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Kipling has famously stated – Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet… this is so true. Until one imbibes the ‘foreign’ culture one visits, and makes it one’s own.
A chance online conversation with a dear friend in the US at 4.30 am IST (yes, I’ve often said that I suffer from insomnia, and now no one turns a hair when they find me online at all godforsaken hours) brought on a wave of nostalgia about a few places that I had never dreamt of visiting as a child.
I came to Bangalore around twenty-five years ago, before which I had lived all my life in Mumbai. Now, a person who is born and brought up in a place like Mumbai usually does not imagine that they would make a move to another city. Ask someone from New York or London, and they would be equally dismissive of the possibility of any move.
A true-blue Mumbaikar like me, like all other Mumbaikars, had thought I would live all my life there, and had no idea I might not. Until I got married.
Life happened, though, and before I knew it, I was married and moving to a completely new place, with a completely different culture. At least, it was at the time. Coming from Maximum City, awake 24/7, Bangalore seemed like a sleepy little place; where shops opened after 11 am, only to close for an afternoon siesta of 2-3 hours, whole markets closing up after sundown. Even prime business areas like M.G.Road, Brigade Road and Commercial Street were closed on Sundays- unimaginable now, I know! When and how the laid-back Bangaloreans did their shopping- even grocery shopping- was a mystery to me. People went home early, and the streets were usually deserted by 8 pm.
A place where shopkeepers took umbrage if I browsed through their ware without buying- if I didn’t find anything good.
A place where the language was alien to me and people looked askance if I used Hindi or English.
A place with an almost non-existent public transport system: twenty-five years ago, the buses were erratic at best, almost impossible to get on, with all name plates in the local language. Autos were similarly mysterious to me – not knowing the language; I had no clue as to why a request to go somewhere would be met with a ‘No’. This never happens in Mumbai even now. The metro rail, of course, is a fairly recent addition.
A place that seemed to belong to a different era- however, it grew on me. Slowly, as I became acclimatized to the unhurried pace of life here, and Bangalore became Bengaluru, the happening city; we have managed to meet half-way. Now, of course, I cannot imagine travelling by the local trains of Mumbai- something I did every day as a matter of course- unless I absolutely have to on one of my visits to meet family.
Between then and now, I have been able to travel to places I had only read about in my beloved books. We were in the US for a year and a half. A few years later, we also stayed in the UK for a shorter period – 8 months, enough to scratch the surface of a culture. Fortunately, having read books from these places made them feel like a long-lost childhood friend.
On reaching the US, as soon as I had stepped outside the tarmac at the airport and got into a taxi, a wave of panic swept over me…because WE WERE TRAVELLING ON THE WRONG SIDE! It was a gut reaction that I could not help – despite knowing beforehand that the convention is different in the US; one of the many issues of cultural translation that I had to tackle during my time there. A loaf of bread for $1.40? Hang on, wasn’t that a whopping Rs 55 for a meagre loaf? A pint of milk for $2 – Rs 90?
I went on in this vein until I calmed down and told myself to stop converting everything into rupees. This was a piece of advice I gave myself again when in the UK, where the translations were worse.
Then there was the strange case of every person I crossed on the streets giving me a smile. I was at my xenophobic best (imagine saying Hi to the loiterers and strangers on streets here!) until I realised that people said ‘Howdy!’ to friends and strangers alike. I met my match one day, though.
A lady I got to speaking with at the local library was surprised by the fact that I spoke very good English. She was even more surprised when I disabused her of the belief that India was all jungles, half-naked fakirs, elephants and snakes. She was positively amazed when I came out with my (yes, showing off!) knowledge of the US, its history and its literature!
We were in a comparatively arid area of the country, and the extremes of temperature were something I had not experienced before. Public transport, again, was non-existent. Everyone preferred to travel by their own car, and we had just the one which my husband drove to office in. I did venture out, though, on many days to a nearby supermarket on foot. It was quite close – not more than half a kilometre, or in US terms, under just half a mile, but I still remember the looks I got from cars passing by. Pedestrians were found only in the downtown area – that was off bounds to vehicular traffic.
It was some time before my Indian mind could get around the pounds, quarts, yards and miles, accustomed as I was to thinking in decimals; I never did get very comfortable with it. I did get to an understanding of the people and places, though. We travelled quite a lot during our stay there, driving all over the country, reaching Maine in the far north-east and San Diego in the south-west, and much of what lies in-between. We took quite a few hikes and walks in places like Yosemite, Natchez Trace Pathway, the Grand Canyon, and many other places. Bill Bryson’s books resonated with us as never before.
We visited the UK a few years after our return from the US. It was the country of Enid Blyton- my first childhood love in books. Also of Agatha Christie, Wodehouse, James Herriot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Michael Morpurgo, J.K.Rowling…I could go on. It was all that I had imagined, and much more.
Many things were different now- the main one being that this time I had a daughter. This changed my experience of a new country in many ways.
For one, I was happy that I was in a place with an excellent public transport system: it was a boon to be able to take my child out at will, to not be dependent on the one vehicle we could afford. I was also amazed at the patience of all the bus drivers (and passengers) who would wait peacefully for me to take my child out of her stroller, fold it, board the bus with it and the child, stow it in a corner, pay for my ticket, find a seat and sit down, before we could get moving again. There was one other thing that struck me- in India, friends and family would not think much of picking up my daughter. There, strangers would make place for me and my daughter in buses and trains, they would smile at her, even speak to her, but not once did anyone attempt to touch her.
It also helped that people in the UK were more aware of all things Indian: familiar food was more readily available than in the US Southwest. It matters more when you have a child who will not eat anything unfamiliar. We prefer vegetarian food, and on the US visit, a visit to a pizza takeaway put me off it for a while- we had ordered a plain cheese pizza, and the person who cut and boxed ours had just cut and boxed a pepperoni pizza in front of us, using the same cutter. The poor fellow could not understand why we trashed that pizza: it was perfectly vegetarian in his eyes!
Fortunately, we had reached the UK in time to see the last few days of snow and sleet, and could enjoy most of the spring, summer and fall, coming back to India just before the onset of winter. So, we travelled a lot, and went on quite the literary pilgrimage around the country. We also discovered the culture of walks and, much to our delight, a book on walks graded by difficulty levels.
Whenever we could, wherever we could, with a 3 year old in tow, we indulged in exploring the country-side to our heart’s content. We did things that were unimaginable in India then – like visiting working farms, cheese farms, pick-your-own-fruit farms, animal petting farms – small pleasures that are still beyond the reach of the common person here. The frequent drizzles were like lawn-sprinklers, probably the secret of Britain’s verdant landscapes. Back here in Bangalore, the frequently overcast skies and rains in the evening remind me of our time there.
Then there have been the months we spent in Japan, but that is a story for another time.
Travel has changed me, in some aspects permanently and for the better. The places I have visited, the cultures I have seen and the people I have interacted with have done much to enrich my life. They have made my world-view what it is today, and I am thankful for all of it.
A version of this was first published at the author’s blog.
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