I had a line prepared for whenever someone asked me about my heritage. Whether it was in person, in my Instagram DMs, or on a dating app, it was always the same. ‘I’m of Indian heritage, but I’ve never actually been to India,’ I would say.
It was sort of embarrassing. I was 23-years-old and I’d never been to this place where I was supposedly ‘from’ – this country I was supposed to have this connection to or affection for but what I wasn’t prepared for was to still feel a disconnect once I arrived there.
I’d wanted to go to India for years, partly to feel like I had a bit more of a right to say I was Indian. I also wanted to go with my parents, not only just to show me my heritage, but in the hope that their presence would forge some kind of connection to the place. After threatening to go by myself if they wouldn’t take me, we agreed it would be our family holiday destination in 2019.
We touched down in Delhi in mid-October, welcomed by a driver we’d arranged beforehand, who was about 20 minutes late and forgot where he’d parked. After we carried eight suitcases up and down flights of stairs, he started to put our luggage on top of his car, without any ropes or secure fastening. I held back my judgement.
I decided I would keep an open mind about everything here. I’d been warned not to lose my feminist rag or wear revealing clothes because the men stare… a lot. I’d been warned about what food to avoid and to check the water was always filtered.
I’d been braced for the homelessness, the poverty, for children clinging to my clothes and begging for money. I expected the cows and wild dogs that wandered the streets. I was aware of the ‘reckless’ driving, the constant beeping, the loose road regulations. I had to leave behind any notions of what I thought was ‘normal’. This, I believe, is the best way to enjoy the country.
Bum bag strapped, Dioralyte packed, and the taste of Jungle Formula stuck in my throat, we started our adventure. We visited many of the tourist hot spots and had a bit of time for clothes shopping too.
Tour guides and staff would refer to us as ‘non-resident Indians’. Resident Indians were trying to figure us out – where we were from, why our skin was the same shade of brown as theirs but why there were such stark differences in how we were. A woman asked if she could take a photo of me with her child. I said no, although many of the blonde women they were fascinated by agreed to.
The colours and smells of the various cuisines were so abundant, merging after getting caught in the Delhi rush. After time, the noise became the natural backdrop to every scene. When it was quiet, it was like tasting a meal that was lacking in salt.
Some of our friends live in Delhi and invited us over to their home one evening. We’d only met these people once before but that, but our distant relation to them was enough for us to be treated as family. I saw then, as well as many other times during our trip, that warm Indian hospitality which has earned a reputation.
From Delhi, we took the train to Agra to see the majesty that is the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. Monkeys posed in the station in front of tourist’s cameras while people casually crossed over the train tracks – why climb up stairs and cross a bridge to get to the opposite platform when you could just jump down and walk right across? Speeding trains are no excuse, apparently.
We then flew to Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan. The ‘Pink City’, as it’s nicknamed because most of the buildings are pink, was an enchanting haze full of rich history. We rode elephants in a sanctuary and watched camels pass us on the road. We visited intricately decorated palaces and innovative structures, including Samrat Yantra, the world’s largest sundial.
Our next journey found us in Amritsar, Punjab – the holiest place in the world for Sikhs. Religion had never really been a big part of my life, especially as I got older and developed my own consciousness about the world.
I’m Sikh because my parents are Sikh, and they’re Sikh because my grandparents were Sikh. But had anyone ever thought about whether they actually wanted to be? I wasn’t even sure about my belief in God, so can I really claim that I belong to a religion?
We perhaps made the mistake of visiting The Golden Temple on Diwali. Despite getting there at 4am, we were swamped by people pushing and shoving to get inside. Imagine being on the London Underground tube during rush hour in summer, then strip away any ounce of etiquette.
Nothing about it echoed the values that Sikhism is supposed to encourage – I witnessed no charity, kindness, equality or respect for each other. For the sake of tradition and belief, I hoped our experience could be blamed on going on one of the busiest days.
I expected there to be a great deal of pride on show at the India-Pakistan border, however, the overbearing nationalism they displayed in hours of show and spectacle struck a massive contradiction to the despise for the initial partition.
‘Hindustan Zindabad’, which translates to ‘long live India’, was shouted by the raucous crowd over and over again, as they punched the air and waved their green, orange and white flags. ‘Jai hind’, which means the same sort of thing, was also repeated. ‘This feels one step away from an English Defence League rally,’ I said to my sister. She agreed.
The country is often referred to as Hindustan, despite also being full of Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists, but at the border there was a reinforced presence of the Hindu nationalist government currently in power.
The gaps in my knowledge started to fill as I read about the thousands of Sikhs who died, the millions who fled their homes – my grandparents included. This was the history I was never taught in school.
Our last stop was to Phagwara, the Punjabi town in which my dad was born. I watched him getting emotional, recalling his memories and greeting the family members he hadn’t seen since he left. He moved to England as a child but hadn’t returned to his hometown in over 30 years.
It’s almost sinful to admit in a culture where family comes first, but the honest truth is that I didn’t feel a connection to these people who I share DNA with. I wanted to not only know we were related, but to feel that tie to each other that runs in our blood. However, contrary to my culture’s belief, blood is not always thicker than water.
One thing that was a must for me on the trip was to see my nanaji and nani’s (maternal grandparents) house. My mum’s relative met us in Chandigarh and took us to my grandparents’ village, Sahauran. On the way, we kept stopping on the side of the road so we could see all the different plots of land nanaji owned, before it was sold after his death nine years ago.
I read the welcome sign on the front of their house through teary eyes. Although they never saw me there while they were alive, they were finally welcoming me to their home. I saw the mango tree my mum had always so fondly remembered from her visits as a child and the path my nani lay for my cousins when they first visited from England, so their feet wouldn’t get dirty. I regretted not having a closer bond with my grandparents and wished they could’ve been there with us. Though for a moment, I felt like they were, somehow.
There’s nowhere else in the world like India. It’s the kind of place that gives you a real perspective on the way you live, while entering every one of your senses. You’ll see things there you’ve never seen before and may never see again.
I will always sing along to Bollywood songs even though I have no idea what they’re saying and I’ll always cry when I watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, even when the subtitles aren’t on.
I’ll always be inclined to say paani instead of water. I will always feel my most elegant in Indian clothing and treasure the taste of my mum’s homemade pakoras. But to India, I was a guest, to Punjab, I was that distant recognisable relative you didn’t want to outstay their welcome.
I returned to England with a newfound comfort in my hybrid culture, in being British-Indian, assured that despite having to deal with racism, ignorance, and obscure questions like ‘where are you from?’ I was back where I truly belong.