Friday, July 20, 2012

America came, America went

Long years ago, when I waddled around in pigtails, I said aloud the magic words that for many years characterized how I felt about the world, my world. "I will settle in America", I said. My father had just come back from the US you see. With suitcases laden with things bright enough to charm the most curmudgeonly three year old. Neither did I know how heavy "settling" can be nor was I clued into the power of words. Carelessly, toddler-ly, I threw around that which would one day make my world. America was then not only an idea but an escape. Much like its original intent, it charmed me into thinking that escaping to America indicated not the newness of a world but a not-ness of this one. No school, no dreary days, no strange scapes of a scary adult world with its inexplicable sorrows and forbidding rules. America was colorful, with its flowery denims, and video games, and automatic erasers. And View-Masters. Remember those? With their otherworldly scuffed gaze onto so-near foreign shores

These were the eighties. India was a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic with one, and later two, television channels. We all read the national pledge aloud in school, that went something to the effect of "India is my country and all Indians are my brothers and sisters". We all suffered one  heckler in every class who would mutter sotto voce "Well who do I marry then?" We received our news from singular sources and imagined our leaders sovereign, if ineffectual. We trusted secularism, even if in its often troubled avatar, tolerance. We muddled through power cuts, and ration cards, and held onto a quiet, steely middle-classness. Benedict Anderson would have pronounced us a truly well-imagined nation. Or at least, some of us. 

And in this world, America's otherness beckoned ever so strongly. With its free love, and rampant spending. With its alter-egoness of individualism and seeming control over the world. Russia only had Mathematics books and fairy tales and War and Peace to offer. And I hated math, much preferred the Brothers Grimm, and to date, am at odds with the melancholies of Tolstoy. 

And so for many years, I held onto the fantasy world of America. Until the nineties. Whence I discovered rebellion and economic liberalization. In the same breath. Within the homeland. When leaving for America was "uncool", just as lacking in spunk as those unknowing, unthinking engineering graduates who left in hordes contributing to what the magazines derisively titled "brain drain". In contrast, I wanted to stay and ride the new wave. Of opening markets, and a rising MBA count. So I thwarted my well-meaning father's suggestions that I study literature and enrolled in a commerce and economics degree before heading stubbornly towards a masters in marketing communications. It was a heady time to be an eighteen year old. The milieu seemed to suggest that the world was merely a few years away. As was gaadipaisabangla, and makaan.

And it all trickled in. One by hardworking one. I took off for the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad and discovered community, and advertising, and late-nights, and seances, and bubble living. I luxuriated in campus life and tentative adulthood. I figured out what I wanted to do, and tried doing it well. And it all seemed to work really well on paper. I graduated, found a job, pretended to the trappings of adulthood. I moved back to Pune. And thought that I really didn't need to get to America, because really, what did America have that I didn't?
The finality of it all hit. Life became days in the office. From 9 in the morning to 2 at night. Ensuring that trucks of promotional material reached nervous clients, that billboards were up on time and that kiosks announcing the latest development in some unpronounce-ably acronym-ed software stayed upright. And I got bored. 

So many many years after making that loud and bold and unthinking pronouncement, I left for America. For contrary gains. No money, no conspicuous consumption, but instead in pursuit of that hallowed of all hallowed middle-class goals. A PhD (insert suitable gasp). My past had caught up with me. I boarded the plane in Bombay with my boss's words ringing in my ears, "Why are you leaving? You are a doer not a thinker". I couldn't tell him that this was precisely why I was leaving, because I was tired of doing without thinking.

I moved to Austin, Texas. And anthropology. And graduate school. Triple whammy. It took me a year or two to stop staring wide-eyed at everything the massive and uncontrolled landscape had to offer. Space. Gigantic highways with feeder roads the size of a ranch. Supermarkets the size of my hometown. Smelly hippies. Mexican martinis. Foucault. Americans. Differently American Americans. 

Through my twenties and through the turn of the century, I attempted to live on two continents. I gained a couple of degrees, and a lot of what I thought to be familiarity. I traveled, I cooked, I moved houses and learnt how to drive and dance. I pronounced confidently that I would ultimately live in India and mistakenly thought that I had consumed as much of America as I could. 

I finished graduate school. I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. And for the second time in many years, I found that I hadn't seen it all. I lived in a wonderful house with wonderful women who taught me, in the words of Sushmita Sen, "what love, sharing, and caring is all about" (for those actually interested in the video, watch from 2:37 to 3:10 and yes, you will cringe). I swam in the lake, biked to school, and learned how to teach. Two years of Midwestern living showed me a whole new side of America. Even if some of them in this part of the country called me "the dark one". And two years down, I thought I had finally seen America. 

However, last month, right before I left, I took a roadtrip to Michigan. To the dunes by the shores of Lake Michigan. To towns called Hart (where every road sign bears a heart next to the name of the road), Pentwater (also called the graveyard of ships, Ludington (where the tour guide at the lighthouse regaled us with his logics of why teachers should not be paid more than they already are), and Saugatuck (built over the former ghost town of Singapore, Michigan). To an inn where the otherwise friendly owners didn't in the words of Destiny's Child "say my name" at all. Three days straight. Now I do admit that my name is an enterprise fraught with danger for even the most linguistically malleable of cultures, but surely one must try? But not to digress, for the first time in a very long time, I felt profoundly alienated. Productively so. 

It is perhaps fitting that many years after coming to the US, I leave knowing that I do not know what America is. The thought is liberating as much as it is unnerving. It is a realization of self and world. In the same breath. Just because one is grown up does not mean one needs to stop thinking. One has to break and build. Break and build. Again and again. One has to keen. And weep. And hold on tight before letting go.

And then open up the body. And the world.

America came. America went. Now she is part of a larger world. That I know as little as I know America. Ah the wonderfully biting excitement of not knowing.