Seven years ago today, I stepped off a plane to volunteer at a centre for underprivileged women in Kolkata. It was a decision that would change the course of my life. On the night before New Year’s Eve, in a bar called Roxy at The Park Hotel, I met the guy I would end up marrying. I had no inkling that would be the case at the time though. Yet, no doubt, it was in my destiny. Strangely enough, before I’d left Australia, I’d even pierced my nose.
As I reflect back on the remarkable past seven years, I remember it as a roller coaster journey of extraordinary experiences, self discovery, learning, frustration, adjustments, acceptance, and ultimately success.
During my time in Kolkata, around five months in total, I was blissfully unaware of the complexities of Indian society. My friends were either expats or modern, progressive Indians with western mentalities. I was surprised to learn the intricacies about such things as arranged marriages and joint families from my work colleagues. It was like a whole world that I naively knew nothing of.
Leaving the bubble of Kolkata, and heading to Kerala where I’d look after a friend’s guesthouse for a season, was a shock. Three days on an Indian Railways train, travelling with an Indian guy I wasn’t yet married to, brought curiosity, reactions, and responses that I wasn’t expecting.
My first couple of years in India were filled with travel and fun times, contrasted with a troublesome lack of “Indian common sense” and exasperating confusion over why India behaved the way it did. Coming across a book called Being Indian, while living in Manali for four months, was the start of me finally comprehending India. (Although what I learned still left me, at times, incredulous).
My third year in India saw me move to Mumbai to be with the guy I would marry, and live like an Indian in an unremarkable middle class outer suburb (Kandivali West) of the city. We were starting our lives over and had to establish ourselves. I’d decided I wanted to write about India travel and he was going to work in one of his family’s businesses in the area. It was a huge leap of faith. Neither of us had an income. Yet, magically, the universe supported me and I got my dream job with a company in the US, more perfect than I could ever anticipate, soon after.
We had to get married earlier than what we wanted to because we were living together and it wasn’t acceptable to Indian society. At the time, I enthusiastically wanted to become Indian and fit in as much as possible. I’d been studying Hindi from text books and was keen to learn more. It wasn’t long before I realised that I was always going to be looked upon as a foreigner, an outsider, though. It was disheartening as I saw myself not as a foreigner but more as a white Indian (although I didn’t know it at the time, even this would be offensive to some Indians).
My first year in Mumbai was incredibly tough. By the end of the year, I’d hit a wall with it and really wanted to leave. I didn’t have any friends, and we had little money for going out and socialising. The water supply had become intermittent, along with the Internet. Many of the people in our building society, who’d probably never seen a foreigner, took an unnatural interest in me. I felt like I was constantly observed where ever I went, and had difficulty putting boundaries in place with intrusive people as I’d never been in such situations before. I was never at peace. And, to top things off, there had been a terrorist attack on the city. However, for the first time in my life, I truly loved and was passionate about my job, and couldn’t bear to give it up. I was being tested as to how much I wanted it, and wanted my new life.
With the new year came realisations that if I was to stay in Mumbai, I needed to stop struggling against the way things were. I resolved to become more tolerant. I was also invited to join a group of like minded foreigner women, all married to Indian guys and living in Mumbai. It was a turning point for me. During the year, I had the opportunity to travel to so many memorable places in India for work. Unfortunately, my husband was unhappy working in the family business though. He missed following his passion, music.
More change was in order. It happened at the end of the year, with a move to Hiranandani Gardens so that my husband could take up a job offer to work with a friend as a DJ/producer at a new bar that was opening up. The new living environment, dominated by expats and upper class Indians (many returned from abroad), was like a breath of fresh air for me. I saw Indian women wearing shorts! I couldn’t believe it. It was such a contrast to our previous conservative suburb. What’s more, we had moved into a bungalow. There were no more nosy neighbours to contend with. I was overjoyed, and could finally relax and start feeling more “normal”.
Not everything went to plan though. The bar didn’t end up opening. I still wanted my husband to follow his passion, so I agreed to support us financially while he concentrated on his music production. The monsoon brought more challenges. The bungalow leaked, we got bed bugs, and malaria during a severe outbreak. I’d signed a contract with a publisher to write a book, and it consumed a lot of my time.
My attitude towards India changed again. As I began to understand more about how India functioned (or didn’t function), I became more and more judgemental and critical — as many expats seem to do. I frequently compared India, and all its problems, to my homeland. I got irritated by the lack of solutions, particularly as India had so much potential. Many times, I wondered if living in India was turning me into a bad person.
Yet, gradually, I noticed that I cared less and less about India’s issues. Was I at last truly accepting India and appreciating people’s determination to survive, and thrive, despite the adversities? Or was it apathy setting in? Or was it simply that I’d become tired of people telling me that I had no right to say anything negative about India because I’m not Indian.
I started visiting Australia twice a year, and I began to find some balance between the two countries, along with a growing appreciation of what each one offered. Both countries felt familiar to me, and I found it easier and easier to adjust to going between them.
This year has been a year of consolidation and new directions. Fed up with rats and other issues in our bungalow, my husband and I decided to move into a more spacious apartment on a high floor. He received some great work opportunities and was at last getting back on track with his music career. We found a fabulous maid to help with the cooking. I also got some much desired spiritual clarity about the path my life is supposed to go along next.
Overall, I look back and feel so much satisfaction and amazement over what we’ve managed to achieve. It’s especially significant to me because I didn’t walk into a comfortable life in India but rather created it for myself, through a lot of determination and hard work (and maybe power of attraction).
Personally, seven years in India has helped (and at times forced) me to become more patient, more spontaneous, more understanding, and more assertive. In addition, it’s resulted in me growing a lot spiritually. It hasn’t always been easy but it’s been immensely rewarding. In my view, the key to success has been having a purpose and interest in India, in particular my writing, to focus on and give my life in India meaning through the tough times.
For me, India is indeed a place where anything is possible! It inspires me to imagine, create, and explore. It’s the place where I found my purpose in life. And, that’s the magic that keeps me there.
Main photo credit: Copyright Sifaan@photographers.lk
© 2012, Diary of a White Indian Housewife. All rights reserved. Do not copy and reproduce text or images without permission.
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