I’ve always been fascinated by the Indian culture and its people. I’ve studied both Hindi and Tamil. And I’ve had many close Indian friends with whom I spent extended periods of time without speaking in English or being with other expats.
Sometimes, I’ll walk into a fancy restaurant and be treated like royalty.
Despite wearing a sun-faded t-shirt, oil-stained shorts, and chappals that look like an elephant used them to walk around.
It’s curious. At times I enjoy it and play along, using elaborate language and speaking in an American accent rather than the neutral one I’ve developed over my many years of living abroad.
Other times, I’d love to just be like one of the locals and not be treated any differently.
But the fun thing about it is that I can get away with wearing whatever I want—something I wouldn’t feel comfortable with if I were in the US.
I remember staying in a hotel in Chennai and the two managers, both wearing glossy suits, chatting with me about their work, the hotel, and the nature of my “business.”
They assumed I was very successful by virtue of the pigmentation of my skin. I wanted to tell them that I’m just an average guy who freelances as a writer, spends time with his family, and likes to watch people, animals, (and) trees and then write about them.
Imagine the looks on their faces if I’d said I was a college dropout.
I ended up fibbing something about having some kind of business in the US because I wanted to get away from the conversation without drawing further attention to myself.
Whenever I visited the house of a friend—especially someone uneducated from a rural area—it would be a huge deal.
Children would stop playing and gape at me. The neighbors would come and see me, say hi, and quiz me to find out whether I can really speak their language or not.
And my host would smile proudly at everyone as if to say, “See, I am so important that even foreigners visit me!”
Being Mistaken For a Local
To add a twist to the plot, although I don’t believe I look very Indian, some people mistake me for a Kashmiri.
I have a beautiful grey shawl with intricate patterns on its borders that I like to wear, as well as a variety of kurtas.
In Delhi, I was stopped in the streets various times, usually by wealthy, educated Indians who would ask me for directions.
When they got a better look at my face and I said, “Main yaha ka nahin hoon”—I’m not from here—and they heard the curious foreign lilt in my accent, they ended up smiling, bemused, before asking someone else, someone local.
Once when I was in Himachal Pradesh, a female police officer visiting from another state asked me for directions.
Because I knew the place well I gave them to her in Hindi. She had a huge smile on her face from the moment I started talking and after she left the friend I was (with) couldn’t stop laughing while I complained that I’ll never sound like a local.
Being Ripped Off and Not Being Able to do Anything About It
Sometimes, I know I’m being ripped off.
I know that the price I’m asked to pay is higher than the local price and that neither the Hindi or Tamil I speak nor my many years in India matter in the face of the seller’s absolute resolution that because I am not Indian I should be paying more.
It makes me angry and even though occasionally I do manage to wheedle my way to a lower price, many times I just raise my arms, shake my head, and either pay the higher tourist price or move on.
Getting in Trouble
One evening I was in Bhagsunag, near Dharamshala. It was night, and I was running up the steep steps back to my room after spending the evening at a friend’s place.
“Hey!” a local stopped me on the way.
He started asking me strange questions in Hindi—where I was coming from and why I was out so late. I shrugged him off and kept going.
In the morning, the owner of the guesthouse knocked on the door.
“Aap kal raat ko kaha gaye the?”—Where were you last night?
He told me that there was a theft and asked if he could have a look in my room. “Bilkul,” I replied. Sure. Obviously, they didn’t find anything. His son was talking about me in Pahari angrily, and I could recognize the word for lie—jhooth being said often.
A few days later, the thieves were caught and I confronted the man who had accosted me that night. “Aapne mujh par aarop lagaya, mujh se maafi nahi mangenge, kyaa?”—you’ve accused me falsely and should apologise.
It was a dumb thing to do.
He wasn’t the type to take responsibility for his mistakes. He and his friends would have beaten me to a pulp if I hadn’t swallowed my pride, apologised, and backed off.
I got myself into several situations like that. I was young and rash back then.
Situations where if I had acted more like a foreigner, no one would have bothered me. But because I spoke the language and acted more like a local, I was treated like a local—for good or for bad.
Getting Out of Trouble
On occasion, though, my origins have saved me from trouble.
Once, while driving around Pondicherry on my motorbike, my phone rang. Unwisely, I answered.
A tall policeman with a red cap and a starched, white uniform I hadn’t spotted leaped into the middle of the road and waved me down. He had gloriously thick mustaches that curved up at the tips like buffalo horns.
“What, you do driving and talking on phone?” he said angrily and yanked my keys out, the curved tips of his mustaches quivering.
“Saar, mannikanum. yeen tappu dan. Dayavu seydu, saavi kudunga. Yennaku nereya veellai irukku…naan innime appadi seyamatten. Kandippa.”
Sir, I apologise. It’s my mistake. Please, give me back my key. I have a lot to do. In the future I won’t do this again. I promise.
His face lit up, his eyes opened wide, he grinned, and his moustaches curved back inward, almost touching his nose.
“Very good Tamil! Nii yenna uuru?” Where do you come from?
“Naan America, anaa, inge taan tangireen…” The US, but I live here.
“Sari sari, nii po, po.” Okay okay, you go.
He gave me back my keys, slapped me on the back, and I was on my way.
Neither Here nor There
Mostly, there was an interplay between two parts:
Losing myself in the culture—forgetting that I am not originally from there, forgetting that I am a foreigner and that my upbringing and cultural roots and background are vastly different.
Being very much aware that, to a great extent, I will never be able to fully integrate; that the gap is too great, and that that is also my gift—it allows me to be both inside and outside at the same time, to travel freely between both worlds, and therefore to observe and learn the culture, the people, and myself, like an anthropologist would do, for years. I learned so much in that way, both about Indians and India, but more than anything about myself. If we care to look, the world is our mirror.
During my last years in India, I was quite happy being exactly who I am—a foreigner who knows enough about the culture, people, and language to be tactful and respectful with the locals.
At the same time, I was grateful to be able to navigate daily tasks and responsibilities with relative ease thanks to speaking the local language.
And finally, throughout it all, I had the space and freedom to be myself, unencumbered by social and cultural constraints, and to discover what that means anew, every day.