The Hot Breath of India

When you get off the plane in India, the first thing that you feel is a whoosh of hot air blowing onto your face. The air is thicker, warmer, and has a distinct smell about it . Each time I arrive, I am jumping in my seat with anticipation of that first breath of India. As I walk down the gangplank toward the airport building – where someone (or many someones) is inevitably waiting for me, I feel a surge of pleasure to be back.

Now India is not my native home, indeed I was born in the United States, I’m a classic Indian American Princess (IAP), except for the Princess part of course. My parents took me back and forth to the Motherland every chance they got to visit their family who, for the better part of my youth (from age 0-21) all lived there. My Mother missed her family desperately and in spurts. Suddenly she would be very lonely and upset that she was so far away, blaming my father for bringing her to this very different home. I watched as the years passed, where she came into her own, became more American, yet remained Indian, and ceased her intense yearning to be in India. Maybe it was because so many of her little nephews and nieces and one brother (of six) came here to settle. Maybe it was because her Mother, her great love, died. Maybe it was because she moved to a place where so many Indians live, and there was a temple, so she felt included. Or maybe it was just because after 48 years, you resign yourself to where you live and you become its resident.

All of our travels back and forth made India a part of me. I loved it. I loved the music, the people, the animals on the streets, the temples on every corner. I loved the clothes and the sounds and the whiz of the auto rickshaws as they flew by on the roads. I loved the uncomfortable heat, and the way I never really seemed to sleep at night while I was there – too hot, too hard of a ground to sleep on, too many bugs all over me. ZZZZZ that mosquito that got into the net plagued me night after night.

India is a romantic place for me. When we would go there it would usually be my Mother, sister and me for much of it (Dad only got 1 month off a year, so he would come in the middle of the three month trip). We would leave right when school ended in June and come back in September, maximizing the time and cost it took to get there. We would always bring extra suitcases filled with presents from America, shoes, clothes, pens, stuffed animals. And we would return with those suitcases filled with salwar kameez, saris, caftans, books, and trinkets. When we arrived at the airport we would immediately be swept into a series of sari-clad/dhoti-clad relatives all talking at once as loudly as they could. Exhausted, we would get our bags and into someone’s car that would take us to my grandparents’ house – where the loud conversation would get even louder, and everyone would talk into the night. Inevitably my sister and I would find a bed, crawl under the mosquito netting put there just for us, and curl up asleep.

The rest of the journey would be a series of home visits to this auntie and that uncle and this friend and that friend. We would eat sweets and food and drink lots and lots of tea.We would visit one or two landmarks – that was for me and my sister I’m sure. And I would find books everywhere – old books of my grandfather’s, or uncles’ or aunties’ and read. One summer I read all of Dickens’ classics. Another was devoted to Steinbeck.

India was where I wasn’t me, but I was. I wore beautiful clothes hand tailored, and stiltingly spoke a different language mixed in with English. I had gorgeous jewelry (bangles, earrings, necklaces) on all the time.  I listened to people speak of the Gods I read about over and over again – the intricacies of the Ramayana, the strength of the Mahabharata. I would go into temples and smell the incense and transform into a believer. It was sticky hot but beautiful.

And then I would return. Again I was me but wasn’t. But here I no longer belonged. One year, in the fifth grade, I returned and wore a bindhi on my forehead and bangles on my wrists to school to match every outfit I wore. It was 1980 in rural Sacramento. Is it any wonder that I didn’t have many friends? I would return from the magic that was India, from the cloud of love, and crazy noise and music and passion that was my family, and just not be…right.

Who was I? Not Indian. Not American. Where did I belong? These are questions that have plagued me for much of my life. Lately I find myself less apt to question but just be. This IAP Buddhist/Hindu has a Christmas tree. My children believe in Santa Claus. I cook Indian food but I also cook all kinds of things. Our house is distinctly a mix of Indian/American. We have Buddhas everywhere, I read Indian stories to my kids, and we don’t wear our shoes in the house. We burn incense but listen to 80s pop music.

We haven’t been to India as a family mostly because of the cost of the trip – so my kids don’t understand many of the things that I did when I was their age. They are sheltered, and don’t have the exposure to poverty that I had from age two. It hurts me that they are this way, as I want them to really understand the world – not travel first class like some of my friends kids – but to really experience people of all kinds (sit next to the super smelly guy for 10 hours who keeps snorting into his hanky, come off the plane and relish the feeling of the hot, thick air on their face, look at the boy who has no food and empathize, and know how lucky they are to have food every day, without fail).

I find myself yearning to give my family more of me as an Indian, to teach them what it is to be Indian. But I live in Pacific Grove. There is no temple. There are barely any Indians. There is no strong Indian community. I don’t want to lose that feeling and I want my kids to have that feeling. The romantic love that is India. The beauty that is Hinduism. The joy of our culture. It’s difficult when you have to do much of it yourself. I dream of a temple here in the Monterey Bay Area, that will speak to me as a Viashnavite Hindu from India.

My Mother has found a place in a Buddhist monastary where she lives, and says that in that place it doesn’t matter if you are Indian, Chinese or otherwise. So perhaps that is where I will look next. Or perhaps it will take a long trip that allows my children to feel the breath of India on their faces. Or maybe something else. Stay tuned.


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