My bus stops at this Dhaba every time I come to Gujarat. The driver screams “Toilet inside a hotel! 30min stop only!” because he is irritated with everyone requesting pee-breaks . If you are Indian you know there is no hotel here. Hotel, restaurant, malls – these words were introduced to us late and without proper context, so we usually use them interchangeably. It is a place to eat and rest, you could stay over too if you don’t mind sleeping on wooden cots near open fields. Honestly, if you are a child of a middle class Indian, you’ve had this experience as late as the 90s. Millennials here have a completely different Indian context to the 90s.
Two days ago, I was standing here (pictured above) staring at the open fields, admiring the fantastic weather and the roads as we entered Gujarat. The state has been a home to me and as I travel across geographies, I have really come to appreciate the Gujarati spirit. This state is definitely unlike any in India. It gave me a great education in diversity through life experiences. I don’t remember why but while I stood at this spot, lost in thought, I imagined how amazing History classes with Esther Ma’am would be now. There was a brief discussion once in my Econometrics class with Mansi Ma’am on the Jewish genocide during WWII and I remember how flustered I got. Later I acknowledged that it was borrowed pain and expression from Esther Ma’am, after having heard her scream “atrocities!” repeatedly in class. So despite the time difference between all of my experiences, in this moment as I stand here, alone with a bus full of men (literally), I am extremely aware of correlations between time and experiences on my singular path of progress/learning.
And this bothers me because, I admit this with great hesitation, I don’t think our world understands natural progression. We all seem to grow and change as individuals yet somehow nobody firmly and readily acknowledges history. Yesterday, I was listening to an audio of a History lecture by David M Kalivas from 2005, possibly at Middlesex Community College. I found it during my rare dives into random regions of the internet. It was a lecture on ancient Indian history and I loved how he spoke about India’s diversity. There was a graciousness and sensitivity in his words which, to me, expressed a genuine appreciation I have only seen in 60+ age-group foreigners visiting Madhya Pradesh. You see, MP is an incredible state if you want to understand diversity. I can not emphasise enough the emotional connect that I have strangely come to have with the state. Madhya Pradesh has always been a big central state (even after the creation of Chattisgarh), a massive region covering footprints of every dynasty that has ever ruled India. I could rattle off names like the guide we met in Mandav, but it would make the history tedious. Therefore anyone who travels far and wide to come to Madhya Pradesh, does come to see Hindustan ka dil. A diversity that goes so deep into our culture, it’s easy to understand how it is impossible to separate our present from our history.
Today is Holi. One of my favourite festivals because I was brought up in Mathura from age 1-6years.I grew up watching Holi at Vrindavan every year. We celebrated Holi with a fervor that only one other event in my life has possibly equalled (it was Hellfest). To this day I can not describe to anyone the madness and freedom everyone felt during the celebration. There was no sleazy hideous behaviour that urban Indians have come to associate with Holi. We let ourselves lose inhibitions and damn, if I reminisce more, I will cry with joy. These are just memories of a child. A child who was growing up in her present while surrounded by her history.
As a recent 25 year old, I am a different person. My parents have changed too. We have moved into a significantly different lifestyle through years. I haven’t “played” Holi in the last 6 years due to circumstance. Any Holi my parents have had in recent years, has been a quiet polite affair – much, much different from the crazy, wild times in Mathura I clearly remember. We belong to a more sophisticated, mild mannered class of society now, but we are aware of our journey and respectful of it.
So finally I will come to the point I think I wrote this for – I don’t want to see any non-Indians portray my country with colours and Holi unless they understand my journey. It is getting extremely frustrating when a lot of foreigners visit India and only pick the drastic versions of India to describe the country. I am tired of this beautiful country being depicted as exotic or spiritual because while it is definitely so, it is not so for you to garner attention on your months long visits to predictable tourist locations. Yes, 75% of India is rural but when you single out that fact for any storytelling of this country, you reduce our identity into a pigeonhole. Then you further exacerbate my identity by retelling your myopic experiences to everyone you know.You just contribute to me being continuously treated like a second class citizen in every part of the world in which your stories exist. And while I know I stepped into the room equally (frankly, more) educated than you, I still got seen as the brown girl wearing badly styled clothes. You refused to take in any other aspect of my identity.
Now that’s ok, if you choose to do that because of whatever belief system you have, I can not help your ignorance. But in a rare, maybe the most nationalist sentiment that I can muster, I beg my country’s people to respect and appreciate the diversity of Indian history. Go out into every corner of the world and recreate diverse Indian identities. And before you do that, please understand one simple thing – don’t romanticize India. India is a reality, any emotional exaggeration prevents me from being seen as a functioning modern day person. But I can’t blame you either. We are the country of Kalidas, Ghalib, Thiruvalluvar. A country where poetry from three widely separate cultures came together to flourish. A country that stretches as much to the East as to the West. As much to the South as to the North. A country whose stories I keep falling deeply in love with, I cannot blame anyone for getting excited by the flowers and the colours and the poetry.
After all, I had a grandfather who took me to Vrindavan. “Banke Bihari!” he would rejoice. I had a mother who taught me the rituals and the songs to sing on Holi. I can’t expect a spectator to have that intimacy. I can only welcome them to hear my stories.
(My father’s Holi in college, Trichy 1987)
(Cleaning my sister in a tub on the verandah, Mathura 1998)
(Holi in Vadodara 2003)
(Continuing the tradition of making gujhiya and potato papad at home for Holi, Vadodara 2017)
(Holi in Vadodara 2017)
(The invasion of Snapchat filters, Vadodara 2017)