“Excuse me, ma’am, which country you come from?”
“Ma’am, not from India?”
These were the questions I was asked when I set foot in India in 2009.
I’m still being asked those questions.
Are you Nepali, Pakistani, Afghan, Mauritian, Ethiopian, American, British and even Chinese, but never has someone asked me outright, “You’re Indian, aren’t you?”
I suppose part of my perspective on India comes from a search for my own identity.
Home for me is Manama, language for me is English outside but Tamil at home, passport is Indian, birthplace was the erstwhile Bombay and my food is Mediterranean.
So the question, where are you from is not very easy for me to answer.
I just say, Bahrain because that’s where I grew up and when I’m asked if my accent’s American or British, I tell them, it’s Bahraini.
I find it very amusing that when talking about India, people here often make apologies for the country and refer to it as they would to an outsider.
I find it funny because I know nearly as much about India or even more than most Indians.
I may not be able to vote and I might just never come around to learning the national language or appreciate Indian cuisine apart from Mangalorean food, but I do feel some connection for this country and that is why I decided to come.
Growing up in a small country did not prepare me for the monstrosity that is Mumbai.
Bahrain is only a little bigger than India’s financial capital but its population is ten times less.
I thought I would barely last a week because I was crying to go home and may be study chartered accountancy as my parents had hoped- anything to be away from here.
I did survive and my plans to quit after first year of university and apply elsewhere didn’t happen.
It’s not because I began to love Mumbai, but I learned not to hate it.
One of my early observations here was that India was still a country divided.
I remember a girl introducing her boyfriend to me and then almost as postscript whispered, “He’s also a Rajput.”
It didn’t mean anything to me and I was scratching my head for months afterwards.
Why did she say that?
She was a girl from another Indian metropolis and she was wealthy and liberal in her thinking but why did she tell me what caste her boyfriend belonged to?
I never thought caste would be something Indian teenagers routinely mentioned while talking to their friends.
There’s an inherent need to stratify everything in India.
There are specific roles for people and micro-worlds created so that they live in them.
It was only here that I noticed most people are hugely dependent on others to do simple tasks.
When I first tried to clear out garbage from my room in the first paying guest accommodation I stayed in, my landlady threw a fit.
“No, we have someone to do that!” she said very surprised.
Sure enough, they had a man come to the house every morning, only to pick up garbage and then clean the lavatories.
She later told us, “You’ll have to rinse the buckets yourself. I’ve forbidden him from touching anything in the house. You don’t know how clean he is, he goes everywhere.”
It was a shocking revelation for me because all my life I’ve been taking out the garbage, moving furniture up the stairs to our apartment and when I had to clean the toilet, I have.
I never saw it as dirty, demeaning work but here in India you have so many people to do things for you- to cut your fruit, drive your car, you name it, they do it.
You could argue that such delegation of responsibility actually creates more employment in the country.
What you can’t deny is the fact that the social fabric of India is still inter-woven with the caste system.
It is often denied vehemently in public but it still exists like skeletons in the country’s closet.
Even child labour for that matter does not exist in shady firework factories in remote corners of the country, it exists right here in our midst among urban Indian families.
A 19 year-old girl I knew brought a seven year-old boy from her hometown to live in her new house in Mumbai.
Though she received reproving stares from her neighbours for employing a child, her defence was that the boy would receive a better standard of education in Mumbai than in Lucknow and it was for his good that he was living away from home.
The truth however was much different.
I remember she was incapable of doing a single task.
The boy would stand on a stool to cook her food, he would pick up her glasses and wash them in the kitchen and what’s worse she couldn’t pour a glass of water for herself.
The child who spent his days alone in the house while she went to college, never complained and I was assured he liked his new home.
If this happened in some village in the Indian heartland, it may not be unusual.
What galled me the most was that this happens in urban upper-middle class households that usually pride themselves as self-righteous.
India is today is a country governed by hypocrisy.
While this may be true of all countries, what’s unique to India is the fact that its elite has effectively convinced a large section of the people that this is the status they can achieve, this is the money they can earn, that they’ve been blessed with everything they can and should not dare to dream big or achieve more.
The social disparity in India is appalling.
It was very difficult for me in the first few months as I could not help crying when I would walk on the streets.
It is not an exaggeration.
I had never in my life seen anyone go hungry or beg for food till I came to Mumbai.
While it was a huge reality check, it made me angry.
What country lets its children die on the streets, sleep in the rain, roam naked, get abused and die of diseases for which there is cure?
Yes, it is a big country which is difficult to govern and development will be snail-paced but with great power comes great responsibility.
You would have to be absolutely heartless to abuse public office and siphon off funds meant for the poor.
I remember people around me laughing when I addressed a waiter in a restaurant as “sir”.
It hurt me, not at being laughed at but at how people are not valued or considered important enough to be respected.
India’s independence leader M K Gandhi was the one who reminded the world the importance of self-reliance, dignity of labour and the value of a human being.
Whatever happened to those who led the country after him and strive to emulate him?
This country’s strength may lie in its 1.2 billion population but unless every Indian is valued and respected just the same, it will be some time before India will shine a shade better.