By Lekha Jandhyala
According to a quick google search, my zodiac sign, Aries, is associated with the Ram. “The Ram is an animal that is known to charge forward with confidence, creating a path through a terrain that many don't dare to venture. The Ram represents courage, action, initiative, and authority. These traits are the backbone of Aries' characteristics, and help Aries take every part of life head-on.”
Head-on, it says.
Head-on, I moved from
(where I was born, raised, and attended college)
I go through phases of looking towards (any) long established system to find some explanation for why I do what I do, or why I am who I am. It’s comforting to read things that are supposedly inbuilt within me according to the position of the stars, how Space was fixed, for a moment, around me. Maybe next time someone asks why I decided to move here, I’ll simply say it is because I’m an Aries - a completely understood answer for many of my astrologically savvy peers, or a dismally ambiguous answer for those uninformed.
It was my head that toyed with the choice of moving to India. I’m pretty sure my parents thought it was a good joke - until interviews lined up for the few applications I put out, and then the acceptances came in. Brushing off my shoulders, I felt good. I had always thought I’d settle down in LA after college but after my Thomas J. Watson fellowship year abroad, a bit too many job rejections in LA, and a Trump presidency in place, moving to the other side of the world with a job I felt passionate about didn’t seem so bad.
Fresh Lime Soda:
Now that I reflect on my impulsive decision to make my move to India just after a year outside of the US, I’m still confused as I write this. I constantly question my decision of what I think of as “prolonging” my Watson year of travel and independent research. I explain to people that I made my decision because I wasn’t allowed to come to India on my Watson year, which encouraged fellows to travel to countries they haven’t spent significant time in. I thought I could tack on another year and half or so and live in India, discovering artists and maybe interviewing and writing about them. Like another travel destination on my fellowship year, my initial intention was to simply take a dip into the local art scene and see what it’s like to be a part of this megacity, Mumbai.
So while I question my motive for moving to India, I also consider the concept of “returning” to India.
Indian by blood, I’ve had people assume I’m returning back to my motherland. Although I was born and raised in California, American by many different standards, honestly there is an element of return that I feel. A significant part of my life has been spent in Andhra Pradesh, India. In the very first year I was born (in Woodland HIlls, CA,) my dad and I traveled to India together. Since that time, I think I’ve been to India at least 10 times, each trip usually 2-3 months. Unlike most kids whose summers were spent in summer camp, my childhood years were spent watching Popeye in Hindi, sippin' Thumbs Up in giant antique chairs, watching tree climbers scramble up our coconut, mango, and almond trees, taking rickshaw rides around town, or being pulled into Indian Classical dance, language, and art classes.
My grandparents did the best they could to make my little brother and me comfortable. From allowing me to drink sugar with a splash of filter coffee or keeping a full stock of toilet paper in all the bathrooms of the house, we were treated like the truest of true American bums. We so were. I think the most harrowing memory as a kid was being stripped naked by our household help Bharati, and scrubbed raw with senagapindi (besan or chickpea flour). At the age of 8, I was so embarrassed to be naked, crying the entire time, when all Bharati cared about was how much dirt she could rub off me. It never happened again, I think my grandmother is forever scarred by my wailing.
So when I landed here in Mumbai, after just 2 weeks back home in Southern California, carrying with me the same suitcase of clothes I had taken with me on my year abroad, I felt for a split second like turning back. However, Watson has seemed to prepare me for this grand adventure ahead. My sense of time is warped. I see myself going day by day instead of thinking long term. Emotionally/socially, my philosophy surrounds the temporality of my surroundings. My feelings are fleeting, people’s opinions of me will come and go, and because of this I am not concerned about judgement. I am who I am, “Indian,” “American,” “Westernized.” “traditional”, “South Indian”, “Telugu.” Eventually I will leave this place and peoples’ assumptions will no longer matter. Maybe this is an ignorant kind of bliss. I wonder if my nonchalance is attributed to my “Americaness.”
Much is familiar and my sense of being “home,” of making "home" here, is easier than it’s been in the other countries I’ve lived in. I’m used to the air quality, the smell of hot oil and frying foods, the grown men and women holding hands as they stroll, the stray dogs, the crowds, the tad bit of grime. Yet, although I am familiar with the chaos that defines India for many, there are things I’ll never get used to; a few of them being: the disregard for personal space, the incessant sweat, and the noise.
