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Losing pieces of myself to India

By: Nikita Naik Email By: Nikita Naik
August 2010
Losing pieces of myself to India

I used to think that traveling and living abroad allowed me, to some extent, to find myself. That was why I was in India—to experience new things, as I had done in London and all over Europe, skimming each country and experiencing each trip like it was a summary of a long book that I would revisit later. My trip to India this past winter, however, proved to be different. For the first time, I not only learned more about myself, but also lost pieces of myself in India.

I left for India in mid-December, planning to travel with my friends, two not-very-inconspicuous white girls, for a month and to volunteer at an orphanage in Pune for the remaining two months. We started in South India just as the monsoon was ending in Tamil Nadu and ended in sunny Kerala and Karnataka. Along the way we visited rain-soaked ancient temples and tribal villages, stayed on a houseboat, took a tabla lesson, and met the sweetest and most welcoming people.

We then flew straight to Varanasi where spirituality, not religion, seemed to permeate the very air in a way that made the city unique even in India. We took morning and evening boat rides on the Ganges, where I fell in love with a misty, ethereal sunrise. We made our way to the three cities of the Golden Triangle (New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) and continued on through Rajasthan. We visited a bird hospital, got a couple of stomach bugs, saw a red moon and a silver sun, stayed in a tent and went on desert camel rides, and became even closer friends as our journey progressed and eventually concluded. And, because of my friend’s mother’s coworker, who turned out to be a close aunt of an up-and-coming director (a simultaneously beneficial and complicated connection, I know), we ended the trip with a bang at a Bollywood awards show in Mumbai.

But it wasn’t until I was leaving Pune two months later when I realized exactly how much I was going to miss everything. I left with a strange itchiness behind my eyes as the auto-rickshaw swerved and jerked its way through the familiar streets. I realized I was tearing up and my heart was heavy and weighing me downwards; I didn’t want to leave. I kept wiping my eyes and it took a force of will to stifle the flow of tears. I got off the rickshaw and made my way through the train station in a peculiar daze. The end of my stay in India was approaching fast and I was coming to a gradual understanding about how much the city, and the country, had affected me in a way I had never been before in previous visits with my family.

But it wasn’t just Pune and it wasn’t just India. It was the kids I had stayed with at the orphanage and had gotten close to; it was the German Bakery, bombed halfway through my stay there, where my friends and I used to people-watch and chat about the nature of

poverty and where the concept of terrorism became a harsh reality to me. It was the basti, the slums in Yerwada Market where I met truly generous and sincere people, and the children who called out “Didi!” with the same ecstatic happiness each day they saw us at the outreach center. It was the dusky sunsets, the daily and passionate call to prayers, the shy yet flirtatious boys who worked in the neighborhood grocery store, the terrace where we studied and watched the kites, the balcony where I ate breakfast and observed the rhythm of the day slowly begin; it was the heat, the sounds, the smells.

It was Santosh’s chubby cheeks, Pooja’s tomboyish goofiness, Tushar’s mischievousness, Sanjay’s quiet smile. And there was more: morning chai while sitting on the front steps; chaotic dinners with the kids; the numerous cats and kittens that roamed the house and Ashu, the fat one, that followed us to the volunteer apartments every evening; the soccer games in the front yard; and Simba, the resident guard dog, that walked us dutifully to the main street after shaking himself awake. It was the six-seater rickshaws that consistently became 10- to16-seaters and the cashier at Pasteur Bakery that came to remember the papdi chaat and mango juice that I always ordered. It was the constant music in the form of loudspeakers, drums, flutes and temple bells, the faint humming and murmured singing of Bollywood songs in the streets, and in the yodels of the traveling vendors. And it was the easy and genuine smiles that were never in short supply and always so humbling to me. And there was more, and there will always be more, because there is now a deep well of memories which I will always pull from and remember fondly as I grow older.

Those three months have allowed me to come to a number of conclusions, such as how traveling is not just about observing different people, different cultures and different landmarks, but becoming involved with them. At least for me, when my aim is to find out not only about the world I am living in, but also (and can we really have one without the other?) about who I am. This learning process is about participation, about relationships. It’s about the friends made while away from home, no matter how short a time you have with them, about the immersion of senses, and getting to the heart of the place through the mundane interactions as well as the extraordinary ones. I left a part of myself in India through these interactions and because of this I have become a different, better person. And while there will always be an undertone of sadness as I recall experiences and memories that I will never be able to replicate, I will always be happy that I was able to take in my experiences wholeheartedly and without regret.

[Nikita Naik graduated from Emory University as an English major and pre-med student. She hopes to pursue both journalism and medicine in the future.]

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