As the date of my take off bears down, it has become harder and harder not to think about the decade, on and off, that I've spent in the land of infinite variety. India.
I can remember the night before coming to India, for my higher education. My parents sat my brother and I, and gave us 'THE TALK'. Not THAT kind of talk; This is the hour long, sometimes longer, dictation you get on being a responsible representative of yourself, your family and finally your country. It's a tradition for us. Funny enough all I was thinking about at that time was why were they fussing, I've lived in India before. But little did I know, they were right.
In 2003, when I first came to India I was 9. And it was a blast. I learned Hindi within 3 months of being in the country, which made my life easy. I went to the best schools and made friends over the course of hours of mischief and laughter which I spent in halls, classrooms, and auditoriums. My interest in old classic movies peaked after the first time I saw The Sound of Music, thanks to our principal at DPSI, Saket. I had my first real crush. Went to the Taj Mahal and other major tourist sites in northern India. All those wonderful memories had never been too far from the heart of the 13-year-old girl that left. So it is understandable that when my acceptance letters came I was all too thrilled to make more wonderful memories in India.
10 years later, in 2013, I departed for New Delhi- a second time. I had plans, dreams, and hopes that I wanted to achieve before my four years were up. It was all planned out, surprisingly and predictably hardly anything happened as I thought. Firstly, the weather. I'd never known global warming until it kissed my cheeks the minute I left the Indira Gandhi International Airport. And that was when it hit me, Delhi had changed. And I was excited because this meant getting to fall in love with it all over again. And that was exactly what I was going to do; so despite the heat melting us down, the smile on my face - as we visited the campuses we were accepted to - didn't fade. In the end, both my brother and I chose a university at the far end of Haryana (an introvert's haven).
I had never been one to be reserved about going to a new place, I was used to it as a diplomat's child. However, this felt different, for the first time, I felt like the foreigner I am: hesitant and anxious. I was an outsider and I could see everyone look at me like the female, black-Muslim that I was, walking into the gates of the hostels. That night I didn't cry, I stood in the room I was assigned and just stared at the nothingness, feeling exactly like the room itself- empty and hollow. And two nights later, after I said goodbye to my dad and he returned back to Nigeria, the tears poured-with a vengeance.
That Monday I started classes and it was exhilarating. It's been almost four years since that faithful Monday and I have been falling in love with my course, Journalism and Mass Communication, more and more every year. I think it's the traveler in me; just like books, Journalism and Mass Communication has the power to transport you from one life to another. While reading and researching about a subject you find yourself being a part of that world and even though the story eventually concludes, the essence of that world and journey remains a part of you.
One of the hardest things for me as a foreigner to go through was finding a place or group where I was accepted and belonged. Being able to speak Hindi was a double edged sword. It made it easy to communicate with people- and stopped them from cheating whenever I went shopping. At the same time, it was a curse because I understood what people were saying about me- the good and the bad. Along with that, my physical appearance, being the first and for a while the only African female on campus made me conspicuous. I was a spectacle that everyone watched unblinkingly- judging and analyzing. They were fascinated but mostly feared me, my skin color acted like a Monarch Butterfly's brightly colored wings - warning them to stay away which most of them did. However, some didn't and soon I was making friends. Figuring out what kind of friendship they expected from me was equally tasking. I realized my preconceived juvenile understanding of Indians wasn't applicable anymore. I finally started to see and experience the diversity of the country. My candid and outspoken nature weren't always received well by the majority, so I became picky about what I said and to whom I said it to- That was my first adult lesson in the country.
Today, I understand the issue was that I didn't fit into any one box; and the (Indian) society demanded categorization and a simple tagline, while I had a paragraph. It rattled them when one day I wore a burqa, the next I wore jeans and a top and the day after that I wore my native wear. It was confusing for them to see me fully covered (when I am outside the hostel gates), never shaking a male's hand or having any form of physical contact with the opposite gender but at the same time, I wore the skimpiest outfits when it's just us girls, I curse like a sailor and I love talking about the most controversial topics like sex, the woman's body, race, sexuality, menstruation, religion and the worst of all PAKISTAN. These topics always got a little too heated but then what's a journalist if he/she doesn't offend as well as shake up the masses.
Bollywood has done an amazing job at presenting India in just one light- with abundant colors, music, dance, art and wildlife. The truth is, like the God Brahma, India has multiple faces and it took living here for the second time to understand that. India isn't just blessed with different faces, it has an overwhelmingly unparalleled ability to change these faces therefore always keeping you on your toes and dancing to its tunes.
There was a day when I was traveling to Delhi on the yellow metro line. A woman and her daughter sat beside me and instantly my eyes caught the title of the book the kid was reading. Seeing my curiosity, the mother started a conversation with me. We spent the entire ride, from Green Park to Huda, talking. We talked about life, culture, taboos, importance of books and even love. It was one of those conversations that made you feel like there truly is an invisible string that connects us to one another. On a different day, from Huda to Green Park, I again found myself sitting next to a mother and a child. The child was looking at me the way toddlers usually look at a stranger. I smiled and reached out to play with the kid but the mother gave me the stink-eye and took the child away, sitting it out of my reach. I sat there, unable to feel anything for a long time.
And that is India, a nation that can embrace you with open arms, shower you with glitter and make you sing songs of beauty and joy while at the same time throw mud on your face.My stay in India is almost over, and it might be another decade before I return. Unlike the childhood naivety that covered my eyes in the past, today I see India for what it is. A land of vibrancy and luridness, complexity and simplicity, secularism and racism, hospitality and exclusiveness, enlightenment and ignorance, spirituality and skepticism. But most importantly, it is a land of lifelong lessons. And I have learned my fair share.
Nowadays, people keep asking me whether I regret my choice to come to India or not? However, I've never found the right answer until now. So here is my answer: I believe India stands out more than any other nation on this planet. not just for its beauty and diversity, which undoubtedly is in surplus, but for the imprints it leaves on every individual. The air, the water, the food, the people, the culture and most importantly the beliefs and general outlook combine together to create the perfect atmosphere for one to develop and transform. These transformations occur at every level of one's being, molding and shaping us.And I've come to realize this transformation happens to everyone who is lucky enough to come here, even if it's just for a day or anything between that and a lifetime. So, even though India promises many hardships, I promise they will be worth it because these experiences add up to become badges of honor; which I now carry proudly and boldly on my chest because without India I would not be me. I would be lesser, a lot lesser.
This blog was originally published on 'Bedtime Blabber'