Discovering India: “Will I become fairer like her, if I go to Amrika?”
By Kush Tandon
Of course, there are these scooter-rickshaws (“took-took”), rocketing through. It is October 2004; I am in Hyderabad for a scientific conference for a week. I am in my home country, India that I try to visit every year from the United States. There are hundreds of scientists for the conference from far and wide, many of whom have never been immersed in anything this overwhelming - India. You encounter beauty within the utter chaos, get lost in the multitude of crowds shoulder to shoulder, and be covered by the dust, sweat and smells by noon. Being on the road is an act of faith. One minute, there is total serenity and joy, colorful intoxicating spices, and the next - utter helplessness, and deep shock. You end up passionately loving and hating India, both at the same time.
The first day during the breakfast at Hotel Baseera, Hugh, a New Zealander notices, “Even the ones who are struggling quite hard in life here don’t seem angry. Their eyes are sparkling.” Many years ago, a friend of mine in graduate school had a similar observation of Cambodia and Vietnam.
I think I am a deft negotiator with scooter-rickshaw drivers. I am also a willing guide for any attendee – one in the morning.
The fifth day into the meeting, a Canadian named Michel and I decide to visit Charminar that afternoon. The Charminar, built more than 400 years ago by Quli Qutub Shah, is an arch with four minarets. You immediately realize this is the heartbeat of the old city. Surrounding the Charminar is a bazaar; in all four directions thousands of people are selling and buying. Some are selling fake Prada bags, saris, bangles, incenses, spices, nuts, and stalls filled with fresh orange, yellow, green fruits and vegetables. Bollywood songs are blaring out of from loud speakers, from radios, and from TV shops. Layers of merchants, permanent shops, mobile-stalls, and hawkers in the middle of the road are everywhere.
On the corner of one of the minarets of Charminar, sits a small Hindu shrine with fresh flowers as offerings, temporarily built. I do not know the history of this temple. However, it is next to a symbol of Islamic cultural glory. Somehow, all seems harmoniously blended. Close by is Mecca Majid, one of the largest mosques in the world. As we get off the scooter-rickshaw, a small girl approaches us to sell a religious text from Islam.
“Do you want to buy this book?” She is about 8-9 years old, bright eyed, pretty, a thin girl wearing clean, whitish salwar-kameez. I smile back, and say “No.” She steps forward, looks straight into my eyes and retorts, “Why not?” I laugh, “Ok, I do not want the book but take this 10 Rupees.” She smiles back and runs away. Michel does not know Hindi. Michel has a daughter of around the same age and understands. We didn't ask her name. Do you inquire somebody's name when they eagerly want to sell something to you on the street? Michel has to pay 100 Rupees, and me, only 5 Rupees to get up the Charminar. We are escorted and bypass the huge line to go up the minaret. Michel is embarrassed. “We could have honored the line. In North America, people already in line would get really upset.”
I briefly notice her once happily eating an ice cream with some friends. When Michel and I are ready to leave an hour later on a scooter-rickshaw, she shows up out of nowhere with another young girl. “My friend would like to have an ice cream too.” I give her friend a few rupees but I pretend that I am not pleased with her repeat request. While she disappears, I try to lecture her, “Are you doing your homework regularly?” Meanwhile, I am also making sure that the scooter-rickshaw wallah knows where we are going next. Even if they have no clue, they never say to no to business.
On the last day late in the afternoon, I am again at the Charminar this time with Steven and Marta. Steven is from Germany and Marta from Hungary. We have been there for a while; we are now up on the Charminar. The girl and I run into each other, she is wearing a different colored salwar-kameez. She has the look, “You again.” Marta and Steven are amused too, “How does he know this little girl and why are they talking as if they have known each other?” Very soon, she is figuring out that whatever she tells me in Hindi, I translate back to Marta and Steven in English. It is quite amusing to all of us, herself included. She keeps walking with us, asking questions, offering her insights now and then. Steven and Marta are young visitors to India, eager to soak up any experience.
“Is she a Hindu?” she asks, pointing to the bindi on Marta’s forehead. I turn to Marta, “Are you a Hindu?” She laughs, “No.” I pass it on in to her, “No, she is not.” Stepping down the minaret staircases, I turn back to Marta, “She is enamored by you.”
“No, she is enamored by the way you are talking.”
The girl is curious about Marta - her sunglasses, attire, and demeanor. Marta is a pretty lady too. She is not paying any special attention to Steven. For next 30 minutes, she is with us. We walk past another temple. Steven: “Who is this Goddess?” Marta: “Saraswati” and me: “No, Lakshmi.” This week is Durga puja and Dasheera, and the temples are full with women in silken saris and jewelry.
Dozens of hawkers approach us. Some teenage boys are with us too for a brief moment. “Which country is the lady from?”, a teenager inquires looking at Marta. “Hungary, Now be gone.” They all have now disappeared.
“Will I become fairer like her, if I go to Amrika (Hindi or Urdu for America)?”, the little girl inquires. I just smile and tell Marta about her query.
“Look at the all the colors and smells. A temple with all the offerings,” said Marta pointing to all the mobile-stalls and the shrine within the Charminar. Steven is curious about the gold embroidered Islamic calligraphy on black silk being sold. It is the month of Ramadan, the sunset is round the corner, and the girl has sensed that we are about to leave soon. I have a flight to New Delhi quite soon in the evening. She pulls my T-shirt and, “You know the daily roza is going to be over soon, could you please let me buy some sweets?” The aroma of barfi is all over the bazaar. Also, there is the sound of frying jalebi from the halwai shops and stalls.
She is neither pleading nor begging.
Would it have mattered to her had she known that I am a Hindu (even not an observant one)? No. As we are stepping into a scooter-rickshaw, I give her a few rupees, “Do you even go to a school? You know you should be at home, studying right now.” She smiles back, “I go to a Madarssa and I have already completed my homework for today.” Marta steps forward and gives her few rupees and says, “I am from Hungary.” Steven does the same too, “I am from Germany.” Earlier, we had never told her where we are from, that was not part of the conversation.
We forgot to ask her name this time too.
She is going to buy her ice cream as the roza ends.
End Note: Neither of us was an American when this story was written, nor was the word "America" ever mentioned in front of her. In her mind, America was (or is) an ideal. Years later, I reposted this story on facebook, when I took US citizenship.