I am at the Berkeley Public Library, looking for a cheap bargain in the biography section of the Friends’ Library Bookstore. The woman behind the counter has gray hair and is middle-aged. She is conversing with an Asian-looking woman, who is slightly stout, and about my age (mid 30s). They are talking about India.
The white woman: “I want to go sometime to India.”
Asian woman: “Darjeeling is beautiful, the last time I went. Don’t know when I will go again.”
I join the conversation. “You should go to the south, see the temples, and, of course, see the Taj Mahal. Like she said, go to a hill station, Darjeeling or Mussoorie, to see the Himalayas.”
“Have you traveled a lot?” asks the white woman, her eyes widening with curiosity. “I want to travel in India and Nepal but the closest I’ve been is the Berkeley Himalayan Fair.”
“No, I have not been around much but I went hiking twice in the Himalayas. It is very beautiful. I went once to the Garhwal region, once to Kashmir. Kashmir is now closed, though.”
I want to give a good sales pitch, sell India to them. Not what people always think: extreme poverty or Indian software programmers, IT, call centers, or arranged marriages and dowries.
I go on and on, talking about my Himankan trip—the Himalayan hiking trip I took from IIT, now half-a-lifetime ago. “No, I have not been to Rajasthan. No, I have not been to Assam or the Northeast.”
The Asian woman says she has been to Madras, and likes idlis and sambar. She seems to know a lot.
“Have you been to India, and for how long?” I ask.
“I am of Tibetan descent, grew up in India.” She smiles warmly.
“Oh, when did you come to India?” I ask out of curiosity.
“My grandfather came many years back.”
Oh, they must have fled from Tibet after the Chinese occupation, I think to myself. Poor thing, it must have been hard on her growing up. And her grandparents must have struggled in India.
“My grandfather is Tenzing Norgay.”
Suddenly, I realize that her grandfather is the one who first climbed Mt. Everest with Edmund Hillary, and I have been talking all along about hiking in the Himalayas. I must have come across as ignorant and pompous as those Americans, so-called Indophiles, when they wax eloquently about what they don’t understand. I don’t know what to say. I ask her about her grandfather, and what it was like being his granddaughter.
She says that her brother too has climbed Everest though she herself has been only up to the base camp. “The mountains I want to climb,” she says looking straight at me, “are those inside me, to understand myself.”
I don’t know what to say. I glance at my watch. I still have to buy groceries before I go home and cook. This watch tells me time but what does time mean? I look back towards her. She is reaching into her bag to pay for the book in her hand. It is a children’s book. I can’t read the title.
I am Indian, but this woman and her family, who are in exile in India, know the mountains intimately. So who is the real foreigner in the Himalayas, I wonder. And wasn’t I just one of those know-it-all tourists I despise?
I say bye self-consciously, leave the library, and start walking back along Shattuck Avenue. I notice familiar shops. Maybe I will run into her again at the Himalayan Fair.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a senior scientist at a biotech company, who is writing a collection of interlinked short stories.