Tangled Roots: An American in India

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Two men, pinkies linked, strolled across the ruins of the old Portuguese fort. With the afternoon sun still overhead, the fort crawled with tourists. But it was easy to imagine the bayside setting – with evening spread out against the Bombay sky – transformed into the perfect spot for lovers and wooers. My eyes followed the male fingers delicately curled around each other.

“No,” said my friend, his eyes following mine, as they lingered over the fingers. “They’re not gay.”

Most likely, they weren’t. Men in India, despite the country’s mosquito net of modesties and taboos, hold hands as comfortably as they might in San Francisco’s Castro or New York’s Chelsea.

Never mind the “Ladies Compartments” on Bombay’s trains, set aside as a barrier against the aggressive gazes of men. Or the fat concrete benches along its most romantic promenade. Custom-made for chastity by the city’s conservative ruling party, they seat only one. And no matter that perched on a hill above Munnar’s center is a mosque whose threshold adult women cannot cross.

My great-grandmother left India in 1903 from the port of Calcutta. She climbed, pregnant and alone, aboard a ship bound for the Caribbean. And I – her descendant, an Indian-looking woman who grew up in the United States – was traipsing alone around the country she had relegated to her ancestors.

I knew, of course, that India was still a place with many rules for women, just as I knew that many of its women had challenged those rules with great passion. What I did not expect was the alienating force of those rules during my first trip ever to the country that had been calling to me – and indeed, had shaped me – from a distance.

You don’t walk down the street with a cigarette between your lips. That provokes sniggers. You don’t travel the country solo. That sparks gossip. And you don’t go to the cinema by yourself at night, even if you carry an American-bred sense that you can do what you want, when you want. That courts trouble.

*

The driver from the hillside resort near Munnar deposited me on a bus the color of dust.

“America,” he told the fare collector, with a thrust of his chin in my direction.

The other passengers – inky silhouettes, bundled against the predawn cold – stopped to look.

I was wearing an orange paisley churidar: pants tapered at the ankles, a loose tunic that flowed down to my shins and a long scarf over my head. It was the same one I’d worn on the beach the day that Ashok, a rickshaw driver, told me I looked “just like a regular Kerala girl.” (Kerala is the southern state where Munnar is located and where most of my time in India unspooled.)

Ashok had said it not to compliment but to explain his concern. Regular Kerala girls, he said, don’t sit by themselves on the beach – as I had for hours, just staring at the Viking-like fishing boats skimming the Arabian Sea. Unless, he added, they’ve had problems at home and are, for example, contemplating suicide.

Whatever the advantages of passing as a “regular Kerala girl,” I no longer had them on the bus in Munnar. As it hurtled along the twisting, one-lane mountain roads, swerving to avoid cars, buses and rickshaws going the opposite way, men kept turning back to stare at me.

For 10 motion-sick hours, I was an American on display. I’m not sure if that meant I was simply a curiosity, or worse. Either way, I didn’t like it.

I liked the role of tourist even less. But that was inescapable outside Bombay. I wanted to be recognized as an American when it suited me, but I didn’t want to be boxed in as merely a holder of American dollars. India was much more than a commodity to me, and I felt that I should have been more than a traveling buyer to India.

Those who make their living off tourists with roots in India know this schizophrenia well.

Take, for example, Ashok, who drove me around Fort Cochin. The island, one part of the city of Cochin, is so much a tourist hotspot that the Monte Carlo Internet cafe and its menu of masala tea and “seafood upon order” had a copycat on almost every corner.

Drivers such as Ashok mill around the hotels there in search of tourists to toot strategically around town. Many of them pocket commissions for steering customers to particular spice, jewelry and handicraft merchants, en route to the city’s 16th-century synagogue or the whitewashed church that claims to bear the bones of Vasco da Gama.

But Ashok also set himself up as my protector and guide. He stayed close while I read on the beach, in my churidar. And he emerged from the wings to shoo a group of men who had gathered around me, just standing and staring.

I was the only nonwhite guest at the Fort Heritage Hotel, and Ashok wanted to know my story. I told him I didn’t know exactly where in India my forebears were from. I only know they left four to six generations ago to work as indentured laborers on England’s sugar plantations in Guyana. I was born in that former colony in South America and grew up in Jersey City, N.J., a scrappy city with a view of the Manhattan skyline.

Ashok appraised my features and complexion and decided my family must have come from Kerala. Probably not, but it was sweet of him to answer so decisively the normally nagging question of identity.

If it weren’t for Ashok, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the abundance of colorful concrete houses set between the palm trees. (You can build three concrete houses with the money it takes to build one from wood.) I wouldn’t know that Yesudas, a Catholic singer, was the golden voice of Kerala. Or that the government banned rickshaw drivers from wearing lungis, the bright bolts of cloth tied at the waist and folded above the knee, a common alternative to pants in the south of India.

Still, when we stopped for dosas, crepes filled with spicy potatoes, and chai, he sat at another table, his back to me.

Before we parted, Ashok took me to his house. It was small and neatly kept. A Technicolor picture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, stood on an altar above a small refrigerator and television set. Nearby hung a cross and rosary beads, left behind by Ashok’s landlord, a Christian who asked that they keep the icons in place.

Ashok’s daughters, Ahana in pigtails and Abhana with a boy cut, sat smiling shyly on the couch. His wife emerged from the kitchen with two glasses of milky, hot tea. Ashok gave me his e-mail address.

Keep in touch, he said.

When the time came, I paid Ashok what a teacher in Kerala makes in a month and a half for the two days we zigzagged around Cochin in his rickshaw. I liked him, and I do believe our encounter was on some level genuine.

After all, India had woven, from the distance of a century and nearly 10,000 miles, the cocoon I was raised in. It had warmed our New Jersey apartment with cumin-spiced split pea soup on Sunday mornings and the sweet crooning of its soundtrack diva, Lata Mangeshkar. It had tucked pictures of Ganesh, the god with the elephant trunk, in our bedroom closet.

But once I finally was in India, that intimacy became something much more complicated. The land of my forefathers shook my sense of self as though tectonic plates were smashing against each other, in the uncertain territory under the surface of my brown skin.

I felt this from my first hour there.

An immigration official, his rebuke as crisp as the khaki he wore, had demanded to know why I, a “regular Kerala girl,” was talking to a stranger, a tabla maestro from New York, so warmly. What I answered was an attempt to explain, to put my brown skin in its proper context. But it also contained the bristle and swagger of someone used to speaking to whomever she pleased, as warmly as she pleased.

“I am an American,” I said.

I can’t help but wonder if I paid Ashok so much, in fact, to transcend the role of tourist, to become more than just another American with cash. I had wanted to pass as an Indian – and, even if my churidar had failed me, I wanted to connect with Ashok, as two people who recognize themselves in each other do.

© The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.