Reflections from Resham
When I learned in high school psychology class that smell is the most primitive of our five senses – that the nerves are located in the very back of the brain, far removed from the frontal lobe where all our logical decision making takes place – everything made sense. Since I was a child, I’ve always had strong reactions to smells. They’ve transported me to times or places that I had forgotten, taking me out of my current state and temporarily transforming me to a younger version of myself. Stepping off the plane from Delhi today and inhaling the air – somehow humid and full of the smell of burning trash, even though we were still in the enclosed, modern, sterile airport – was one of those moments. My eyes were bleary from 17 hours of travel, my ears were still ringing with the white noise of the airplane’s engine, my mouth was dry from lack of water, and my body felt cramped from being curled into a hard seat for too long, but my nose told me that everything was right, that I was back home.
Of course, my home is Hawaii, not India. That’s where I was born and raised, where I return twice a year from life in New York. But the smell of India screams “Home!” to me as much as the ocean and plumeria scented air of the Honolulu airport does, so I know it to be true.
Things felt odd yet alarmingly familiar at the same time. Driving from the airport to our friends the Advanis’ home, I was struck by just how gnarly Delhi is. It was eerily quiet. There were giant street dogs digging through garbage, rows of falling down shops lining the highway, groups of men walking in the middle of the street with linked pinkies, cars (including ours) casually running red lights, and yellow roofed autos parked haphazardly in front of the metro station. I spent so much time in America trying to explain how India isn’t just what people see in Slumdog Millionaire, that there’s so much more to it, that I’d forgotten those parts of India do exist and that they comprise a large part of Delhi. Seeing the city through fresh eyes made me a bit more sympathetic to the friends who visited our Fulbright cohort and were unable to leave our apartment, overwhelmed and paralyzed by the chaos and unfamiliarity of Delhi.
Yet when we reached the Advanis, stepped inside and hugged Mona, and were promptly seated at the table with plates of rice and palak and dal, it felt like we had never left. The bright yellow kitchen walls were the same, the fish tank with the lone fish was the same (perhaps the fish had grown a little), and the TV playing Indian reality shows was the same – but were we the same? Obviously we weren’t. More than two years had gone by since we last sat in that dining room. Those two years had been filled with experiences that shaped us into different people, experiences that will in some ways inform the research we do.
Yet it was a little scary to feel like we’d gone backwards, reverted to our lives here instead of going somewhere new. As travelers who are intellectually curious and seek out new experiences in earnest, we knew that by going back to India, we’d be missing out on the wonder that comes with living in a new place. But I’ve battled that thought because getting to know India through the lens of chai wallahs will expose us to parts of society that we didn’t think to touch on last time – things that don’t come to mind when you’re busy learning a new language and shopping for saris and delighting in the sight of monkeys eating rosebuds in the monsoon rains.
It’s not that those experiences were worth less. They made me fall in love with India again, differently than I had during my annual visits growing up. And they bonded our group of friends in a very special way, evidenced by how close we remain more than two years after leaving the country and beginning new lives in different states. We have to be careful not to compare this trip to that one, or this trip to what might have been had we chose to live somewhere new instead.
What is certain is that this time, there will be more learning, and likely in a deeper sense, than there was during our last stay. There will also be more anxieties, more hurdles, and more frustration. Nothing is set up for us, and it’s scary. I hesitate to admit it, but part of what made Fulbright so wonderful was how easy it all was. The visa was done for us, our Hindi courses were arranged, our stipend was neatly deposited into our accounts every other month, and we had a built-in group of potential friends to commiserate and celebrate with as we experienced the ups and downs of life in India.
We don’t have those luxuries this time. Our Hindi is rusty, we’re trying to navigate endless social media platforms, we haven’t quite mastered how to use our new camera, and of course, we’ve never written a book before. But something brought us this far, and it wasn’t a coincidence or a mistake. We have to find a balance between feeling anxious – which will serve us well if we use it to make sure we get things done – and being confident in our project and ourselves.
Is it written? Not yet, but it will be.