By SHABINA S. KHATRI
NEW ERA MAGAZINE
January 2008 Edition
Where are you from? I am asked this question often, but I still don’t know exactly how to answer it. The most truthful response is too long to give to strangers in passing – I live in Qatar but am an American-born Muslim whose parents are Indian immigrants.
So I take the easy way out – I am from America. Then, if the questioner seems unsatisfied because my answer hasn’t explained why I wear a headscarf and have brown skin – I am from India.
Technically, India is not my country. I’ve been there maybe half a dozen times, never for very long. I am a foreigner there, who looks different, talks different, walks different. My body fails me in India, my stomach rejecting the country’s savory delights, my tongue refusing attempts to bargain like a native, my soft feet cracking too easily under the influence of constant dust and heat.
But I can’t deny that it’s shaped me, that it helps explain me, that it is a key piece in the puzzle that is my life.
As a child, trips to India were often unpleasant. I missed eating Cheerio’s, playing Nintendo and sleeping in my own bed. I hated the mosquito bites, the heat rash and dirty streets. But with age comes appreciation, and these days my experiences in the motherland are filled with amazement and insight.
I spent a week in India last month, but the country still appears in my dreams. I close my eyes, and I see the streets of Mumbai, of Ahmedabad, of Baroda. I see my smiling wrinkled grandparents, the aged but alert eyes of my husband’s great-aunt, the delicate translucent skin covering my cousin’s new baby boy.
I imagine living in the tiny disheveled flat that once housed my adolescent father, and I try to picture sharing a bedroom with three sisters as my mother did in her youth. My family, my husband’s family – these are the things I see as an insider. Though our realities are different, our blood binds us, and by knowing them I am connected to India in a most intimate way.
But there is also Shabina the outsider. The voyeur who marvels at the novelty of black auto-rickshaws and the drivers who deftly maneuver them, the flapping and fluttering of brightly-patterned saris and high-flying paper kites, the roaming animals that eat garbage from the streets, and the new neon-colored shopping centers, erected indifferently alongside old dull dusty beige buildings and silver-gray makeshift homes with corrugated iron roofs that do nothing to keep out the rain.
As an outsider, I delight in inhaling the spicy smells, saffron and onion and ginger and turmeric, and wrinkle my nose at the musty odors, the stench of open sewage and the sweat of millions of bodies laboring to make it through another hard hot day.
India creates a tremendous tug-of-war within me, as I imagine it has to a much greater extent for my parents, and millions of others who left it to establish homes in other parts of the world. I wonder if it’s any different now for the natives struggling to keep up with the economic revolution sweeping their country, the one that allows for greater opportunities, yes, but also a new social stratification that is so pronounced, you can hang your hat on the hooks (there are separate ones for the haves and have-nots).
I spent only a week in the motherland, not nearly enough to understand a blessed thing about the place. The time passed fast and slow, the whole trip a paradox between never wanting to leave such a simple life and desperately yearning to return to a country where I can eat all the ice cream I want, take a hot shower every day and never worry about getting sick from the local water supply.
The funny thing is, I live in Qatar now, not the states where I was born and raised. So my sense of returning home is a bit wonky. Back in college, home was mostly my cozy apartment in Ann Arbor, though I oft-referred to the house of my parents, the one I grew up in and moved back into after graduation, as my home. From now on, I think home will be wherever my husband and I lay our heads down to sleep at night, as long as we’re together, because a family makes a home.
Though… I suppose if that’s the case, since I have family in India, then India is also my home. To be an outsider in my own home is a small matter, I think, one that I’ve dealt with before while living as a scarfhead in the states, or visiting Muslim countries while sporting my Western-style clothes and undeniably American attitude.
The larger issue that comes with having a home is grappling with the responsibilities associated with it. To deny that I owe the people of India would be to deny my own heritage.
But…what do I owe them? What can I offer them? I think after acknowledging the trust I must work not to be overwhelmed by it. And to do that, it helps to narrow my focus.
During my trip, my husband and I succeeded in bringing a lot of smiles to the faces of elderly loved ones. We were guests but our hosts needed us just as much as we needed them.
That understanding, when it finally hit me, after so many years of dreading trips to India, felt like the sun breaking through the clouds. It felt like possibility, like movement, like responsibilities being fulfilled.
And that is something, I suppose.
I didn’t spend enough time in India to learn anything. All I know is that I can’t wait to go back.