I’m about to provide some insight, some light into the venture, the journey that was my trip back home, back to the motherland, back to the country of curry, poverty, and tradition. If the curry hint wasn’t enough, I’m going to take you back into a day of my life in India, more specifically the city of Vadodara in the western state of Gujarat (the land of dandiyas). Mind you this now, I had not returned to the root of my existence, to the centripetal essence of my lineage in a little over 18 years. Like Kanye West says in the gold digger song, “18 years, 18 years…”….
Have you ever been somewhere, visited any place where you felt completely out of place and had a tremendous culture shock? Well, India wasn’t one of those places for me, everything felt very, very familiar. I had lived there for a year when I was little (about 4-5 years old), but I didn’t remember much from then, save a memory here and a moment there. The smell, the people, the dirt, the humidity, and the pollution, none of it felt unfamiliar, it was exactly what I had expected. Maybe I had just been prepared well for it, I don’t know, but regardless, I wasn’t surprised nor was I disappointed.
My first day, my first moment there I was greeted by family members, I mean, it had to be at least 10-15 of them, most of which I did not recognize in the least bit, but all of which recognized and remembered me. Isn’t that one of the most uncomfortable feelings ever? One of the most awkward situations to be in? After touching my elder relatives feet (Indian tradition of showing respect to elders), we headed back to my elder cousin’s home and sat down.
As soon as I arrived in my cousin’s home, my mom tells me that an uncle of mine is actually running for political office in our home city and that the results would be announced later that day. My mom had even become so swept up in the political propaganda that she had campaigned for him and had even voted illegally for him. My mother hasn’t even voted legally in the states and she has been a citizen for 15+ years. Go figure. They told me that the victory celebrations would be bananas, but I had no idea how unforgettably crazy it would later become.
I don’t know how much people know about Indian movies, but generally they are over the top and tend to exaggerate every thread of the storyline that they can. Aesthetically, the cinematography and the actors and actresses are breathtaking and vibrant with passion and life. Every scene seems to be anti-climactic and every moment is so emotionally over the top that it enters into the realm of corny and unbelievable. The story lines and plot twists become unfathomable and redundant. Well, the experience I’m about to jot down is one that could be filed and classified as Grade A Bollywood material.
My family and I are in the downtown district next to my uncle’s clothing store and we have found out that our uncle has won and that the “rally” will soon ensue. There are clothes being sold across the street, hung from lines with street dealers searching for customers, shouting prices and trying to persuade people to “just take a look” at their inventory. Tall, slender palm trees sprout up through the grass behind these vendors who are situated along the side of the road. Motorcycles and scooters are cluttered everywhere. There have to be hundreds of them parked adjacently to one another along the edges of every single road. Each block is lined with shops selling everything from luggage to clothing to food. The streets are covered in dirt, except for lanes created by the tires of the vehicles passing by. I see a few cows roaming freely through the middle of the road while drivers veer around them. There are no lanes here, just a subtle understanding between drivers as to how wide the lanes are. What kind of place has no driving lanes you ask? You can just as easily follow that question with, “What kind of place doesn’t have street lights?”, because, quite frankly, there aren’t those either. The drivers themselves preside over the jurisdiction of the traffic rules. Every vehicle seems to hemorrhage dirt and harmful emissions into the clear sky. The pollution is heavy enough to clog your esophagus and suffocate your thought. It can be brutal, especially when initially exposed.
The women are draped in traditional saris while the men are mostly wearing slacks and long sleeved shirts. Fashion individuality is a scarce commodity here. Conformity is the chic fashion trend that’s exploded over the past few centuries in this sub-continent. The sun is beaming down, void of a cloud in the sky, and the humidity is almost unbearable. The heat exploits your climatic deficiencies. I stand under the shadows of my uncle’s store, suddenly jarred from my thoughts by an uncle cramming a samosa into my hand telling me to eat it. Young children, obviously poor and in need of money, come begging to us, poking at my hip and pulling on my leg. They look up to me, with their faces and bodies covered in dirt like a coal miner, with their clothes torn and without shoes. Their big eyes look up to me in search of any money that I might have. They only mumble the word “bhai” to me and keep prodding me, wanting me to look down and acknowledge them. We ignore them for a few minutes and then my uncles harshly tell the children to leave and finally they go away and move on to other people.
