As we exited the plane, a vintage Pan Am jumbo jet fresh from London, I saw it. Emerging from the sticky mugginess known as Bombay air, was the mangiest, nastiest looking stray cat I’d ever seen. What was a cat doing in an arrival gate? I looked at it in shock as it strolled around defiantly like it owned the place. That filthy stray cat in the Pan Am terminal of Bombay’s airport appeared to be the sole member of our welcoming party. Where the hell was I?
It was July, 1985 and this “hell” was India—stop #2 on our family’s around-world-relative-visiting-trek. This was my ancestral homeland, but at that moment, it didn’t feel very “homey.” The sight of that scraggly cat, no doubt infested with fleas from who knows where, did nothing to give me confidence in this trip or India. We certainly hadn’t been seen off at London Heathrow by a gang of stray dogs. We might as well have landed on the moon.
We—my equally terrified baby sister and a set of clueless parents who hadn’t set foot on Indian soil in eons—hauled ourselves through hellish immigration and customs lines, praying that our gifts and American gizmos would remain untouched by greedy “officials.” Things got worse when we missed our early morning connection to Bangalore, my dad’s hometown, and had to spend the day waiting for another flight in a slum hotel recommended by a shady cab driver. That room, painted a mixture of turquoise and grime, looked like it hadn’t seen soap and water in twenty years. It was so questionable my mother took off her sari and used it as a bed sheet before any of us were allowed to lie down. This was not a happy start to this whole Indian vacation-pilgrimage-to-the-motherland-thing, and the trip wasn’t sitting well with me—a ten-year-old, suburban New York kid sporting winged hair, Sergio Valentè jeans, and jelly shoes. With socks.
The heartfelt affection of well-meaning relatives improved things slightly, but more shock was forthcoming. Squatting toilets (porcelain lined holes in the floor in which a person “takes care of business”) with no Charmin in sight, a small cell with a drain and a bucket of tepid water for “showering,” and creepy little lizards scurrying up and down the walls: these were a few of the many things common to India then that I rejected completely. Things surely didn’t improve when we attempted sightseeing. The stench of cow dung, burning trash, and open sewage drove me quickly back inside on the few moments I dared to see this India. This place of my father’s birth. But what really shook me to my core were the beggars. Every tourist haunt teemed with them and interactions with barefoot children my own age clad in rags, with matted hair and swollen bellies were too much for me to handle. I soon plummeted into a weird, culture shock-based depression and couldn’t leave the house for days.
When my parents said we were going to India to visit relatives, they clearly left out a few key details. So I sobbed and pleaded with my dad to get us on the next flight home, after spotting a magazine ad for now-defunct Air Nepal’s non-stop flights to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That destination wasn’t America, but at that point anywhere would do. I was desperate and I let my dad know it. Sadly, He wasn’t moved.
To be fair, the entire trip wasn’t a total disaster. My cousins, catering to their crying wimp from America, ditched outings to stay home with me. They supplied me with comic books, Fanta, and Cadbury from corner markets and listened as I talked incessantly about “Umrika,” as they pronounced it. And when I needed a fresh Limca, they cheerfully beat a trail to the store to get me one—no matter how many times I asked. We also noshed in a few really posh restaurants that rivaled U.S. hotspots—made possible by the strength of the American dollar against the Indian rupee. And I loved having cousins my own age to talk to and play with—something I didn’t have back home. But India assaulted my senses and being in a place where everyone looked like me wasn’t enough to make me feel like I belonged.
At last, departure day came. When our Singapore-bound Air India 747 finally cleared Indian airspace, I wanted to bust out into a happy dance. Though I would miss the new friends I’d made in my cousins, I hoped we would meet next on American soil. Actually I think my parents felt the same way. No one brought up the idea of an Indian vacation for several years after that. Instead, we made great American treks to the Circus Circus buffet in Las Vegas, or visited American-rooted relatives safely within the confines of the lower 48 states.
Fast forward 10 years. India beckoned and we decided to be brave. This time, as we boarded another India-bound 747, I was actually wanted to go. So what changed? Was it India or me?
I was then 20-years-old and eager to put 12,000 miles between me and a recently booted dork of an ex-boyfriend. We’d also moved to California from New York since the last India trip and our social circle now included more Indian-American transplants than we’d known before. At that point in my life I was getting more in touch with my “Indianness,” and going back to the motherland felt right. I thought maybe it was time to see India for the storied destination that it was and put my past freak-out behind me.
I knew what to expect and how to deal now. Example: the beggars at the tourist haunts were best handled if I just stuck to my business and stayed close to a relative; the toilet situation was remedied with new, western-style commodes in the cousin’s homes. Lizards? I just averted my eyes. And if something smelled funky, the cure was to simply hold my nose. In short, I learned to suck it up and appreciate India for its goodness. It was time to finally own my ethnicity and enjoy an Indian experience filled with the heady smells of jasmine, the warmth and hilarity of family, and the tastes of exotic flavors unknown in America. It was time for this Indian girl to make peace with India.
So I did.
An early morning in Delhi found me checking out the cityscape from my cousin’s rooftop terrace. There was a dusky haze to the sunlight that made everything look sleepy and fresh at the same time. But as I looked around and listed to the din of a waking city, a new feeling stirred. Here in India—thousands of miles away from my home—I suddenly felt at home.
By dusk of that day, we were in Agra. We never made it to this most famous of Indian wonders on our last trip. The Taj Mahal—the famed shrine to love whose story transcends all cultures—rose through the pink toned sky as luminous and magnificent as I always imagined it would be. Like the tourist I was, I took lots of pictures, but this time through different eyes. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine this place centuries ago when the Moguls reigned supreme and India was a powerful empire. And had I lived then, it would have been my empire. That moment was ethereal and magical and it made me feel grateful to be exactly where I was.
Back in the U.S., when asked where I am from, saying I am American isn’t always the answer people are looking for. But saying I am Indian is. And that evening at the Taj Mahal it finally came together—this India with my childhood culture shock, squatting toilets, lizards and all. It was as much a part of me as America.
Wilona Karimabadi is thrilled to finally have kids old enough to handle international travel without diaper bags. She writes from Ellicott City, Maryland.