Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Alien Feeling

There are two kinds of bloggers in the world – habitual and inspired. The first kinds can blog about anything, anytime. The second kind blogger, however, needs a real inspiring idea before he can hit the keyboard. As my regular (sigh!) readers will know, I belong to this latter category. I can hardly blog about a subject that does not inspire me to write and much less so when my mind is occupied with something else (which I don’t want to blog about). That is the primary reason why I never put up a post since that endless night in Helsinki. Initially I was homesick, and then got buried up to my neck in work. Also, whatever leisure time I got, I devoted to photography. Finally, after almost a month, a foot-high snowfall and the absence of a girlfriend on Valentine’s Day that is also a weekend has given me the much needed time for to type out a blog post.

And the subject is not, as the title may suggest to some, about spending Valentine’s Day alone in New York. It is about my India visit.

The American government calls us aliens – resident or non-resident as the case may be. I always found the term mildly offensive, because no permanent resident of this planet would like to be reminded that Americans find them strange enough to be from another world. However, the full implication of the term hit me during the winter holidays when I landed in India and found myself a greater alien there than in this country.

The first thing that seemed extraordinary to me at the Indira Gandhi International Airport was of course the most ordinary of things – the crowd. The last six airports that I had visited were Heathrow, Newark, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, JFK and Helsinki, and although these included some of the biggest and busiest airports in the world, New Delhi gave a whole new meaning to the word “busy.” Who cares whether the number of flights operating from there is just a fraction of the traffic handled by Heathrow or JFK? All that I thought as I pushed my cart through the airport was, “Really, are there so many people in the world?” Something else also seemed very, very odd, and somewhat unnerving after sixteen months in the US: the airport was full of security men flaunting AK-47s. It was a grim reminder that India was fighting the real “war against terror” every day, despite what people across the world may be thinking post 9/11.

It was a relief to be able to switch to Hindi while talking to customs officials, security men and domestic airline clerks without having to prick up my ears trying to catch their accent. This was especially good because I realized to my horror that some people were unable to catch my English accent the first time. Soon I landed in Kolkata and came out of the airport, and it was here I saw the next thing that makes India look so alien to Americans.

Dust. Lots of it.

I am not talking of dirt. I am not even talking of dirty places. The dust that I am referring to is the fine powder that covers everything in sight from cars to tree leaves. It is this very coating that gives off the wonderful smell when the first raindrops come down after a dry spell, so I am not really complaining. Only that I had grown so accustomed to a dust-free world that it all seemed very strange. I also realized why photos taken in Europe and America were so brightly coloured; I suspect it is their policy of keeping all patches of earth covered either with grass or with mulch that prevents the creation of dust. On a related note, I was very surprised to see the amount of haze in the Kolkata air on my subsequent visits to the city during the following month. The sky is almost never blue, and visibility is usually less than two miles on a clear day. In New York City the visibility is almost always ten miles and the sky is pristine. Even though New York is one of the most brilliantly lit places on the planet, one can see more stars in the sky than can be seen in Kolkata these days. Does Kolkata have more cars or more people than New York? I don’t think so! Probably the diesel-burning buses overcrowding the city have something to do with it- I can’t tell for sure- but I would surely like to see my favourite city getting a cleaner sky.
Talking of buses, I must say I was most pleasantly surprised by some changes taking place in Kolkata and one of them was introduction of imported buses. For a person who spent his B.E. years commuting on leaky and dented tin boxes on wheels also known as buses of route 215A, it was a jaw-dropping sight to behold a shiny glass-covered 215A with low footboards, switch operated doors (which are always open) and moving LED displays announcing the destination roll by. Now only if the political activists of Kolkata can be persuaded against burning off these buses on bandh days, we shall have a very modern fleet within a few years, and that would probably take care of the pollution problem to a large extent. Also, the metro rail expansion work is progressing quite fast and Salt Lake is almost unrecognizable now with flyovers and overhead railway lines coming up everywhere. When I said I felt like an alien in my own city, it was not only because I had developed an “NRI air” but also because my city had changed so much in the last year and a half.

As for the NRI air, this time I could guess what goes through the average Americans’ minds when they try to navigate Indian roads, and if I have to describe it in one word, I would use the word “terror.” Even for a person like me who has grown up in UP and spent a year and a half in Hyderabad where the lack of any rule is the only steady traffic rule, sixteen months in the US were enough to erase a significant portion of essential-for-survival skills right off my brain. While it would be an exaggeration to say I was terrified of going out on the streets, I was definitely confused. Apart from the left-or-right dilemma, I kept stopping for traffic lights where there were none, waiting for all vehicles to stop before crossing the street (which made crossing even small streets an indefinitely long process) and getting scared whenever I caught a glimpse of an approaching cow. I was never the brave type, but growing up in Allahabad had at least ensured that I could walk calmly by a passing cow or buffalo without feeling the irresistible urge to cross over to the other side of the road. This time, however, I found myself yielding to that urge often. This added to the chaos as crossing the road was a dreaded exercise as mentioned before, and it further confused me regarding which direction the cars were going in. Apparently, my brain did not have a problem adjusting to the different on-off states of light switches, but as far as left and right side of the road are concerned, I am a big mess. I wonder how I’m going to learn driving. If someone saw me walking on the road in this manner and assumed I was showing off some of my NRI air, I don’t really blame them.

And thus I spent a month in India, feeling alien in my own city, enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that I have grown up with, and yet subconsciously overjoyed that in some aspects, these sights and sounds were giving way to a more Americanized version. I knew that in a few weeks’ time, I would be back in my fixed routine in Newark, where every day was predictable and survival was much easier. But I also knew that I will eventually be going back to live in India once I am done with my studies here, and all that dust and cows and unruly traffic could never make my country seem worse than the sanitized land where I stay. The captain of the Atrium in the movie WALL-E said, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” I myself couldn’t have put it better. For me, there is only one country to live, and that is India.


  1. rannar lekha ta to bhaloi, aaro bhalo baranday tola chhobita.......eta ki chandannagar er chhobi?