A steaming cup of chai appears at my desk as the sun sets over the squalid, smog-coated winter skies of Delhi. The chirping of birds as they make their way home punctuates the dull drum of traffic and high-pitched honking in the distance. The acrid smell of evening smog, along with my cup of tea and the melody of the birds is endearing, a far cry from the clear, deathly silence of winter in New Haven. Delhi’s pollution may get a bad rap but at least the birds don’t flee from it.
I visit home twice a year, a sad contract I signed with the universe when I decided to go to college seven thousand miles from the city I grew up in. I average five to seven months between these journeys. Each visit home demarcates a chapter in the story of my time at Yale. When abroad I experience people, cultures and ideas. In Delhi, I internalize those events to understand the previous chapter and prepare for the next one. Against the steady background of home, the changes in my own personality are accentuated. I notice the American lilt in my accent, my liberal use of “excuse me’s” and “thank you’s,” my trouble in comprehending lakhs and crores, and how I employ “how are you doing” more as a greeting and less as a question. I am more critical about Indian politics and more aware of the quirks of Delhi’s sarkari culture. I notice the ubiquity of white sedans topped with red lights and the sprawling economy of stenographers, chaiwallas, drivers and assistants that exists to service the self-important bureaucrats of the world’s largest democracy.
My chai has developed a coating of coagulated cream and is lukewarm as I swallow it in three big gulps. The moment is reminiscent of my days of cramming for the Indian school-leaving exams. I wouldn’t leave my desk for hours on end and forget to eat till my exhausted mother walked in holding a plate of roti and bhindi. As I stare at the remnants of duct tape that held together the periodic table and differential equations which clung to the wall above my desk, I become wistful. I viscerally feel the passage of time — my brother’s wedding and grandfather’s funeral happening in my absence or only token presence, my parents growing older, and the dreadful sense that my country is moving on while my mind’s image of it remains static.
When I first came to America, I remember being flummoxed by the regressive notions of India that remain alive in parts of the Indian-American community — no sir, women can walk around Delhi, and yes, people do marry outside of their caste without being kicked out…