Recently I took my 19-year old daughter to meet my 93-year old mother in Delhi. She hadn’t been to India for 8 years and in that time she had morphed from a wild teenager to a thoughtful adult, from a giddiness over theme parks and prom dates to questions about her religion, and curiosity over how I grew up in that exotic sounding city called Delhi.
She had seen Delhi through the protected bubble we traveled in when she was young. Trips to the Gymkhana, visits to uncles and aunts, shopping in a mall or at Fab-India in Khan Market. Her memories were blurred by the warm sheen of love my parents and family heaped on her and by the (relatively) unconditional acceptance of 11 year old eyes.
I was eager to explain the nuances of this marvelous, diverse, culturally rich metropolis to this newly adult version of my daughter, and imagined peeling back layers of her heritage to her enchanted eyes. I couldn’t have imagined that she would be the one peeling off cobwebs of familiarity from my jaded vision, until I could see the city with her clear eyed, Indian-American perspective.
“I know this,” she says, as we step into Indira Gandhi International Airport. “I remember the airport, it’s nice.”
“Ambeeka,” the man at immigration says, stressing her name, obviously happy with its traditional sounding holiness.
“Welcome to India!”
“So many people,” Ambika remarks, as she wheels the luggage trolley through the doors outside.
“Mostly men,” she mutters, “and they’re all staring at me, Mum.”
“Don’t worry about it; they stare at everyone, especially if you’re female. They’re all harmless.”
This visual invasion of privacy is her first introduction to India as a young woman. People stare unabashedly, they turn their heads, follow with their eyes. And it is mostly men doing the staring.
“But I’m all covered up like you said, I couldn’t be more decent!”
“It doesn’t matter, get used to the stares and learn to ignore them.”
When we reach Naani’s house, memories flood back. However, Naani’s house seems to have shrunk and grown a lot colder. There is no central heating and constantly running hot water. A geyser has to be switched on and the shower has a tendency to finish pumping out the scalding water she likes in less than 5 minutes.
“I have to finish having my bath in 5 minutes!” she wails.
“Stop being a spoiled American!” I tell her. “Learn to adapt. That’s what India is famous for—adjusting and adapting to anything thrown its way.”
I’m pleased with my spontaneous metaphor but my shivering daughter is not amused.
The culture shock which gives the biggest jar is the sight of little children begging at the traffic lights. Her shocked expression makes me understand that she is grasping for the first time the brutality of life for the poor in India, and how all the glamour she’s seen in Hindi movies teeters on top of this inescapable, Darwininian, underbelly of poverty.
“Don’t give them money,” her aunt tells her. “They are controlled by gangs—if they are given money they will kidnap more children and make them beg.”
“Then let’s keep biscuits in the car to give them,” my daughter says.
The juxtaposition of extremes is everywhere— in a newly revamped market in South Delhi called Khanna Market, chic designer boutiques rubbing shoulders with dingy tailoring shops and hawkers squatting over small coal grills selling roasted corn, while beggars accost those who emerge carrying fancy bags.
I realize that she feels guilty looking at the poor and it strikes me how my childhood in India has accustomed me to these sights and made me immune and insensitive to the heart-rending contrasts.
Her cousins introduce her to the world of the 30-something Indian—a subculture which is like a universal language today, in any city in the world.
“They’re cool!” is her summation of her young Indian contemporaries.”They’re just like my friends at home.”
She visits the local bars in Greater Kailash market, in the heart of Delhi, and loves the informal ambiance. “Ma,” she tells me later, “everyone is so warm here. They’re really interested in you. Plus, they all look like me, and I’m not the shortest girl in the room anymore.”
When we visit the open air organic Sunday market at Sundar Nursery next to Humanyun’s tomb she is impressed by the spirit of entrepreneurship thriving in the average Indian. From Neem wood serve ware, to Pahari medicinal chai, and specialty Gur stuffed with coconut, to dosas made of Ragi flour, it’s an explosion of originality and enterprise.
We move on to Cyber hub in Gurgaon where we walk through Uniqlo, the newly opened Japanese store for outerwear. “So many people,” my daughter says. “You only see these many people at the mall at Christmas time, back home. And they’re all so young!” It suddenly strikes me how youthful the Indian population is, compared with the graying of the West in general, and America in particular.
As we leave India my daughter muses on what affected her most. The kids at the traffic lights. The vitality and vibrancy and warmth of the people she met. And the presence of culture and religion everywhere–from the pictures of garlanded Shivji in the scooter we took as an adventure through the streets of Greater Kailash, to the morning call to prayer from the local mosque that reverbated daily at 3:00am through our Nizamuddin neighborhood, waking her up.
“Culture is everywhere, Mum, I love it.”
“I want to come back and volunteer,” she declares. “I want to explore more.”
“Yes,” I tell her. “Let’s rediscover our roots together.”