He Asked Me To Tell Him About India, And I Had No Idea What To Say

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The clink of horseshoes in the grass mingles with the deep voices of men chiding one another for their poor aim. My friend Laurie’s brother, David, fills his own red cup with root beer. His neighbors and relatives are gathered here today to celebrate David’s graduation.

This is my first trip to the Midwest and everything here seems so characteristically “Iowan”— the pie, the thick green grass of the backyard, the horseshoes.

Laurie and I have recently returned to the United States after studying and traveling together. Laurie’s grandfather, Grandpa Reid, sits down at the table. He gives me a gentle smile, then says, “Adrienne. Tell me about India.”

Throughout the year, Grandpa Reid had exchanged thought-provoking emails with Laurie and me about the countries where we were studying. But now our exchange wasn’t mediated through a computer screen; Grandpa Reid was sitting across from me. He was awaiting my response.    

Part of India’s power comes from the overwhelming diversity of its culture. Sometimes I wondered how the Indians I met could even claim the same nationality.

There was the Farooqi family, who lived above a shop that sold bangles and eyeglasses in the Muslim sector of Old Delhi. After his daily visit to the mosque at prayer call, Mr. Farooqi walked to the printer’s shop where he worked. His son also worked there but often overslept in the mornings, likely as a result of his propensity for New Delhi’s late-night dance clubs. Self-labeled as “barely a Muslim,” the younger Mr. Farooqi said he would rather collect new CDs, dance, or ride his motorcycle than attend services.

The young Mr. Farooqi’s indifference toward Islam did not seem to cause his family as much strife as his marital status. He was nearly 30 years old, and much to his mother’s dismay had no intentions of finding a bride. His three older sisters had all been married by the age of 20.  

One evening Mrs. Farooqi showed me all of her daughters’ wedding albums, one after the other. Upon surveying the scene, the young Mr. Farooqi grabbed my arm and offered to rescue me from such torture.  He kissed his mother on the top of her head and left the room chanting, “Single! Single! Single!”

Mrs. Farooqi rarely left the flat and, with Mr. Farooqi busy at work or at the mosque, she was often alone late into the evening. She read the Urdu newspapers delivered daily or watched television, diligently ignoring the treadmill in the corner of the bedroom, which her son had bought for her out of concern for her health.

Hundreds of miles from the Farooqi household, I lived in a small village with the Sirsi family. The Sirsis were rural Brahmans, plantation owners living primarily off their land as their forefathers had done for generations. The Sirsi’s teenage son, Narendra, arose well before breakfast to milk the cows. Meanwhile, his sister, Usha, decorated her long hair with flowers before dressing in her school uniform and serving breakfast to her family and their two visiting American students. We sat on the floor eating from folded banana leaves that served as plates.

Usha walked to and from school along a dirt road, stopping by her family’s temple in the afternoon to pray. At night, she quizzed me about American life. Would my father choose my husband? Did I live in my grandparents’ house? How many mango trees did my family have?

Weeks later, I visited a multiethnic youth group in a slum outside Delhi. The Indian government had sent bulldozers and military personnel to raze the cinder-block homes of the community on the morning that my fellow students and I arrived to talk to this Muslim-Hindu youth alliance. Apparently the inhabitants were living there illegally. To my knowledge, the community had existed for over 30 years and was populated by day laborers for the ever-expanding city of Delhi.

That morning we witnessed bulldozers knock down houses and smash fences that were only four or five bricks tall. The soldiers smoked cigarettes and laughed. I watched as one mother stooped to rummage among the debris. She tried to salvage her family’s belongings: a pan, a small lacy pillow.

Sitting at the picnic table in the afternoon light, I look down at my empty pie plate. If I were to ask Grandpa Reid to tell me about the United States, I wonder what he would say. He could tell a story from his own past to “explain” the United States, but so could a migrant farmer, a New York socialite, or a struggling welfare mother.

I smile and set down my fork. I ask Grandpa Reid, “What do you want to know?”


Posted on 7/13/2009 by

Emily Strasser

Emily Strasser

It's nice to see a story about coming home. I think you learn almost as much coming home from an abroad experience as you do while you're away. I just returned three weeks ago from six months in India, and am definitely struggling with how to tell people about it.

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