My bookcase has one shelf devoted to books on India which I inherited from my father as well as collected over the years. These are mostly for reading, there are picture books on India in our guest room. For the most part, there is not a lot of "India" throughout my house except for my obvious love of color. Come summer, India fills our garden. I have sari cloth that makes its way outside for makeshift decor and intricate hurricane lamps filled with candles to illuminate the stairs. India is a part of my existence and defines who I am, but it has been a long time since I have been back "home."
My father came here in 1963 to study mechanical engineering and to specialize in air conditioning. His plan was to return to India where he was already a mechanical engineer. He met my mother and only returned for weddings and funerals. He was the only one of his family to fully emigrate to America. He had a brother and cousin in England but everyone else remained in India. I often wonder if it was a lonely life for him here, especially after my mom died and us kids had moved out of state. I guess I will never know, but if what he said was true about he and I being very similar then I would expect he dealt with his loneliness well.
I have been to India a few times and I do really like it. It's not as high on my "to do" list as, say, Italy but then no country ranks quite that high. I've seen the Taj Mahal more than most people will in their entire lives and I know I am fortunate for that. But there are parts of the country that I would love to explore which I know I never will. And I still hold out for a chance to relocate temporarily to our family village to live and write and paint there. It would be a dream to re-do the bada, our ancestral village home. I've spoken to my brother about this and just the idea makes me think I should check my lottery ticket.
There are no specific travel plans to return and I am afraid that I cannot list out great things for you to see and do while there. My advice is simple - see the big sights; wear closed toe shoes; bring a towel; buy scarves and jewelry; and don't eat meat or "cheese" or any non-boiled milk.
The first time I ever saw my father weigh in at under 100 pounds was after a trip to India to bury his brother. We drove down to the Chicago airport to pick him up and he leaned in to grab his suitcase from the luggage carousel. The bag weighed more than he did and he promptly fell onto the moving belt. He passed a few people, stuck there without the energy to push himself up and off until a large man wearing a 10-gallon reached in and grabbed Dad with one hand and his case with the other. Placing my Dad gingerly on his feet, he said to him in a Texas drawl, "You okay there little buddy?"
It should have been a warning to me.
On my second trip to India I ate some dairy. I say "ate," and really that is what it is, but I also drank the bowl clean. Not just mine either, but a few others. We were in the area of the India Gate and all the Embassies and had stopped in to have a snack and some tea. It was four of us, my brother was there and so was Dad. On the menu was a dessert which I love. Love. LOVE. It's a milky soup flavored delicately with rose and pistachio in which a soft, round cheese patty made with milk, sugar and rose is waiting to be eaten. It is called RASMALAI. A good rasmalai has a spring to it as you cut into the ball with your fork. Each bite should squeak just a little if it has been made fresh and the rose should be light, almost lemony. Sliced bright green pistachios float in the milk and decorate the dessert. And the specimen in front of me that day was nothing short of perfect. My brother didn't want his, nor did my ex. Dad ordered jalebi and everyone was after those syrupy, crispy knots. Meh. I ate every helping of rasmalai on the table and probably thought about ordering more. We sipped tea and snacked on samosas as well - potato and pea filled savory pastries which are a hit in 99.9% of Indian households. And then we went back to the apartment for the night. Sitting around talking to my cousin and her husband, I felt my stomach begin to roll and pitch and I knew that the rasmalai was about to return for vengeance. Yeah, and this is why I say not to go for any cold milk products.
But India is not all about being sick. It is an experience that will change you if you keep your eyes open. It is an experience you will never forget, even the bad times. Here are things I definitely think you should keep an eye out for:
1. EAT. Samosas and the potato cakes that are fried in giant, wok-like pans on the street. Both are tasty, spicy and will linger in your tastebud memory for a lifetime. In fact, take time to watch the street food vendors at work!
2. Scarves, shawls and wraps. Different regions in India produce different types of material and embroidery, get something from where you are and something from another region. Same with jewelry. I have a silver bracelet which I bought on my first trip at 18 and it has never been removed from my wrist. I actually can barely get it off!
3. Which brings me to this: find a handicrafts store or "mall." India supports its local handicraft community like nothing else and you can get artisan products from all over in one place. Ask around. If there is a Mela - even better. Surajkund Mela is one of the biggest and worth experiencing.
4. If you get a chance to go to a wedding or a festival, GO. You will love it.
5. Drink chai. Become a connoisseur of street chai, chai made in a home, and chai at a hotel. Try it all. It's spicy, milky and served so hot you could probably cook noodles in the cup.
6. Be prepared for some interesting bathroom experiences, especially outside your "home." Carry hand sanitizer, baby wipes and plastic zip bags to hold anything that needs to be disposed of. Don't flush paper.
7. Don't eat meat. There is no need. Vegetarianism is done so perfectly in India that you can enjoy full meals and never miss your steak. Eat the local yogurt to get your stomach on their flora, you'll have a much better time of eating.
8. Bring some liquor from Duty Free. It's not always easy to get in country and it also makes a great gift if you're invited somewhere. Scotch is ALWAYS appreciated. If you're invited to someone's home and don't want to bring alcohol then get a box of sweets, Indians love sweets.
9. Wear clothes that can be layered and always, Always, ALWAYS carry a scarf or shawl (Men - carry an unused hankie). There are many places you will visit which may require heads to be covered regardless of sex, respect this. Resist the urge to wear shorts,, instead linen pants are great. Ladies, take some light leggings and just a top or two, then buy Kurta tops in country - they are long, loose and flattering on anyone and can be custom made quick and cheap.
10. Enjoy yourself and the myriad of experiences you will have. I could regale you with stories, but you'll collect your own and realize it is hard to talk about what you just saw and did. I do.
FREEDOM AT MIDNIGHT by Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins
This is a great book about the end of the British Raj and the beginnings of India and Pakistan. The perspective and stories are what has me recommending this. My Dad gave it to me and I am now giving it to you.