INDIA IS A BEAUTIFUL AND AMAZING PLACE TO LIVE, but if you aren’t a permanent resident of this country, or if you lack experience of its culture, you might have a hard time blending in with the crowd. Ironically, blending in is especially more difficult if you are American Indian. When I was younger, I was always defiant when my parents planned to take our family to India because I hated the heat, the mosquitoes, the temples, and the massive crowds of people, but as I kept visiting and exploring this land, my abhorrence towards India started to decay. After several visits that included one to mourn the death of my grandfather, my perspective of this exotic and spiritual land began to transform from contempt to compassion, but I was not a willing student and my life lessons came slowly.
IN THE HORRID YEAR OF 2006, my first adventure to the great country of India commenced. My family and I debarked from the airplane and entered a humid and polluted environment that knows no comparison to anywhere in the United States where I was born. In addition, India’s climate is like the deepest realms of hell for an American. (The heat felt like a scorching flame on my skin.) In the state of Georgia where my family and I lived, the climate is moderate throughout much of the year and the humidity that does exist can be easily escaped by going into air-conditioning. Actually, air-conditioning is an excellent term because that is exactly what it does, it “conditions” the body to get used to perfect temperatures so when I exited the cool, air-conditioned Chennai International Airport, I immediately felt a sticky dampness under my hat and I knew that my climate controlled existence was threatened. My face rapidly grew warm and small drops of grubby liquid ran down my face and neck. Without one thought that everyone else most likely felt the heat as well, I placed an official complaint with my mom, but it was too late; we were already halfway to the parking lot, so I convinced myself to not talk the talk but instead walk the walk. So, I shut up and registered my complaints silently to myself.
THE FAMILY MEMBERS WHO HAD PICKED US UP at the airport piled everyone into their air-conditioned car, which although a brief respite from the heat, became a launch into some of the craziest traffic in the world instead. I clung to anything that I could grasp (the back of the car’s seat, my mother’s arm, even the car door handle) as I witnessed cars and bikes swerve in front of us, around us, and at times, it seemed over us. I felt as if I was in a Fast and Furious movie scene, but without warning, I noticed and old man and his granddaughter casually walking across the street and through the traffic as if it was a late Sunday afternoon stroll in the park. To my amazement, neither the old man nor the child appeared bothered at all about the high speed Indy 500 race that was going on around them. This confused me, but on the other hand, my respect for these people grew. I couldn’t focus on that thought for long, or understand what its greater meaning might be, however, because I was still in the car flying down the road with what seemed to be a million other vehicles. Now, I realized I was sweating profusely, but not because of the heat, but because I felt like I was going to die.
AND YET, DIE I DID NOT. We finally arrived at my father’s younger brother’s house (which was really small and old) where we would stay during our visit. Staying with my father’s family wasn’t a bad experience, but as a young boy, all I ever wanted was video games and toys. This was counter-productive to what was offered to me whenever I visited India; I didn’t get new toys or video games, but instead, I got to go shopping for a bunch of Indian clothes for my mom and sister. Thus, whenever it was announced that a shopping trip was planned, I felt a sudden surge of energy come over me that compelled me to complain, cry, and yell (and I hated that feeling). To prevent my mom from insisting that I accompany them to the mall, I found myriad excuses to convince my parents to not take me with them. Once, I overheard my dad whisper to my mom that it would be much easier to just leave me at home so that they wouldn’t have to listen to me complain the whole time we were at the mall. That’s when I knew that I had won, but what I lost was experiencing a part of India.
AFTER MY FIRST TRIP TO INDIA, I returned to America as the same spoiled brat that I was when I left. Then came the year of irony. I had to go to India for my Grandpa’s funeral. One day, my parents somberly came into my room and said, “Maayown, we have to go to India because your grandpa has passed away.” This shocking news made me feel as if my heart might stop, the veins in my neck and muscles in my back tensed. This time, I knew I couldn’t whine and complain about going to India, but for some reason, an unexpected determination swept over me that made me want to go back.
WHEN I RETURNED to the humidity of India, my only thought was what I was about to witness for the first time in my life. As I entered the home of my grandparents, now a place without my grandfather in it, I tried to prepare myself for what was to come. Family sat on the floor, crying and wailing without restraint, mourning the death of the man who had helped to build their society. The tension and grief of the people around me was not only visible but visceral as well. I could feel the sadness in my very bones, but for some reason, I did not shed a tear. Mixed with my sorrow was pride – pride for my grandfather’s well-lived life and pride for the people who had created the rich and vibrant culture of India, the land of my ancestors. Upon returning home, I realized that instead of crying about a death, one must celebrate the life that the person has lived and this, I learned in India.
THE EXPERIENCE WITH MY GRANDPA’S DEATH transformed my perspective and helped to change me. I forgot about the distractions and entertainment that stole my focus and took real interest in learning more about the holy land of India. Now, when I travel out from India’s big cities and visit its suburbs I don’t “sweat it,” but rather feel the fresh air flow through my lungs as we drive to my uncle’s house. I wonder at how my perspective for the beautiful land of India transformed from a burning hatred towards the place to a great love and passion and I now look forward to visiting my family, friends, and the country’s landmarks. Although I remain the same kid that visited India 12 years ago, my experiences there has made my life richer and my worldview wider. (peace)