“What’s India like?”

I’ve answered this question different ways in my life. The responses have been brief and uncomprehensive.

“It’s awesome.”

“It’s intense.”

“It’s great seeing my family.”

“It’s a lot to take in.”

It’s all these things. Any immigrant’s relationship with his place of birth is complicated, and each visit is an important moment in my life. Counting the first two years of my life, I’ve spent a total of 4.5 years in India. In that regard, it would be inappropriate to call it home, but it would be equally inappropriate to call it a vacation destination. It is one of the few times in my life I have ever seen my grandparents, my aunts, my cousins, the people from whom I have descended and to whom I will always be related. At the same time, it is an exotic location, one whose customs and rituals can seem strange and vastly different from what I have become accustomed to in America. It is the familiar mingling with the unfamiliar, a place that I have come from but don’t necessarily belong to. There’s a line from the Great Gatsby that I think sums up how I feel when I’m there:

I was both within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

I was born in Pune in 1995. If you zoom in on Mumbai in Google Maps, Pune is on it’s right. My mom was from Pune. My dad was from Mumbai. They married in 1993, and had me two years later. As far as they were concerned, they were going to spend the rest of their lives in India. There was never a plan to leave. They immigrated to the United States in the summer of 1997 for what was supposed to be a short, interesting, but ultimately temporary stay abroad.

Go figure.

The thought, they’ve told me countless times, of living out half their lives in another country on the other side of the world, had never even occurred to them. They have always been humbled by how wildly their lives have panned out in contrast to their imaginations of it back in their youth. But if coming to America changed their life, it completely defined mine. And I am reminded of this fact every time I go back to India.

What’s going to India like for me?

Since 1997, I have visited eight times. And in these eight times, the agenda has always been decided by Mr. and Mrs. Kanthi, so we have to talk about what India is like for my mom and dad.

They left when they were 29 years old. Their parents, their siblings, their mentors, their best friends, their favorite sandwich joints and late night haunts, are there. For them, it’s more than just a regular visit. It’s almost like stepping into a time machine. For each of us, mom, dad, Maithilee, and me, each trip brings with it the thought, “What would my life have been like if we’d never left?” We put our noses up to the glass and wonder, “What would that other life, that life that we were so sure we were on track to living, have looked like?”

Some of their favorite places, however, no longer exist. Some of their favorite people are gone. My mother lost both her parents in the past five years. Both times we got a call from India late at night. Both times she booked her ticket immediately and was gone by morning. Both times she didn’t make it. It’s hard like that.

What have you heard about India?

Does the following sound familiar: Indian immigrants coming to America for information technology jobs, India being yet another third world country benefitting from the global economy. Shirts that say “Made in India”. Bollywood movies. 1.3 billion brown people. A lot of different languages. Dope food. I agree with those things, too. I’ll passionately defend the claim that chaat is the best street food in the world. I’ll also passionately defend the claim that Air India is the world’s shittiest airline. By a long shot.

God, it sucks.

But India has always been a personal place to me, and it’s colored by my memories. My dad’s mom and his brother still live the apartment that we all used to live in back in ’95 and ‘96, my first home in this world. Their neighbors, Mumta, Neha, and Siddarth, used to come over and take me for the day. I used to spend all day with them. They heard my first words. They chased after me when I was in diapers. They put up with my crying episodes at night. Mumta, Neha, and Siddarth still live there. I talk with them every time I visit. They are so important to me.

My relatives have seen me grow up in snapshots. I’m there for two weeks, then I’m gone for two years. It’s a magic act. The audience never know what’s going to come out of the magician’s hat. Whichever version of me shows up at the arrivals section of the airport will be different from the version that left two years ago.

Likewise, India performs its own magic acts. Endless stretches of slums transform into high rise luxury hotels. (“Where did all those people go?” you wonder.) The windy, dangerous road from Mumbai to Pune gets replaced by a sleek, sharp highway that cuts transit time in half. Restaurants pop up serving Chicken Tikka Burritos and world class ice creameries with Indian flavors, like sitaphal. You can find mom and pop breakfast places serving traditional sabudana vada adjacent to Belgian waffle houses. It’s wonderful and exciting, seeing such rapid progress and diversity.

But here, near the end of this piece, we come to the part that you know is coming, the part that no one who goes to India can ignore. There’s problems. There’s things that bother me, acutely.

Street vendors open up stalls on the sidewalks, selling umbrellas and handkerchiefs for the equivalent of 10–20 cents. Underneath their carts are malnourished children playing with plastic toys, their sunken cheeks caked with dirt. You won’t be able to drive for ten minutes in Mumbai without stopping at a red light and having an orphan tap on your window with a coin, motioning with their other, tiny hand at their mouth. Food. Please. I saw an old man hunched over his drum playing a rackety beat with his old, calloused hands for spare change, having spent his lifetime on the streets, never having experienced the great economic boom people love talking about.

We talk about statistics because it’s easier than talking about people. A lot of people have been lifted out of poverty in my lifetime, and I can viscerally sense it every single trip. Things are definitely getting better. But for some people it’s too late. For others, it may never arrive. It’s very hard being in India. It’s more uncomfortable, dangerous, and difficult than life in America. There’s a lot of things people just look the other way about. If you’re a local, averting your eyes is easier than if you’re from abroad.

It’s complicated.

But there’s always hope. The following picture is the only non-original photograph in this post, but I’ve included it because is one of my favorite photographs of all time.

There is always hope.

I’ll end with saying what I said in the beginning: it’s a lot of things. I spent most of this last trip active, getting up before sunrise and always doing something. I crossed the street in Dadar and ate pani puri whenever I felt like it (I felt like it a lot). I went for a jog every afternoon in Shivaji Park and saw “the inexhaustible variety of life”, from couples on dates to dads walking their dogs to local cricket teams duking it out on the pitch. I drove a motorcycle through the unpredictable but exhilarating Indian traffic to get kulfi for my cousins on New Year’s Eve. I spoke fluent Marathi and wowed everyone with it. I was called by childhood nicknames no one even knows about in America. And finally, I remember laying out the cots on the floor at night and falling asleep next to my aunt, my cousins, my mom, my dad, my grandma. There we were (can you picture it?) night after night, sleeping next to each other, all of us entering that long-lost beautiful dream that we never left.

That we are still, and would always be, together.