On my flight from Seattle to London, London to Hyderabad I began reading Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, which was a Christmas gift from my friend and fellow blogger Jake Paikai. Roy, an Indian essayist and novelist who explores “The Indian Experience” (using the term generally) through her characters, won the Booker Prize in 1997 for the novel, which follows an Indian family’s descent and, similarly, India’s struggles as a whole, through the eyes of the two youngest children, Esthma and Rahel.
I haven’t finished it yet. But I’m getting so much out of it, and there are a few passages that I feel are pertinent to my observations and what I’m trying to learn in my experiences here.
In this excerpt, Uncle Chacko compares personal history to an “old house at night” with ancestors whispering inside. He says that to understand history, “we have to go inside and listen to what they’re saying. And look at the books and the pictures on the wall. And smell the smells… But we can’t go in, because we’ve been locked out. And when we look in through the windows, all we see are shadows. And when we try and listen, all we hear is a whispering. And we cannot understand the whispering, because our minds have been invaded by war. A war that we have won and lost. The very worst sort of war. A war that captures dreams and re-dreams them…” (52)
In essence, Indian identity was a glorious, ornate sword that a conquering country took, smelted, and made into something foreign and unidentifiable. They can’t see that sword anymore. They’ve been locked out of their own past. In coming to India, I have already been confronted with this wound. I try to make links in a city with billboards oozing with sex and real women who can’t show their knees. A city blossoming with trade and investment, but with tarp tents between vendors and at the feet of corporations. There is still rock—large and unhewn, like tractors—between buildings and yet there’s construction everywhere. Infrastructure grows and the city develops while stray (sometimes rabid) dogs meander the streets and bats hang from electric wires. While I believe that English colonization did some good (modern medicine, change and growth for women, more and better education for children, etc.) you see everywhere the struggle between their traditions and history and the history that has been made for them.
Coming to India, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew it wasn’t as black and white as my family was seeing it: it isn’t a land of abject poverty and lepers. Those things exist here, but they aren’t everything this country is. However, despite my intentions to not create any expectations, I did subconsciously. Hyderabad is sometimes called Cyberabad by its citizens because of the influx of technology-related jobs from the U.S. In tourist manuals, you see Western-influenced architecture and cleanliness. You see beautiful gardens and green grass. No slums. Nothing that might hurt Hyderabad’s rising tourist industry or offend the delicate sensibilities of the white people. On my way to the campus from the airport, we didn’t enter the city. We circled it. We saw its slums and its trash. Men brushed their teeth on the sides of the road and spit into metal pails. Children walked barefoot in the morning mist. love they had for each other only through each other’s eyes. People stared at the bus full of white people. Women in burqas greeted each other at the airport, knowing who they were and what and I felt guilty for being able to afford a ride on this white people bus (even though, technically, the university provided the transportation, they couldn’t know that).
In the thirty minutes that I took to get home from the airport, I saw something vastly different from my unintended image of Hyderabad and even more different from what I’m used to at home. I’ve gotten used to the smell (the hardest part because it took me furthest from home). And now I can finally focus on understanding. Here’s to hearing those ancestors shout.