It’s almost like a rite of passage for any Indian-American born to immigrant parents: the trip back to the subcontinent.
I have gone “back” to India approximately every four years since I was four years old, taking the 24-hour journey from Seattle directly across the world to Mumbai. When I was younger, I used to love seeing my grandparents and cousins, but saw the trips as a great sacrifice: Using a hole in the ground as a toilet and weaving through free-roaming cows on the streets of Mumbai wasn’t exactly Disneyland.
Since then, it seems, India has become more Westernized and I have become more open-minded and somewhere in between, we have met in the middle.
It was when I went as a 16-year-old high school sophomore who had just taken a photography course that I began to see the unexpected beauty of India. The entire country became a study of contrasts to my teenage eye, something that continued when I returned in my twenties. From the little beggar girl with mangled hair and soot covering her wide-eyed face selling the whitest, most richly-fragrant jasmine garlands to the little boy with the ripped pants selling simple tour books to tourists against the backdrop of the breathtakingly extravagant Taj Mahal to the brightly colored, beautiful saris hanging to dry in some of the most dilapidated slums in the country, it seemed every beautiful thing in the country had a counterpart. Each traditionally Indian facet of the country has a just as Westernized version.
It seems each trip I take there proves my theory more and more. Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s have cropped up, but the street vendors selling chaat get just as much traffic. Every college kid wearing Nike shoes strolls amidst an elderly woman wearing handmade sandals.
I suppose these stark contrasts are to be expected in the world’s largest democracy, a rising world power where 1.6 billion people who speak hundreds of languages are trying to live peacefully together in a space that is only slightly larger than Alaska, Texas, and California put together. The contrasts are part of the beauty and allure that has become nearly synonymous with Indian culture.
Sometimes I fear as the country becomes more more Westernized in an attempt to live up to its powerhouse expectations, this might change. The beauty and traditions of the country, while they won’t go away, may be stashed in the corner. I was contemplating this on my last trip to India, until something caught my eye.
The non English-speaking fruit vendor peddling pears and bananas seemed like any of the countless others on the street, but there was something about the lettering on the cardboard crate behind him. It read ‘Washington Apples.’
I had traveled halfway across the world to buy a deliciously juicy looking red apple from my home state from a man in a dhoti who’d never left the city. And that’s how I know that no matter how many fast food chains and American brand names pop up in the country, India will always be the perfect blend of contrasts.