I used to laugh at the signs on the roads that read “Stop Noise Pollution” but now I think it should be written in the sky. While spending shorter periods of time in India, the noise didn’t bother me so much, now the honking distresses me. I say this because the very notion of a honk is that of impatience, anger, and stress, deployed in total indifference to people’s ears. Here everyone just tries to cut each other on the roads, as either drivers or as bold pedestrians. There are almost no road laws, anything goes. Drive on the opposite road if need be, squeeze through cars if all you’re doing is clipping their side mirrors, pack 9 people into a car.
Writing this feels like these feelings are permanent because they are making their way into publication, your eyes reading this makes my words perpetual. Except, I look forward to seeing what I feel like in 3, 10, 12 months. Maybe the honking will become a soft lullaby that rocks me to sleep. Because, even though I’ve done my bit of complaining here, this city is a whirlwind of activity, life, and character. Many say, comparable to New York City's pace. I wouldn’t really know though, I’m a West-Coast girl.
On my way to work I pass 1, sometimes 2 cows, while walking among hundreds of morning commuters. My work is in the busy working professional and university area of Churchgate. Each day the same woman is lovingly stroking her cow, feeding her moist green grass. Those who wish can buy a ball of food which she makes out of a mixture she keeps in a large WHEY PROTEIN container. The contrast of steadfast devotion, traditional and pious, to the trademarked, macho man powder is a sight to see. My day, however, doesn’t begin with the cow and her owner, it begins in Bandra, 11 miles from Churchgate of South Bombay. Bandra is still considered by some merely a suburb of Mumbai city-proper. I travel by fast train leaving my apartment at 7 am. I travel in the ladies-only compartment, it’s emptier and I get a seat at that time in the morning. Sometimes I’ll stand near the entry point of the carriage to catch the wind. In 25 minutes I reach Churchgate station. From there I walk less than 10 minutes to Qi Gym, the site boasts its Bollywood star clients on their website. It’s actually filled with a lovely mixture of 60+ retired husbands and wives, and then some young people sprinkled in. I usually don’t like the gym but next to some of the grandparents, I feel pretty damn in shape. I shower, I chat with Geeta in Telugu, a refreshing exchange of conversation since I am deaf and mute to the Hindi and Marati usually around me. Geeta is one of the helper ladies that watches the clock for me if I’m too long in the shower. She is warm sweet and motherly. The whole gym knows that my colleague, Anurag, also hits the gym at the same time as me. We usually wait for each other in the lobby to walk to work together. If one of us comes out before, the whole gym staff lets us know that one of us is still getting ready. We leave the gym to walk 5 mins to our work place. There is a round old dog who sleeps in front of a bank on my workplace’s street. The first two days I passed this dog, she was in the exact same position on the stairs. Her tongue peeking out from between her slightly open lips. I could not see her ribcage expanding. I thought she was dead and no one was noticing. She’s alive and well. Just lazy af. A lot of dogs here trot quickly as if they’ve got a full agenda of dog-meetings scheduled. I caught her doing that busy-trot one morning and was wonderfully relieved.
I won’t bore you with work details, or maybe I will in another written piece, but I love my work team. 5 of us work in one room, and aside from often bickering about whether the AC should be shut off, we have fun snacking on sweets sent to our office and other foods that magically appear on the small round table in the center of the room. For lunch I’ll usually go to Deepak, the chutney sandwich man who stations himself right outside our building. He knows how to make my Wonder Bread sandwich without cheese and onion. He grills the sandwich after smearing Amul butter on the outside. I’m learning to enjoy the texture of the warm cucumbers he includes. My day ends at 5:30 and I catch the fast train back with Anurag. We take the mixed train compartment and am always surprised at how the men create a nice circle of space around me. I’m usually the only lady in the compartment with them. Anurag enjoys sharing the space I’m automatically given. I hop off the slowing train like so many of the men of all sizes do. I’m perfecting the slow run one must do when hopping off a moving train. Then, I pass a goat, hundreds of pigeons, and 2 dogs before I come back Home to my flatshare.
I’m happy here. I miss the comforts of family and the familiar but I feel a part of this place. It’s made room for me. I’m welcomed with warm arms and shared Pav Bhaji. I’m befriending the moths in my room and I’m scratching less at the mosquito bites. Although my time here feels temporary, I can feel my feet sinking in, and my back relaxing. I didn’t realize how much looking like most of the people around is reassuring. I still need to learn some basic Hindi but I’m making my way. People here are warm, hot, and sticky.
Come visit me, we’ll drink a Fresh Lime Soda together. With Salt. And Sugar.