There are many places in the world counted as historically valuable and culturally rich, places that inspire, bewilder, and enchant every generation who discovers them in their own way. And the experience is different for each person, different for the native resident, different for the generation-removed--who is visiting a place their grandparents lived-- different yet for the expat who has long-departed and again different for both first-time and long-visiting guests. And there is sometimes no rhyme or reason to explain why certain places have become such rich locales in history and in culture; sometimes, it seems, cities or regions were just lucky (or unlucky) enough to be a hot spot in the narrative of the world. Rome is one such place, an ancient capital that has accumulated layers of tradition and intrigue in its thousands of years, a place that inspires my father among millions of others (and next month, March 2010, he will visit it for the first time). Others are dotted all across the globe.
India encompasses several of those significant place-names, spots which have incurred a more colorful past and have somehow not only survived, but have continually accumulated layers of traditions, histories, and cultural idiosyncrasies. The Indian subcontinent in particular has somehow managed to retain aspects of its thousands of years and numerous empires, layering all the traditions of countless ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups to reach the diversity and density of its existence today. "India" today is also a relatively vague term, as Pakistan and Bangladesh share the same heritage and history as the nation-state that we think of as India in 2010. These three countries together form the subcontinent, and it really is just that, a continent, with the same linguistic and cultural boundaries as more dissected regions like Europe or the Middle East. A Bengali and a Rajput are as different culturally as a Russian and an Italian, but modern history has placed them in the same country. We must think of India as a continent when we approach its past and present.
I am a bit of an expert in Indian geography, relative to the average person, as this spring I am taking two classes on the Indian subcontinent: Modern India and South Asia and the Politics of South Asia. By expert, I do not mean I can identify all the rivers, but I do mean I can tell you a bit about the physical features and people who populate each of the states. This has given me additional interest in the stories of Indian people I meet, as just being "Indian" is about the most vague answer there is (may as well just say you're from Asia). Me new spatial concept of the region only deepens a love affair I've had for many years with all things India. At this point, I don't even recall the origins of my interest; but by high school I was reading books on the country from the travel essay section at the bookstore and being invited over to my friend Karn's house to drink chai and borrow Bollywood movies.
Many before me from western societies have also shared this sense of wonderment with its people, religions, textiles, history, and the interaction of them all; men were fascinated during British economic and later political influence, and many-a-hippie or Beatles fan may also have found themselves seeking enlightenment or finding a guru in their own relationship with India. Since classes began in January, I have rekindled my former addiction to chai, India's sweet, milky tea. I have been writing journal entries for class that have me thinking about the place all the time. I'm listening to Bhangra music and my Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack more. I'm trying to grapple with the narrative of Pakistani politics since 1947's partition, when the Muslim nation was left independent and without the structural foundation of government that India had; I'm trying to keep straight who pulled a coup d’état on whom.
A wonderful treat has been given to me, in this, my last semester of undergraduate studies: a whole sixteen-week period where books I've had on my list of "must-reads" for years are finally required for class. We are reading two books by William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer who has spent his career learning about India's past and present. I bought The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters in high school after learning about it then, but will finally have the maturity and time to finish reading it. And I am currently in the middle of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, which grippingly recounts the chaos the erupted when sepoys (Indian native who were soldiers for the British East India Company) revolted and the slowly-dying Mughal Empire came to its final demise, ushering in the era of British rule in India. His use of sources and the perspective of the many characters involved in the event make for a spectacular view inside Delhi during the event known neutrally as the "Indian Rebellion of 1857."
Out of this book I have learned the Indian term "wallah," which comes at the end of a word, such as "Delhiwallah," and roughly means "person who is from..." or "person who does..." So if the cable guy is coming to your home in Hyderabad, you may tell you friend something like "The cablewallah is coming to install a satellite dish." It's little gems like this that only increase my respect and adoration of the culture. I would, personally, much rather be a retailwallah than a "sales associate." Incidentally, if you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you may recall the show host referring to Jamal as a chaiwallah, because he got the tea for people at the call center where he worked.
On the subject of taste buds, one class assignment is to go and eat Indian food. After the primer our professor gave us, I was itching to visit the restaurant he recommended (Swapna), and went the very next evening. I went for the lamb tikki masala, wanting to try out the more interesting flavors of meat (rather than mostly-bland chicken) and keeping it in range for my first (official) time by keeping with a popular dish. With the appetizers and sauces and naan and the spices and flavors in each one, I tasted more than enough to have me coming back-- very soon.
This fall, my Mom, does custom sewing, created a wedding dress for a young woman out of vintage saris, which were given to her upon the death of a close relative to their family. Though the bride is not Indian, she was wed on December 19, 2009 wearing a wonderful custom-built dress made from pieces of some gorgeous saris, in rich reds, oranges, and creams. I sometimes have the wish that I could wear a sari, as an American blonde girl in Atlanta, Georgia, and not draw any strange looks. Or even that I owned one just to wear anyway. Someday, I hope.
Although some of these things are part of a class, they transcend the classroom. For me, it is learning on a very personal level, as I find so many beautiful things buried in India's varied culture. India, even while it is a place I've never seen, inspires and bewilders me. Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, the coasts of Kerala, are all very different from each other and steeped in layers of history and tradition that a native of a relatively new-born country cannot naturally conceive of.
There are many spots in India that are rich with history, layered with thousands of years of traditions, and they have long-served as the meeting points between ethnicity, language, religion. Today they also serve as representatives to the outside world; some in history have looked disdainfully at the country, seen it as a place unworthy of respect, as the British had been increasingly doing in the years before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. But there were generations of men before and after that saw much more than this. Perhaps they saw what we recognize today, those of us who have such great admiration and respect for a land that holds such an ancient, colorful past: India as a continent, an immense, aching, breathing, enlightened, beautiful place.
(Visit "More Ink" to check out some of my recommended books and films in or about the subcontinent.)