. This year’s trip is less ritualistic and quite different from previous ones. For one, I am traveling completely alone the entire time. For another, this trip wasn’t forced by my parents or guilt-induced because of aging grandparents. This trip is a personal journey to signify a rather crucial turning point in my life. Lots of things are going on. I just graduated from masters and will be starting a new job- my first big girl job with 10 vacation days a year (don’t get me started…). I am also applying for USA citizenship after having lived there for 10 years and being a green card holder for five. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at anyone who suggested I would give up my Indian citizenship for a USA one, but such is the irony of life. You always assume you know yourself so well that you can plan ahead and avoid surprises, but in the end you cause your own surprises and become unrecognizable to the old you. Let’s just say that if sixteen-year old me traveled forward in time and saw the twenty-five year old version, she would be flabbergasted by this decision.
With this change in passport color and title, comes a change in identity. This will be (unless INS decides to sit on my citizenship application for an unnecessarily long time) my last trip to India with my navy blue passport with the Indian emblem on it, stamped with all my previous visits to the country. Now, as I grow accustomed to the idea that USA has indeed become home and a part of my cultural identity, I have to remind or perhaps understand for the first time, what my Indian heritage means to me. I have set aside 3 weeks to do just this.
I will spend some of this time visiting my family; performing the rituals from past trips, staying with my paternal and maternal grandparents for a couple of days each, and see my teenage cousins who have been corresponding with me over email and facebook chat for some time now (wtf…I could have sworn they were seven yesterday). I will spend some time in Mumbai, see who ever is left of my friends that didn’t foray to the USA or UK for graduate education. But what I am really excited about is my completely and ridiculously unplanned trip to the northern parts of India. The furthest I have been before is Delhi, which I plan to visit again to make it over to the marbled world wonder I last saw when I was eleven. I have always been fascinated with the northern parts of India, fenced in by the Himalayas, flirting with Nepal on one side, and Pakistan on the other. While the short length of my trip doesn’t afford me time to explore all or even much of that region at all, I hope to be able to see at least some of this area of India that has been an enigma to me for the last 25 years.
In a class on intercultural communication in graduate school, I read an article by Dean C. Barnlund called Global Village, where the author remarks that when fish decides that it wants to explore the world, it doesn’t think to start by exploring water. Even as intelligent and sophisticated as human beings are, we often make the same mistake. We want to explore and learn about the rest of the world, without attempting to understand where we come from and how that defines us. I have seen India through my parents’ eyes, through the media’s eyes, and through my history textbooks. Over the next three weeks, I hope to see, touch, smell, and taste India for myself.
So wish me luck and lots of epiphanies on this journey…