Part I: Could I Live in India? The Rooftop Palace

Nearly two months have passed since settling here in India. After spending so much time immersing myself in a foreign culture, the question often arises in my mind: is India a place where I could actually live? And: will I work in India in the near future? I can’t ruminate on these questions without also taking into consideration the many facets involved with living in a foreign land—aspects of culture, race, language, identity, and belonging. Is it true that in order to feel at home, one must also feel a sense of kinship, familiarity, and identification with the community one is living in? What, in other words, happens when two peoples collide?

My new flat mate and I sat on the roof of our new apartment complex. We held glasses of Old Monk Rum mixed with Coca Cola in our hands. This was our second or third glass. To our left squatted a low wooden table in front of a bench. In front of us carved wooden Hindu deity stood on the roof’s edge. His face was further carved by the shadows cast by the foliage of several rows of potted plants. An empty bottle of whisky rested between the deity’s legs—perhaps a parting prasad by the Americans who’d occupied the flat before us.

“He would have parties here all of the time,” our landlady said of her previous American tenant that afternoon. My roommate and I faced her from a couch in her living room. “Once in the morning he came and said—aunty, will you drive me to the store? I need to buy some vodka for a get-together tonight. So I drove him there on my motorcycle. I want you to feel completely at home here,” she emphasized, planting her hands on her knees. “You can have as many parties as you like. If you ever need anything, please let me know.”

It was exciting to live in a new apartment in a new city–especially because I had never actually lived in a real apartment on my own before. In America, during college, I had always taken advantage of school housing. And the summer previous I had spent three months with a Muslim host family in Lucknow.  I knew that this time I would be sacrificing the cultural insights that accompany dinner conversations with a host family. But in its place, I was acquiring a new cultural experience, which can only be derived from living independently, confronting the practical necessities of self maintenance, and interacting with neighbors day-to-day.

That night I indulged in a celebratory glass of rum. Jaipur was a welcome environment after my stressful week in Lucknow. I hadn’t thought that such clean cities like Jaipur existed in Northern India: where the traffic rules were obeyed, where the roads weren’t overly congested, where the neighborhood streets were peaceful, where trash didn’t accumulate under a cloud of flies. I spun around one evening on the road disbelievingly, taking it all in: Jaipur was of a completely different order than New Delhi, Lucknow, Benares, and Allahabad.

My flat mate asked me that night: “Do you think you could live in India?” And I felt–as I always do at different times and places in India–the answer change in my mind. We had been sitting and staring for several moments in silence at the Jain and Hindu temples—towers jutting between flat stucco rooftops. Christmas-like lights dangled in loops over the walls of the occasional neighboring house.

The first time I had ever  asked myself this question was in 2010, when I visited India for the first time on a UVA foreign exchange program. I remember staring out of our bus window in New Delhi at the bulk of Akshardam above the highway through the January fog. Classmates chattered and laughed around me. I had had an amazing two weeks in India. We had seen the Jama Masjid and Red Fort of New Delhi; we had met with the passionate activists of several NGO’s, whose social and political activities made civil society in America seem a quiet and sterile thing; we had enjoyed the hospitality of a middle-class Indian family and received the blessing of the grandfather; rested our eyes on the intricate calligraphy and white marble of the Taj Mahal. I had even fallen in love with my first girlfriend!  I could live here for a few years, I had decided, but no more. Because I knew at that time that everything I had experienced in India had been pre-planned for me.

My current residence is within walking distance of the marketplace, Raja Park. My current flat mate is a PHD student from the University of Virginia. He used to teach Hinduism discussions, after which we would walk from class and lose ourselves in an hour long conversation about the intricacies of ritual and Buddhist philosophy. Our friendship was such and the flat so attractive that–with a full kitchen, marble floor, and balcony–we decided to go in on the price together. The “Palace,” our friends called it. He had been to India several times. My flat mate, like many scholars who studied India, has also grappled with the question of whether he could ever live there.

