Oh, what can I tell you about why I'm in India? That answer has so many parts, I'm tired of listing it out for everyone who asks me why I came back here. Most of all, I'm tired of going over it for my own self when I need reminding. They've told me that most people move forward but that I've chosen to move backwards. I've been here so long, away from the world that I came from. I am beginning to forget...
* * *
I've started volunteering as a Film Editor for the Youth Parliament Foundation. This past week they'd been hosting the 'Know Your Body, Know Your Rights' national consultation in New Delhi. A bunch of young folks from various states - Gujarat, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttarakhand, and others - landed up in the capital to talk about sexual health awareness for 4 days. I had been asked to help shoot the event for a video we'd need to edit and send to the sponsors, the MacArthur Foundation and UNESCO. I was grateful for the opportunity to hide behind the lens. As a videographer, one's goal is to capture an event without interfering with the subject or affecting the environment. It was only my second week with the organisation, and I was still getting used to its social dynamics. I didn't have any work friends as yet, I wasn't in on the inside jokes, and I couldn't imagine surviving on smalltalk and shooting out clever one-liners on the field all week. Thank God for the job description - shoot, be invisible, go home.
We were packing up by the end of the 4th and final day of the consultation. I had played the part of the mute camerawoman perfectly - I hadn't bonded with any of the attendees and had sat down for meals with the organisation staff without contributing much to the conversation. I hadn't had the energy for anything more than work anyway. Cameras get heavy hanging from one's neck after 8-10 hours. They give one achy shoulders, cramped thighs, and burning shoulder joints. That and keeping an eagle-eye out for good shots hour after hour after hour consumes any leftover desire to cross over and reach out to the subject. I don't mind though. The world often seems a lot more beautiful through a camera. I don't mind spending as much time there as possible. I don't mind not being noticed.
I turned to face a young rural boy, not more than 18. Like most people from the rural parts, this one was skinny with not an ounce of fat on him anywhere. Not even on his face. His skin stuck to his smiling skull like a thick layer of paint. Oil kept his side-parted hair in place. He wore a generic button-down shirt and generic pair of trousers. A generic Indian rural person holding out a generic Indian notebook to me. Made of recycled paper.
He was smiling at me, shyly, possibly even admiringly.
Four days of silence behind a camera, and I'd forgotten how to speak. My voice came out with a crack, as if I'd been asleep. "Me?" My autograph? What had I ever done for him? I'd never even spoken to anyone during the consultation. What reason would he have to smile at me?
But he kept smiling anyway. "Accha, theek hai," I said - right, okay - and I slowly took his notebook and pen and smiled, still in a haze after being woken from my cameraperson stupor. Life behind the camera dulls one's social instincts sometimes.
"Main kya likhhoon?" I asked him gently. What do I write?
"Naam, email address, aap kahaan ki hain, aur aap kya kaam karti hain." Your name, email address, where you're from, and what you do.
I started writing my name in English. K-H-A-D-I-J-A. In uppercase because it's easier to read. He looked at what I was writing and told me that he couldn't read English. So I wrote my name and email address in English, and then began to write in Hindi.
I wrote my name.
I skipped the email address. I didn't know how to translate it into Hindi.
Of the remaining two questions, I tackled the easier one first. What did I do for a living? I was a trained IT professional. I had recently trained at NDTV in broadcast journalism. I was a published book author. At that moment, I was a film editor. Media, I wrote.
I wondered what to write about where I was from. I was born in Lucknow, but I had never lived there. I never felt Lucknawi, more so after my latest trip early this year. That had snapped any emotional ties I had to that place. I just did not recognise it anymore. Most of the people I knew there who had remembered me from my childhood had died, their name plates still on their ancient wooden doors, their houses abandoned by their children who'd moved out to the newer parts of Lucknow, to other parts of India, to other parts of the world. Greener pastures. They hadn't even bothered to take down the old nameplates. Like Scrooge who had been too miserly to remove his dead partner's name from their office signboard, 'Scrooge & Marley'. Old Lucknow was a ghost ghetto, a grinning skeleton. Like this rural boy here, wanting to know where I was from.
Maybe I was from Delhi? It was the only place in India where I had actually lived, for over a year, working, not on a holiday. I could recognise landmarks and the 'India Today' office in the latest movie 'Rockstar'. And the 'India Today' signboard had been extremely blurry and in the background. You couldn't even see any text, just red and white squares. But I had recognised it. I had even shouted the block out at the theater - F-14/15 Connaught Place! I get excited whenever I can recognise landmarks in any city I'm in. It makes me feel that maybe, just maybe, this is what home feels like. There once was a time in my life when I had started recognising landmarks at airports. The restaurant where the chicken nuggets and fries were good at Zurich. The worship room in Amsterdam. I like the food court at Terminal 3 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. The smell of cinnamon and the sound of jazz at Chicago's O'Hare. The casino posters near the baggage claim area in Tulsa. I remember the woman's face. She was a white brunette in her late 30s and was ecstatically clapping about winning something.
But my Facebook account says that my hometown is Muscat, Oman. I spent 18 years straight there after all. That's the most amount of time I have lived anywhere. A close second is America with my 10 years. Canada was only for 4 months in total, but I am a resident there. I did feel a sense of belonging there for a while because of my immigration status. It made the immigration officer smile at me and say "welcome home". I've even got used to Tim Horton's and the Rogers monopoly. I even know some intersections and Go Train stops in Toronto. I know Dundas Square. I had attended a music fest there for Michael Jackson when he had died. It hadn't felt like he had died then.
The rural boy with the long eyelashes was still looking at his notebook, waiting to see what I wrote, wondering about the long pause before I wrote the name of my hometown. I wrote them all. Lucknow/Delhi/Oman/America/Canada.
"Yeh kya hai?" he asked. What is this?
I told him that I was from all those places. I read out the names even though he could read Hindi. His eyes widened, and he looked at me with new respect. This was probably the first time he'd left his town somewhere in Jharkhand, Uttrakhand, wherever he was from. India's soul is in its villages, Gandhi had said. This was probably the first time he'd visited Delhi. Reaching Delhi had been a miracle for him. Like a trip to Rome for the ancients. Babylon, Cairo, Persepolis. It was what Hollywood had been for me. Staying in Beverly Hills, coming on TV on Jay Leno from Burbank. Having my picture taken on the bridge of the Enterprise-D at the Star Trek museum at the Las Vegas Hilton.
We had both come a long way. Such a long journey it has been.