India hasn’t changed. My India has.
In the summer of 2002 I went back to India for the first time since my first birthday. I was 7, going on 8. Until then the knowledge of most of my extended family came from photo albums and phone calls. Video calling, that we take so much for granted now, wasn’t a thing yet. The 8.5 hour plane ride to Frankfurt was new and exciting. The following 9 hour plane trip from Frankfurt to Madras was even more exciting. I was even excited about the plane food I didn’t feel like eating. I mean, who ever really likes plane food, right? As we neared Madras airport, I was barely able to sit in my seat. I hadn’t slept much because of the time change. The yellow plane lights were on because it was dark out, being the middle of the night. My mom decided that my hair needed to be fixed as I was going to meet my family and should look as presentable as possible after a 20+ hour travel time. As she braided my hair the flight attendant came around with hot washcloths, something I had never experienced on a flight, so one could refresh themselves by wiping down their face.
Upon landing in Madras airport I was so involved with following my parents through the crowd trying to get to immigration and customs that it seemed like the busiest place on earth. After getting through the line we went to get our bags on a really big baggage carousel; quite fitting for our very large duffel bags. As we walked out of the double doors I was overwhelmed with the number of people who were standing in the crowd waiting to pick up somebody or other from the airport. Of course as I had no idea who we were looking for, I blindly followed my parents until we found my aunt. There were hugs and kisses and more hugs and kisses and then we got in a car and drove off through the night.
We stopped outside a very large apartment building. My parents took care of our bags as I waited outside the car, both nervous and excited, wearing my nice white pants that, as a 7 year old, I thought I looked pretty good in. In the building we got into this really old elevator that had doors you had to manually slide open and close. It had a light and a fan that you could turn on and the buttons looked really old fashioned. Definitely not like any elevator I had ever seen before.
We finally got off on one of the floors and walked into an apartment (the door had been left open in anticipation if I recall.) After taking off my shoes and walking through the small corridor that opened up to the living/dining room I was met by about 9 of my family members standing around the dining table. There were so many people to hug and kiss and talk to, it was like heaven for a 7 year old chatterbox.
Over the next week or so I learned a lot about life in India. The kitchen was different, with a little stove that looked like our camping stove and an actual gas tank. Water had to be boiled before drinking and some was poured into old juice bottles to be put in the fridge to drink cold later. The milk was delivered every or every other morning in plastic packets. Milk also had to be boiled. The bathroom was different. It was one big tiled room with a sink and a toilet and a shower that were not partitioned as I was familiar with. There was no toilet paper, but rather a bucket and a mug to wash yourself with. It was all very new and exciting.
We went to Pondy Bazaar, a large stretch of street that was an open marketplace with so many little shops on the “Footpath” as well as bigger more established ones in the opposite buildings. We shopped at the grocery store that had so many different fruits and vegetables, not to mention like 100 different varieties of mangoes. We visited many old people, some bed-ridden, others too old to move around a lot but still capable of giving us coffee/tea and cookies. I didn’t know who any of them were but they all seemed to know me and were very happy to see me.
After our time in Madras we took an overnight train to Kochin to visit the other side of the family. We were in the train-car with bunks to sleep in that was also air conditioned. Once the train started to move we took out the dinner my grandmother had so patiently packed for us and we sat in our seats and ate as we talked all about the visit to Madras. At 9:30 or so we decided it was too dark to see anything outside so my dad told me how to climb into the bunks that were above the lower one and we went to sleep. The next morning I was woken up by a man yelling “caapi caapi caapi!” in our car. (“Caapi” is coffee.) Before I could even suggest getting any, my dad quickly told me that the coffee they sell on the train is probably 60% sugar. Not the coffee for me.
Soon enough we arrived at Ernakulam and there to greet us at the train station was my grandfather. His face lit up when he saw us and he couldn’t stop smiling as he brought us home. Here, home was a house as opposed to a big apartment building. My grandmother greeted us at the door. She cried as she hugged my dad, not having seen him in 7 years. She had made so many snacks and sweets for us. There was hot breakfast ready for us to eat and the house smelled like really, really good food.
While we visited there we went to many temples. My grandfather taught me all about all the gods and goddesses. He walked me around the temples and told me the stories that went along with all the drawings on the walls. We also saw many old people and went to many people’s houses to visit even more people who I did not know. My grandfather bought me chocolates and took me to the grocery store to get vegetables. I, of course, gladly followed him everywhere, challenging him to who-could-walk-faster competitions every chance I got.
After our 3 week stay in India, we returned home. I told all my friends about what an amazing place it was, how I had had the best time and couldn’t wait to go back.
Now let’s fast-forward to the present. At almost 23 I don’t have that excitement anymore. The 20+ hours of travel is tiring. The plane is uncomfortable and I can’t sleep. The food isn’t any good but I have to eat it because otherwise I will be hungry. When I reach India I just want to sleep because I’m so exhausted. When I walk out of the plane the airport is too crowded. Immigration takes too long and is too unorganized that it is an annoyance. I don’t want to deal with the people near the baggage carousel asking me to pay them to take my bags to the car for me. Walking out of the airport, I wish there were less people because maybe it would make the intense humidity a little bit easier to bear. Also, if there were less people I might be able to find my family member better. Though nowadays they just send their car with a driver to pick us up.
I try to hold in my bowels for as long as I can because I can’t stand that there is no toilet paper. The bucket and mug grosses me out. Everyone tells me I need to eat more and then very nicely tells me I’ve gained weight. Those two statements obviously make sense together. The heat bothers me because I’m sticky and itchy all the time and the showers provide no relief. I get bitten from head to toe by mosquitoes. The streets are too crowded to walk on. Pondy Bazaar makes me wonder if I am on the verge of becoming claustrophobic. There are cockroaches everywhere.
The train, though air conditioned, isn’t comfortable. I’m scared that I will have to use the bathroom urgently and have to witness the train bathroom. There are baby cockroaches crawling all over the seats and the bunk so I can’t sleep.
Kochin is too humid and wet. There are ten times as many mosquitoes there than in Madras. I’m worried that there are cockroaches in my bed and that the fan might fall on me when I’m sleeping. The entire trip I can’t wait to get back home to have a cleansing shower. Now I come back and tell people they shouldn’t go to India.
Here’s the thing. All of these annoyances existed when I was 7. I was too overcome with my excitement that I didn’t realize any of it. As a young child, experiencing something for the first time you don’t stop to criticize and nit-pick, you just keep going. It’s made me realize that India hasn’t changed. I have.
Now, my grandparents who lived in Madras have passed away. My ever-smiling grandfather who lived in Kochin has passed away. My grandmother lives in the United States with us. So many of the older people I visited are gone. Most of the younger ones like my cousins have moved to the United States. There isn’t much of my close extended family left in India except for some aunts and uncles. So, I’d like to refine my statement:
India hasn’t changed. My India has.