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The night exerted its rosy influence. From our apartment balcony, the lights of Nahargarh Fort twinkled atop the dark slopes of the nearby hills. The hills blended into the night, so that the lights appeared like suspended, glittering lanterns in the sky. To our right, the tower and bulwarks of the Moti Dangri Fort cut out its shadowy outline against the horizon. The queen of Jaipur used to live in the Moti Dangri, an autowalla had told me earlier that afternoon. Today it is empty and closed to the public.

A picture contains a thousand words, they say. I had only lived in my apartment for several hours, but the view of my neighborhood and the city from the balcony, the roof, and my apartment windows created an immediate effect that I would only be able to put into words several weeks later, after absorbing and dividing it into it’s individual parts.

Nowadays I will spend fifteen or twenty minutes in the evening staring out at the buildings across the street from my balcony. On a roof directly opposite from our balcony are several brown-rusted bicycle frames and deflated tires resting against a wall. One afternoon, on an adjacent rooftop, a school boy sat behind a desk and finished his homework. His younger brother–weighed down with fewer responsibilities–flew his kites from the roof’s edge. The older brother glanced up, frowned, returned to scratching in his book.

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The road is dark and abandoned after eight o’clock. Occasionally a woman, dressed in yellow and purple veil, walks in and out of a gate with a broom. The owners of the house must be fairly wealthy; the house is two stories tall, with three intricate stone balconies, lime green walls, and dark green painted doors and shutters. Occasionally heads and shoulders pass through the open windows in a glow of golden light. One night, I saw the woman in the courtyard giving instructions to a boy. The boy nodded and slipped through the first floor’s iron grill doors. The woman wandered onto the street and stared at the ground. I felt like an intruder into a private moment.

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The road is wide, empty, and dusty. Rickhshaws lie abandoned on the road banks. Dogs sit with their heads rested between the paws. Cows stand and mash their mouths obliviously, occasionally shattering the night with a long groan. Once, my roommate and I watched as a pack of monkeys descended from rooftops into the neighborhood. They forced the neighbors to close their doors and retreat inside to peer from windows—like bandits forced townspeople into their houses while firing rifles with clouds of smoke. One brave elderly man slipped out with a long wooden broom. He craned his neck at the monkeys leapt from the rooftops. He shook his broom at them, scowling.

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I wish I had hours to sit and watch. The details around me each gave their subtle responses to the question my flat mate had asked me that night; the question breathed in their life, just as it breathed in the memories I had of India in the past, and collided them together in my imagination into a singular impression. If people sort their memories into the rooms of memory palaces, then my memories float now, uncontrolled, on that palace roof, which has now also become a memory. The question of whether I could live in India was not merely a theoretical question, but had very real implications for my immediate future. And every time I consider the future and the question, I am summoned back to the rooftop, which also contains all of those other memories in a space outside of time.

“Usually I feel stressed when I come to India,” my flat mate said. “But not this time. I feel more content now. Maybe it’s because when I come to India before it was always during a transitional period.” He narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow, as he often does when searching for a thought.

“It’s probably because you’re drinking,” I pointed out.

“That very well could be,” he said, laughing. “I’ve been here a few times now I know what to expect. Less culture shock.” He took a contemplative sip, and rested the now half-empty glass on the knee of his jeans. “I’m in India to take time out to write my dissertation. So living in India feels like a break—from TAing, courses, from my classes, the monotony of school…” his voice lost itself in the space over the city.

“I think I could live here for a couple of years,” I said with a shrug, reciting my thought from three years ago. I summoned the ghost of my younger self into the night—so that his specter could be examined, dispelled, perhaps fitted with new clothing, “But ultimately I would have to return America.”

He nodded–perhaps he would act similarly.

But then we began our discussion about why we couldn’t live in India indefinitely. Why–despite Indians renowned hospitality, and despite their treatment of us as gods welcomed into their homes and country–we would always feel like foreigners who could not belong.

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