Rickshaws manipulated through streams of angry cars. Women draped in vibrant coloured saris hurried along the narrow sidewalks as the orange glow of the afternoon sun illuminated their sequenced dresses. Impeccable attired men, barking into mobile phones, traipsed through crowds of frolicking school children on their way home. Buskers sang. Beggars moaned. Traffic policemen blew whistles in the middle of busy intersections. A rich visual and aural symphony defined the busy streets of a 21st century’s Mumbai, India.
Juxtaposed to his eccentric surroundings, a lone teenage boy, nearing adulthood, sauntered incongruously through the jostling crowds. He wore a simple western outfit of jeans and a white polo shirt. Rajiv Desai’s lean features and melting brown eyes mirrored those of a billion others who were part of this pulsating nation. He did not grow up here, but having listened with great fascination to a plethora of myths and stories about India since his early childhood, he could not suppress his awe. Around him were tantalising billboards advertising the latest fashion, reflective of India’s dynamic influence by the Western world. It was his first trip here. His parents had not returned to India since before Rajiv’s birth.
Far away from the alienation of his Australian childhood, Rajiv Desai felt at home. As an Australian, he was always grateful for the friends he had, and yet knew he was missing something- the filial bond they shared; an ineffable blood oak and gum tree acceptance he has never- could never- be a part of. He assumed himself with the paradox of how here, in a continent so strangely familiar, he had found this sense of acceptance- an unspoken bond, which intangibly linked him to the spice scented streets.
Rajiv continued his slow pilgrimage; past several roadside stalls that displayed a myriad of miniature marble statues of gods and deities- a microcosm of India’s spiritual hypermarket. Rajiv watched, disquietingly transfixed, as a young woman, wearing the insipid remains of a heavily stained grey sari, slowly ambled by; skilfully balancing a large basin on her head whilst cradling a young boy. Deep creases of pain etched into her forehead.
Without warning, the woman was thrown forward as an oblivious bike rider, midway through answering his mobile, crashed into her. The shrill shriek of the woman cried out like a siren as the overhead metal basin slammed against Bombay’s cold filthy ground. To Rajiv’s surprise the bike rider disentangled himself and continued on his journey with no more than a filthy look of disgust at the woman. An instinct that Rajiv could only describe as Australian forced him to bend down and help the lass gather her displaced load.
Having drawn level with the woman, Rajiv was taken aback by her inherent fear as she anxiously beseeched him in a foreign tongue to leave her – her eyes darting, searching for an invisible source of terror. Her horror became palpable as Rajiv felt a forceful tug on his collar and was thrown to the ground, displacing a small cloud of Bombay’s omnipresent dust. He tried to suppress the spasm of pain in his back, it wasn’t until another anguished shriek from the woman that Rajiv turned and realised their attacker was a corpulent bearded man, clothed in dusty white, now glowing with rage. His hand was raised threateningly, ready to strike the cowering woman again as he abused her, pointing vehemently to the dirtied clothes. Rajiv watched helplessly from the ground as the young boy ran to the lass, his small wiry arms raised, protectively shielding his mother.
After what seemed like an eternity of unfathomable abuse, the man looked inquiringly at Rajiv and finally understood.
“You don’t even understand Hindi? What kind of an Indian are you? Even this filth understands” he jerked his head condescendingly at the recoiled mother and child at his feet.
“Who’s going to have to pay to get these clothes rewashed? You think these slaves will pay? They’re called Untouchables for a reason! You don’t understand India, Pardesi (foreigner)! You don’t belong here!”
The surreal abuse of the angry Hindi felt almost familiar to Rajiv, and he could not help but recall a similar incident back ‘home’. He was in year seven; it was the first Australian high school he had ever attended. He had a friend that was of his ilk, and with great pleasure he spoke Hindi with his companion. He had not spoken his mother tongue since arriving in Australia – his parents encouraged him to practice English on every occasion. He was caught chatting to his friend by an astute teacher and made to recite their conversation in English. As the class listened he could feel the ridicule dripping from their eyes, shame plastering like a sheet all over his reddening, light brown skin. He had not spoken Hindi since – he no longer knew the language.
The man stormed off, obediently followed by the enslaved mother and child while Rajiv remained on the ground. Struggling to fathom the man’s outrage, Rajiv wistfully realised that the man was right. He could never belong to a country of such moral bankruptcy, having allowed its caste prejudices to perpetuate such acts of inhumanity. Rajiv understood that what he considered acceptance from his home country was actually a stereotype persisted by a form of national identity, whilst the undercurrent of exclusion, alienation, racism and religious fanaticism would always be much stronger in real life.
Time in India finally stood still.