notes from the universe

Musings on identity/belonging: Sunday column numero uno from the Dallas Morning News-  “Notes from the Universe” by yours truly.

The Dallas Morning News along with the NYTimes is one of two hard papers whose readership has actually increased in these electronic times. It is an honor to be writing for this Pulitzer Prize winning publication.

Look out for more in the series this coming year!
For those who don’t want to sign in to the DMN website, here is the text:

Notes from the Universe

Last night a friend asked me, “Where is your homeland?”
I said nothing, for what could I say?
My homeland is not Egypt or Syria or Iraq.
My homeland’s a place that has never had a name.                          
                                        – Jalal-ud-Din Rumi, “Homelands”

I was born in India and used to figure that made me Indian. My parents say I’ve become “too American.” Americans I know say I speak British. None of this matters to me. I’m just a child of the universe, and I’m dealing with it.

Like a friend once said: Home is where people love you and where the people you love are. My home is boundless.

Flying back from London last December, I sat next to an incredibly charming Englishman who easily disarmed me of all my reservations. Our conversation gradually checked off the basics – science, evolution, politics, social welfare – and crossed into more intimate territory: identity and personal life experiences. And right before we landed, after an eight-hour dialogue, he asked me softly, “Why are Indian people so happy?”

Usually, when asked to speak for a billion people, I find myself on the defensive, struggling internally to be fair, objective and do justice to us all, given the nature of the question at hand, sometimes opting for humor and other times giving in to my consternation. “All Indians don’t smell! Do I smell like curry to you?” I remember retorting to a friend. There’s more to the country than the Taj Mahal and spicy curry and cows on the streets, I argue.

But how does one sum up a subcontinent and thousands of years of living? The confluence of identities and geographies, cultures and countless subcultures? Especially someone who left it in search of different horizons?

Which brings me to an experience preceding that flight from London by about a week: I was on a local bus in Delhi making my way to an architecture school on the other side of the city, late as hell, sitting on my half of the tattered seat looking out at the city going by. The bus was crammed full of people, bodies spilling out the doorways, everyone a story with a purpose for the day. As the bus stopped momentarily to lighten its load and my fellow passenger rose to leave, I took the opportunity to readjust my posture. In doing so, I caught the woman in the adjacent row staring at me, so I smiled and said hi. She smiled back, and asked me without pausing for a heartbeat, “Hi. Which country are you from?”

“Here,” I said, aghast. “No, which country are you from?” she repeated emphasizing for my benefit, assuming I missed the point. “Here!” I repeated, “India.” In case she missed the point.

Now genuinely offended, I took my time to digest what had just happened and avoided her eyes for the rest of my 40-minute ride. Then, just before leaving, I nudged her on my way out and said, “But what does that matter?”

And that’s why I turned to Phil on that flight back from London and, refusing the pressure to speak for a billion people, chose instead to speak for the entire species: “Probably the same reasons why people anywhere are happy – a deep sense of security and trust in the world and themselves!”

I wonder if it is easier to go west than east.

I floated westward with seamless abandon and never understood why everyone kept asking me if I experienced culture shock. People everywhere are the same, I said then, and I still maintain that to this day.

It’s just the details that are aberrant.


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