Where are you from? I am often asked. I smile at the familiar question and reply instantaneously, “from San Diego.” I love the reactions I get to my answer. Some hesitate and nod while others gear up the courage to ask “I meant originally, like where you were born?” Ah, I sigh, like I didn’t imagine they were asking that and then respond “New Delhi in India.”
Having lived in Southern California for 12 years, this is an all too familiar interaction. I admit that do enjoy it each time.
There are many others. “So do you work in IT?” or “Are you a software engineer?” I once responded with “So you asked that because I am of Indian origin?” That instantaneously made the person defensive.
However, the questions do leave me wondering. Am I from San Diego or from New Delhi? I have spent half of my adult life in San Diego, California and it feels familiar, secure and home like. After a vacation, I like coming back here.
On the other hand, even after 12 years, when the plane touches the runway at New Delhi and they announce the arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport, my eyes get moist and a whirlwind of emotions rush through me.
As I ride through the over-crowded streets of New Delhi and our car zig zags through crazy traffic, I smile at the familiar scenes. No one follows the rules and drivers accomplish the unimaginable task of maneuvering through narrow gaps between over-whelming, over-swelled traffic. As horns honk in the background, I take it all in, the smells, the air, which in reality is probably very hazardous, but I feel at peace for I have reached home. In all the chaos, there is the security of familiarity.
For two weeks, we soak in India. With each trip back I find myself more curious.
Though, most recently, when I visited New Delhi I was a little disheartened. I didn’t necessarily assimilate, or so I thought. I visited familiar places desperately trying to connect and they didn’t seem as familiar.
Has everything moved on, while I am still stuck where and when I left 12 years ago? I now also feel certain dilemmas. I hesitate when I sit on a cycle rickshaw (a cycle with a seat behind, pedaled by someone) and question if its the right thing to do. He is pulling our heavy weight that pumps out every ounce of strength from him, but he is making an honorable living and not begging like many others. I talk to the women who come to clean the house. I have brought some lightly used clothes and toys to give away. I don’t pretend that I am doing them any favors. They are doing a favor to me. My kids have grown out of their Indian fancy clothes. Instead of these clothes getting wasted or occupying precious real estate, they will be used by someone more judiciously. They thank me profusely and I feel guilty but I keep quiet.
After meals when we pick up our dishes, we are warned that we are spoiling the servants. Domestic help is very common in every Indian household. A crisis brews, if for some reason the maid doesn’t come one day. Frantic calls, phones constantly ringing across apartments from one to another, contemplating, guessing and praying that she will somehow make it. This is familiar, but seems all too unnecessary. My boys sit in a corner, observe, laugh and compare everything. They enjoy how they don’t have to move a limb. For them it is a “vacation” and for me it is a “visit home,” or is it?
I get caught in the monsoon showers, one day. It feels fine to get drenched in it. The water is warm and very clean. The weather is humid and hot, but it all feels right. Monsoons in Delhi bring back a host of memories.
Memories of growing up here, memories of myself as a little girl dressed in a school uniform with a raincoat that barely covered me, standing at the bus stop waiting for the school bus. Memories of a group of friends walking to the nearest tea and snack stall from college paying no heed to the pouring rain, running back in the rain to get home from work, my mother standing at the corner of the road with an umbrella, trying hard to spot me in the crowd walking back from the bus stop. Memories of hot tea and warm sizzling savories in a cozy and loving home where we daughters didn’t have to lift a finger. They are all wonderful memories. The city beckons and embraces.
As a teenager, I would haggle with the vendors selling trinkets on Janpath, Connaught place. I go back wandering and wondering what to buy. I can’t figure anything out. I no longer understand what the right price should be and am completely lost. I try a few times to haggle but I give in easily.
Food has been something I look forward to every India trip. I have my favorite places. I have always complained of not getting good Indian meals in San Diego. The food still tastes great in India, but I complain of stomach aches. I feel disoriented. I wonder what is missing. Why are there fewer and fewer things that I can relate to now? It’s a disturbing feeling.
I visit the University in Delhi where I went to college. I look around and a sense of joy surges in me. The surroundings are familiar. I walk through the Delhi School of Economics campus and stop at the cafeteria and enjoy a cup of coffee. I walk up to the students and chat with them. They are curious. I tell them about myself and they laugh and make jokes as I tell them a few anecdotes from the past. I blend in.
In the course of conversation, they sound a bit discontented, though, and tell me that life sucks for them. They ask me how I managed to go abroad. They want to do the same. They say they want to get out. They are young and have plans and dreams. I discourage them and tell them they should find a life here. They probably think I am a hypocrite.
At the end of the two weeks, I still leave with a heavy heart but no longer sure why? I have an insatiable appetite for Delhi and I can’t get past. I promise myself that I will visit more often. I promise myself that next time would be better. There is a strong bond, a bucket load of childhood and young adult memories that are still holding me tight. I reassure myself that I will find the Delhi that exists underneath this charade that throws me away, a Delhi that I will be able to reconnect to, more easily.
We have a six-hour layover at Chicago. As I stand in queue to get coffee, a middle aged Persian lady behind me strikes up a conversation. “So, where are you from?” she asks. “New Delhi, India,” I say, without hesitation “but now I live in San Diego,” I clarify.
Veenu Puri-Vermani is an analytics professional from San Diego, CA who also loves to write.