Our friends and family in America celebrated the arrival of the spring equinox last week, but here in Delhi we are slowly resigning ourselves to the beginning of our hot dry summer season. In Delhi they say that the heat arrives with Holi and so it has.
We celebrated Holi last Monday with rainbow cake, and a crew of toddler nudists who couldn’t get enough of the colored water we gave them to play with. I ran this morning* and for the first time this year breathed in the smell of not just last nights’ cooking fires, but that particular perfume of slowly baking asphalt as well. If I were to lose my senses tomorrow, I think it might be smells like this I would miss the most. Baking asphalt, freshly cut grass, fall leaves in crisp air, cool clean spring mud and the smell of fresh rain falling on concrete. But I digress.
We leave Delhi in less than 2 months, a fact I haven’t wholly accepted yet. Italy still seems far away, despite all of the new apartment photos in our inboxes and departure plans to the contrary.
My aunt and uncle visited us from Doha this week. It was a quick trip between flights for my uncle who is a pilot. We only had a few days together, a few hours really, and so we kept things simple. A trip to the Taj Mahal for the two of them, a quick tour of Lodhi Garden, lunch at our favorite dosa place, some souvenir shopping. A few hours spent cuddling Shiloh and watching Will play in the mud in our backyard.
Coming from a desert country where walking outside is difficult as a pedestrian and near impossible as a woman, my aunt marveled at our parks, our comfortable–if a bit confining–compound and remarked several times just pleasant our lives seem here, how lucky we are to have so many conveniences, so many green spaces, so many places to see and things to do. She is so right.
This is the place where our son learned to run and speak and love chappati and dosa. A place where we have spent countless afternoons in the company of friends, where a whole two block radius of guards, sweepers, and waiters know my son so well they all give him high fives and race to pick him up if he falls in their presence.
I’ll miss our flower wallah who always gathers my flowers up and gives me the total before carefully pulling the thorns off of his nicest red rise and handing it to Will. I won’t miss the obligations of having household staff, but I will miss our conversations, the look on our housekeeper’s proud face when she holds Shiloh, and the way Will tries so hard to make her laugh with his antics. I’ll miss the conveniences of our lives here and the color and vibrancy of the world outside our quiet diplomatic enclave.
Perhaps because we have been so happy here, I often feel unsettled about how rarely I feel truly, authentically immersed in India. In China I spoke the language (albeit badly), I shopped at the same markets and ate at the same restaurants as most everyone around me. I certainly didn’t live the exact same life as a native Chengdu-ren but I didn’t live a radically different one either.
In India, by contrast, I’m always aware that even when I think I’ve crossed the boundaries of our vast expat bubble, I’m still so far from experiencing “real” India. I struggle almost daily reconciling our comfortable, happy lives here with the wide-spread destitution and suffering that plagues so many millions of people around us. A part of me will be relieved to leave Mother India behind and with her the constant impulse to loathe myself for my privilege and loathe this place for giving it to me and to so few other people.
I often feel like I’m slipping between different worlds as I move from Embassy compound to marketplace to park playdates in Shanti Niketan. After having spent time in and out of this country for the last seven years, I’m less sure than ever as to where “real” India hangs out and what “real” even means here.
I’ve posed this conundrum to several Indian American and expat friends and what they said made me feel both sad and liberated at the same time.
No one experiences “real” India because there is no such thing. This is a place so stratified by class, caste legacies, gender divisions, religious and language barriers that nearly no one experiences the same India as anyone around them. This is true to some extent everywhere in the world but rarely are the extremes of these dividing principals so stark and defining.
The idea that there is no “real” India comforts me in a way. I’ve been feeling slightly less guilty about all of the many hours I’ve logged walking around our quiet compound with two little kids instead of attempting to recreate the misadventures of my intern days in Chennai.
And I’m so grateful too for the fact that I so often get to experience the best of the many, many worlds that jostle up against one another here in this vast country. I love both the sparkles of the wedding market and the decidedly American chocolate pancakes and playground mornings with friends we enjoy here. I love finger-burning paratha wrapped in newspaper at my preferred wet market but also the fact that I can find six kinds of imported Japanese noodles there as well. I love our occasional wild road trips into the countryside but also the wide boulevards of the diplomatic enclave that are so perfect for an early morning run or stick-shift driving lessons. I love chole bhature and photo walks in Old Delhi but also the quirky, fashionable boutiques scattered across Delhi’s neighborhoods.
I’ll be forever grateful to the wonderful doctor who delivered Shiloh and shake my head for years at the tiny shack in a middle of a parking lot that produced her birth certificate. I hope one day Shiloh gets to return to the land of her birth and experience this country in the life-changing way I did on my first trip here seven years ago.
And maybe one day I will even miss the tension of balancing a decidedly pleasantville American lifestyle with the opportunities for experience in a country so colorful and maddening and interesting that staying home on a beautiful Saturday almost feels like a crime
Summer has come to Delhi and we probably only have a few days left before the angry desert heat drives away my nostalgia and replaces it with increasingly vivid dreams of gelato, espresso, clear blue skies and the freedom to wear shorts when the mercury hits 35 degrees.
But for now, I’m wallowing a bit in all of the sentimentality I imagine I’ll hold someday soon for this place. Delhi, you are majestic, stodgy, wonderful, terrible, hideously unfair, ruthless, vibrant, intoxicating and so many other things at the same time but I think I love you all the same.
*Between last blog post and this blog post, I didn’t manage to get out for a single early morning run. Because as soon as I blog about finding time to run in the morning, or a kid’s sleep schedule it of course ceases, instantly, to be true. My guess is that next week traffic will be terrible, the air quality will plummet, the temperature will rise and I’ll suddenly be counting down the days until we leave!