Sunday, October 12, 2014

More Indian than you think

Well over a decade ago, my first international trip was to a New York (NY) college campus as a scholarship student. The highlight of my stay was the ‘Indian Night’ on campus organised by students – both Indians and non-Indians. I was amazed at the turnout and the interest – the fact that I was a ‘freshie’ meant I was constantly surrounded by those who wanted to know more about India. The cultural programme included a Bollywood song and dance with the goras matching step to step with desis. At dinner, I remember trying to explain kanda and baingan bhajiyas as onion and eggplant savouries, deep fried in a lentil batter.

In New Jersey (NJ), my local hosts had an Indian maid and happily ate ‘curry’ for dinner every other day. A walk in the neighbourhood meant passing by Indian shops and even eating paani-puri by the roadside! On that visit to the USA I first realised the cultural impact India and Indians were making globally.

Over the years, I have been fortunate to have travelled the world and experience the warmth of various cultures and people – all thanks to my Indianness.

In Mauritius, on the sets of the Emraan Hashmi-Celina Jaitley starrer Jawaani Deewani, I experienced firsthand the fascination for Bollywood and its whole song and dance routine. Many Mauritians share ancestral roots with India and are doing their bit to pass on some of their Indian heritage. As we drove down the countryside past endless fields of sugarcane, I came across a Ganapati temple. In a small school nearby, students were being taught Hindi and Marathi! There, in a strange land so many miles from home, I had never felt more Marathi. More Indian.

With its colonial past and the struggle against apartheid, South Africa and India have much in common. I was reminded of this constantly on a trip to Cape Town when my local guide spoke fondly of his Indian friends and his love for Indian curry. But it was at Robben Island that I was overwhelmed when an elderly African lady broke down and said, “You’ll had Gandhi; we have Mandela.”

In multicultural London, I thrived. I was fortunate, perhaps, not to have any racist experiences or be discriminated against. At Uni, I organised an Indian dinner for my classmates at an East London restaurant. The Diwali party had more goras than Indians. And imagine my shock when I found out that my friend from the Faroe Islands had actually heard of Asha Bhonsle and RD Burman and loved their songs! A German girl studying at SOAS spoke impeccable Hindi (better than me) and knew all about Raj Kapoor and his films. At work, a potluck lunch had more Indian dishes than any other and it was the non-Indians who wanted more of aloo na shak and kheema.

Backpacking through East Europe a couple of years ago, I met some amazing people from across the globe. None had met an Indian backpacker, travelling solo at that – so I was person of interest. Surprisingly, India was not just about Goa and Rajasthan for them. A chap from Brazil had learnt some colourful Indian swear words from his Indian classmate in Paris, while an American girl from California hounded me for Indian recipes. But it was in a backpacker’s hostel in Budapest that I have my fondest memory – cooking an Indian lunch for a mixed bunch of travellers from Australia, Argentina, Brazil, America and France. My ‘curry’ wasn’t spicy enough for the Aussie bloke but the masala papad was an instant hit among all.

As a backpacker and solo traveller, both in India and abroad, I’ve met Indophiles who love India unconditionally. 
I’m reminded of what Keith Bellows once said, “There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won't go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land… by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds... I had been seeing the world in black & white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolour.”

Need I say more? Viva la India!

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