I wanted to visit India ever since I was a child — but with no family ties to the subcontinent, it wasn’t as easy for me as it was for my other Indian friends.
Although we are originally Indian, from a place called Kutch, my family goes back a few generations in East Africa. On top of that, they were forced to emigrate in my parents’ generation — so the majority of my relatives can be found in North America and Europe. My mom’s family also went on to live in several different countries, learning a new language in each one, before finally immigrating to Canada.
India, to me, was this strange and dreamlike idea. How could it be my motherland if we were so many generations and nations removed from it? Yet it beckoned my imagination, and I found myself unconditionally loving this place which I’d never seen firsthand, like a distant relative I only knew through stories.
Everyone told me that I wouldn’t like India as much as I dreamed I would. It would be dirty, smelly, congested, polluted, unsafe for women, and unsafe for tourists; I couldn’t drink the water (that one was true), I could get kidnapped, I would probably get scammed, and it really isn’t like Bollywood movies, Zen. People don’t sing in the streets. In all honesty, though, I wasn’t looking for Bollywood. I don’t know what I was looking for.
Whatever it was, I found it.
The more I listened and spoke, the more the languages seemed to flow out of me — like an underused part of my brain was finally lighting up with activity.
I grew up speaking Kutchi — a lesser-known dialect from the state of Gujarat, but linguistically rooted in Sindhi — with my grandmother. I use it a lot less now that she has passed away, but while in India, the pattern of it seemed to click right into place. It wasn’t a huge stretch to listen to the words around me and fit them into a familiar framework, with laughs and corrections along the way.
Predictability makes me restless. When I hear something I’ve heard before, my mind tends to grow impatient and bored. (Not the best tendency to have while in school, I know.) But while constantly processing another language, I never had a chance to be bored. Every exchange was colored with intrigue, as my brain worked extra hard to parse sentences and draw from associations. Every other minute, I was marveling at one word or another. Language is such an amazing thing!
One of my handful of regrets is that I didn’t get to stay immersed in Hindi longer. I felt so sad about this on my last day — I knew that as soon as I returned home, my brain would snap back into its primary mode of thinking in English, and this growing sense of comfort would taper away.
New Delhi, in particular, felt strangely home-like to me. Like the part of Toronto where I grew up, people talked a lot about its reputation with a particular emphasis on crime. But much like the place I grew up in, I saw it with a soft heart: it was full of trees and parks, some drawing families, others filled with young couples holding hands. (I didn’t venture too far into the latter, but I’m sure if I had, I would have seen more.)
The trains had an eerie familiarity, like something I had seen in a dream. The modernity of the tall glass buildings combined with urban greenery and tall palms felt unexpectedly Californian, while the older markets in the heart of the city were full of the hustle-and-bustle that was so distinctly Indian to me — so full of ambition, yet so carefree. My heart fell for this city so quickly that it started to feel like my own.
And then there was Mumbai. My trip began and ended here, so it was my first and last taste of India. My days were so filled with shopping, eating, and exploring that they are all just a happy blur of motion in my memory. I was totally charmed by all the markets, the variety of food, and the prime opportunities for people-watching. Check out all these teenagers at an arts festival. There were easily over a thousand people there that day — the crowds in Mumbai are incredible!
On my way in, I lost my glasses on one of my flights — which made me extremely sad because even though I hate wearing glasses, these ones had a lot of sentimental value. Luckily, prescription glasses in India are surprisingly affordable! Even with my astigmatism, I was able to quickly acquire a new pair and create a new memory.
My favorite part of being a tourist is blatantly disobeying signs. “No entry”? I’m there. “Do not climb on the instruments”? Too late. “Do not enter”? Do not even bother. At one point, while passing a closed-off highway ramp, our driver looked at me and sarcastically commented, “Do you want to take that route?”
The most disobedient touring was done in Jaipur, which aside from being the famed Pink City, is full of palaces and monuments. Naturally, this means the most pictures were taken there. I’m not a huge fan of guided tours, so I enjoyed looking through the popular destinations at my own pace and then reading about them later. This left me free to stare at every intricate doorway for as long my heart desired.
As a foreigner, transportation is particularly exciting in India. While the sensible option is an air-conditioned vehicle, I relished opportunities to ride in a rickshaw and see my surroundings up close. In more tourist-filled areas, animals serve as novelty transportation. I drew the line, however, at riding a camel. Call me crazy, but I just don’t trust camels.
One of the most serene experiences I had was in Agra. The ITC Mughal where we stayed was the winner of an Aga Khan Award for Architecture, undoubtedly due to its vast courtyard gardens and beautiful design elements. The hotel’s coolest feature was a sunrise observatory, which faced the Taj Mahal.
At 7 a.m., the sun rose and the pinkish morning light reflected off the marble of the palace, turning it a gentle rosy shade. Between the hotel and the Taj, gardens stretched out toward the skyline, and the song of the birds living there seemed as loud as the music coming from the city’s mosques, calling everyone to prayer. All the sounds blended together as the sun slowly rose, and the skyline of the city lit up little by little.
It was so memorable to see the view from that observatory, but it was just as memorable to see the Taj Mahal up close. Every bit of symmetrical detail, perfectly-crafted marble, and painstaking calligraphy spoke volumes. The alleyways behind the palace, meanwhile, were filled with small businesses and people just going about their day, which was visually fascinating to an outsider like me.
While in India, I visited temples, mosques, and even attended a service with our driver at his Gurudwara. I got to speak Hindi, Gujarati, Kutchi, and of course, English — which many people were just as excited to practice speaking with me as I was excited to practice their languages with them. Random people asked me for selfies — from a teenage girl who wanted to post me on Instagram as her foreign friend, to university boys looking to invent a fictionalized girlfriend on Facebook. I drank chai every morning. I bought saris at every price range. I ate every kind of curry imaginable.
I loved my first visit to the motherland. Even as an NRI — a non-resident Indian — I felt a sense of warmth that amounted to more than the sunny February weather. I feel so lucky that I got to experience India for the first time with so much happiness and love, in no small part because of the people I encountered there.
There was a part of it, too, where I felt like India invited me to just be myself. I got to leave behind a certain kind of self-consciousness, and celebrate a different side of myself. Whether discovering the nerve to cross against traffic, finding the bravery to communicate in a language that isn’t effortless, or growing the spine needed to drive a hard bargain, I embraced new characteristics in myself that I would have thought to be antithetical to my personality. In India, they just felt natural. Although I’ve had ample time to come home and adjust back to Canadian reality — including a skiing trip to Quebec the day after I returned home, and my first live Raptors game to remind me why I love my city — a part of my heart is still lingering in India. I’m grateful for the time I spent there, and eager to return one day.
* * *
This original version of this post appeared on Zenventures. Zen Alladina is a Toronto-based writer, freelancer, and multidisciplinary adventurer. She is also a tea sommelier in training, because you can never be too many things at once. You can find her on Twitter at @chai, and Instagram at @z.en.