As a wee child in Varanasi before I threw away my backpacker wardrobe.
I’ve been coming and going from India for the last ten years.
In 2004 I started to hatch the first plans to flee the terrifying life laid out for me — that of a student in a Singapore university, doomed for the corporate world or for the civil service — into the wide open arms of India, which changed everything, and who I have grown to love unconditionally. Those early escape plans evolved into a lifestyle I would not trade for anything in the world, one which has given me ample global career and life opportunities simply because I could not sit still when I was 19.
I’m currently finishing my book, a travelogue and guidebook to India for independent female travellers, which seems timely and necessary at this point; I also set up and run The Gyanada Foundation, which aims to help girls in India receive a better education. I look forward to a few more decades with India in my life in a big way.
I’ve written a lot about India in various forms, but here are some posts previously posted here about India:
- Portraits Unphotographable
- Bombay Burning
- We Have No Dungarees, Saar
- The Great Southern Trunk Road
- Sudder Street
- A Bus and Chai Story
Speak of India and its great cities, and someone is bound to correct you.
Mumbai, they say, offended, as though you didn’t know any better. In other situations, Chennai. Yet I do say and I do like saying Bombay and Madras because those were the names we had for those cities, growing up a sea away from the subcontinent, and nostalgia counts for something, nationalist political correctness be damned.
It’s a weird question I cannot answer whenever someone asks the inevitable, why do you love India so?
Where do I begin?
Do I begin with the story of how hearing my China-born grandparents conversing in market-Tamil with our Tamil neighbours as a child mesmerised me whole, leading me to watch Tamil movies endlessly wondering why I could not understand the dialogue? I was convinced I was Indian, there was just no other way about it: being told at age 5 that I was a disgrace of a Chinese person for not being good enough at a language nobody spoke at home (we spoke dialects and English instead of Mandarin), only made me more determined. The singing and the dancing and the prancing around trees made sense to me; the kungfu television shows felt alienating.
Or perhaps it has something to do with how I was born a stone’s throw away from Little India, how my parents were wed on Diwali, and for the astrologically-minded — of which I am not — that made perfect sense to explain away my identity confusion? My solo walks around Little India as a teenager led me into informal Tamil lessons I can no longer remember, and spice shop tastings that made me feel, for once, that this is a home I understand?
Or that nearly all of my early mentors in childhood and adolescence were Tamil-Teochew poets and Sanskrit scholars who imparted in me a love for rhyme and meter and an irrational fear of booming voices; that later in life, nearly all of my friends, lovers, business mentors and collaborators would also be connected to India in some way or other?
None of that matters.
What does is that in 2004 I walked out of the airport in Calcutta and felt immediately that I had come home, through no other prior connection; and that every year ever since I have returned, twice, thrice, and more each year, sometimes staying for months.
Whenever I read travelogues about India I am often unable to understand why the authors keep writing about the Indian Arrival Syndrome: something about throngs of humanity and masses of people and rotting flesh and cow dung and about needing to flee. The only time I have ever felt that way upon arriving anywhere has been in the great cities of America and Europe, where I have arrived and thought: oh my god, where are all the people? I need to leave. (Eventually, I got over it. But I certainly don’t write travelogues about arriving at places I don’t know and wanting to leave.)
I love that I am at home in Madras, Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay (I’m only just learning to like Delhi). That I have my secret places, amazing friends, and a world of possibilities. If I want to drop in on a film set, I can; if I want to organise a great conference, I can; if I want to do business, I can too; if I want to set up a foundation and educate a hundred and fifty girls, it’s possible as well. I am aware everyone’s mileage varies, including that of the people who actually live there — but that’s just how it’s been for me: it gives me an imagination. Mostly by showing me the extremities of the world.
After every breakup, illness, death in the family or other assorted tragedy large and small, my first instinct is to go to India — anywhere in India. It works. It’s been called my Prozac, but what it is is really far simpler. India is where I go to make sense of the world when the world no longer makes sense for me. That arrangement has worked so far, this past decade.
I’m excited about what the next five or so Indian decades will bring.