I refocus my attention on the prospect of the rally. The rally is simply the winning candidate parading around in the streets in the section of the city in which he has been elected to represent. Family abuzz with excitement over our family’s victory and the impending rally surrounds me.
Now I actually have met this uncle one time in the states, he came to visit and was very well spoken and very tall. He had a political presence to him, a distinguished stature. He is charismatic and educated and comes from a family that is financially stable, all the attributes needed of a politician. Anyways, I am standing in downtown when my cousins pull up to me on their motorcycles and announce to us that our uncle will be arriving down that street momentarily. Then the fun begins. All you can hear is loud, Hindi film music emanating from several large speakers mounted atop a truck normally used to transport goods. The truck is filled to capacity with family members, political party supporters, and others who are just on there for the hell of it. Atop this truck stands my uncle, waving to the crowd, almost like a God waving to his worshippers, like a president waving to his countrymen. He is adorned with a lay made of yellow and white flowers and he is wearing a long sleeved white top which comes down to his knees with matching white pants, or what is called a juhbo (traditional Indian clothing). The entire city seems to be hypnotized by this scene and by this larger-than-life figure and they follow the truck like zombies, cheering, singing, and dancing along the way.
The truck then stops abruptly in front of us, and my uncle suddenly points to me and motions to me to come up on the truck with him. My uncles and my cousin tell me to not ask questions and just go. I go and climb on the truck and find myself throwing up the V sign (V for victory) along with everyone else as we are showered with flowers and colored powder. Every few miles, my uncle gets off the truck and receives congratulations, gives thanks, and every mile or two will step into a holy temple and say a quick prayer. Finally, a few miles later, my cousin (the very same cousin who coerced me into boarding the truck) pulls me off. And we continue to follow the truck around the district, finding shortcuts to avoid traffic to preemptively arrive at the next stop on his route.
Every time the truck stops, the people flood the truck and surround my uncle chanting the political party’s theme. Colored powder is being thrown from every conceivable angle: from the ground, from the buildings, and from the rooftops. A colorful swirl of powder, music, and throngs of people enthused with the spirit and exuberance of victory encapsulate the truck. Rich, middle, and poor alike flood the streets to celebrate and temporarily exonerate their political demons. This goes on for hours. My parents ride in a taxi, preferring that to walking, while I ride around on my cousin’s motorcycle, park, and then walk to the central area. We repeat this process for what seems like hours. On a few occasions, I find myself in the crowd, dancing in circles, singing the words to the very same songs that have been replayed over and over the entire rally. I pull my cousin into the circle and we dance, sing, and thoroughly act a fool. I find myself succumbing completely to the moment, to the music, and to the ongoing celebration. It is impossible to remove the smile from my face.
Finally, hours later, late into the evening, my uncle holds a victory party at his house. It is actually 4 houses that are situated in a square, sharing the same yard. The houses are immaculate and spacious. They share the same architecture and layout. Each one has marble flooring throughout the houses and they even have western toilets, a rare commodity in India.
It appears as though hundreds of people have come to congratulate my uncle on his victory. They talk politics, business, and finance. I swear to myself that I have met hundreds of family members, most of which I do not remember the names at the end of the night. The same question haunts me the entire night, “Do you remember me?”, and I smile and nod that I don’t and vow to myself that I will before my trip is over.
To top off the days events, there CANNOT be any sort of celebration in India without fireworks. Fireworks are to an Indian celebration as wine is to fine Italian food: it is necessary. For hours into the night, fireworks are exploded and sparklers are lit. I join in on the fun, lighting firecrackers, and then abruptly running away to avoid the hellacious explosions. The sounds of explosion and chaos resemble a war zone, littered with adults and kids alike giggling like schoolchildren, in awe of the colorful atmosphere and surroundings. The music still permeates through the dirt roads and the concrete homes of the neighborhood, as does the enthusiasm and vibrance of a city defined by its culture and tradition. “This is one of those moments,” I think to myself. This transcending, surreal moment had triggered my love affair for the motherland.