“Ugghhh! I so don’t wanna celebrate this birthday. Move over, girl.”
I looked up groggily. There was a tired-looking skinny girl sitting on my bed, wearing black leather pants and sporting a punk haircut with the sides of her head shaved. She had tattoos all over her arms, but not very good ones. Woah! Who is she? What’s she doing in my hostel, in my room at – holy hell! It’s midnight!
“Who – who are –,” I stammered.
“Relax, girl, I’m Mother India!” she said with a derisive smile, filled with self mockery and bitterness
Okay, she’s high, I thought to myself. But who in hell is she!
“God! People aren’t even sure if it’s my 67th or 68th birthday! And little girls freak out when they turn 30!”
“Right. You’re Mother India, sure,” I said with barely hidden sarcasm, “You look like a lost teenager. And what’s with the attire? Mother India wore saris.”
“Aww how Indian, babe! Judging a woman by her clothes. Isn’t that the ultimate way to vouch for your Indian-ness.”
“No, I am woman myself. I would never –“
“You just did. Like I gotta be sanskaari all the time?! I said I’m Mother India, not Alok Nath! Jeez,” she cut me off. I was silent after that. My sleep-addled brain was focusing a little bit. I sat cross-legged and looked at her again. She looked sad. Smudged mascara made her look like a raccoon. I put my hand on her arm. I gave her what I thought was a reassuring smile (because by now, I was assured by my instincts she wasn’t out to kill me)
“Well, you don’t look 68. You should feel proud. I guess.”
She gave a bitter laugh. “You should’ve seen me 68 years ago. I looked pretty much the same. They called me a “developing country” then. They call me that still. So yeah, looking young isn’t a compliment, it’s a defect – a drawback.”
“Is that why you got that hairdo and the tattoos? To get over the sameness of things?” I asked keeping a check on my tone, so she did not feel I was being judgmental again.
“Hell, no, girl! That’s not a hairdo. That’s the neighbors mowing my lawn. Pretty soon, I may not have a head. And the tats? Man, Indians spit way too much on me. That’s not ink, that’s paan, gutkha, saliva. Oh and there’s pee and other stuff too.”
I cringed. She folded one leg under her and sat more comfortably on my bed. “Tell me, why do you guys keep yapping about Indian culture, huh? What’s that about? Peeing, spitting, saris, dowry, female foeticide, astrologers, dhongi babas, hating people from other states?? Is that what it’s about? I don’t get it.” She shook her head.
“Well, you’re talking to the wrong girl. I –“
“You do care! Don’t tell me you don’t. You get as irritated as I do when someone uses the words “culture”, “sabhyata”, “sanskriti” and all that. But if a firang comments something anti-Indian on Youtube, and you’re all “Yo mama’s such a cow, that she would be worshipped in my country.”
“Well, I’m more of a cow-eater than a worshipper.” I said, sort of apologetically.
“Relax, girl, I’m not judging. Eat what you want. That’s what your ancestors did too. Don’t know what the culture guys are on about!”
We laughed. She seemed to have not talked to anyone in a long time. She was funny, sarcastic, with a self-deprecatory sense of humor. She was like no one I’d met so far and yet, I knew she was so misunderstood.
She had stories to tell me. She told me about the beauty of the country, about the knowledge and wisdom of the people, the intellect they shared with the world. The literature, the art, the music, the experiments – with truth and more!
“That, sweetheart, is culture! A man asserting his dominance over a woman, a woman covering her head in front of her in laws, a woman forced to cook roti when pizza is just 30 minutes away just cos that’s what a good woman does, going to temples to pray all the time, at the same time wishing to destroy your neighbor’s career, marrying a virgin, judging homosexuals, judging a career-oriented woman, celebrating a telecom company ad just because the wife plays the boss, cos that’s about as much you’re willing to acknowledge the so-called empowerment of women – that isn’t culture. It’s nothing to be proud of. The percentage of Indian scientists in NASA isn’t something to be proud of. There’s probably a reason they chose not to live in this country anymore.”
I nodded. Each word of what she said was true. Yet, I felt so helpless.
“Well, I gotta go now. It’s my birthday, should cut a cake. Wait, no! That’s against Indian culture, cos cakes came from the west. I’m gonna cut some rabri, with diyas lit all around my plate. Or laddus – whatever is sabhyata ke not-khilaaf. Laters, girl!”
And just like that she was gone, leaving me to wonder if I’ll have an encounter like that again.
I couldn’t sleep till dawn.