By Halima Bello Husseini:
I was nine years old when I had first come to India in 2003. My visit here was nothing less than a blast – I learned Hindi within three months of being here (which made life easy), went to one of the best schools in Delhi and made friends during hours of mischief and laughter. In fact, I owe my interest in old classic movies to my principal at DPS International School, Saket. It was at school when I saw The Sound of Music for the first time. While I was here, I also visited the Taj Mahal and other major tourist sites in northern India; I even had my first real crush while I was here. When I left India as a 13-year-old, I took back all these wonderful memories from my stay – which have never been too far away from my heart ever since.
So, it is understandable that when my acceptance letters came from various higher educational institutes in India, I was all too thrilled to make more wonderful memories here. I clearly remember the night before coming to India; my parents sat down with me and my brother and gave us ‘the talk’ – the hour long (sometimes longer) dictation you get on being a responsible representative of yourself, your family and your country. It’s a tradition for us! Funnily enough, at that time I was wondering why my parents were fussing about so much – I’ve lived in India before. But little did I know, they were right in whatever they said to me that night.
I departed for New Delhi for the second time in 2013. I had plans, dreams and hopes which I wanted to achieve before my undergraduate years were up. While I thought I had it all planned out, hardly anything happened as I thought. Firstly, the hot weather hit me hard. I’d never known global warming until it kissed my cheeks the minute I left the Indira Gandhi International Airport; it was then that I realised – Delhi has changed over the years. I was even more excited now because this meant getting to fall in love with the city all over again. Despite the heat melting me and my brother down, we smiled as we visited different universities and campuses that we had been accepted into. In the end, both of us chose a university at the far end of Haryana – APJ Stya University.
I had never been one to be reserved about going to a new place, I was used to it as a child of a diplomat. However, this time everything felt different for the first time. I felt like the foreigner. I was in this city – hesitant and anxious. Everyone around looked at me as an ‘outsider’; I could see that everyone saw me like the female, black-Muslim (that I was) walking into the gates of the hostels. Being able to speak Hindi also turned out to be a double-edged sword. While it made it easy to communicate with people, it was also a curse because I understood what people were saying about me – both good and bad. On my first night in the hostel, I didn’t cry. I just stood in the room that I was assigned and just stared at nothingness. I felt empty and hollow, just like the room. However, two nights later, after I had said goodbye to my father – the tears poured with a vengeance.
Next week, I started classes and it became exhilarating. One of the hardest things for me was to find a place or group where I was accepted and felt like I belonged. My physical appearance, being the first and for a while, the only African female on campus made me conspicuous. I was a spectacle that everyone watched unblinkingly – judging and analysing. They were fascinated, but mostly feared me. My skin colour acted like a monarch butterfly’s brightly coloured wings – warning them to stay away which most of them did. I had realised my preconceived juvenile understanding of Indians wasn’t applicable anymore. I finally started to see, experience and understand the diversity of the country.
However, some people didn’t look at me like this and soon I was making friends. Yet, it was tasking to figure out what people’s expectations from me were. I learnt that my candid and outspoken nature wasn’t received well by the majority of people. So, I became picky about what I said and to whom I said it to – this was my first adult lesson in the country. Today, I understand the issue was that I didn’t fit into any one box and (Indian) society demanded categorisation and a simple tagline, while I was a paragraph. It rattled them when one day I wore a burqa, the next day I wore jeans and a top and the day after that I wore my native wear. It was confusing for them to see me fully covered whenever outside the hostel gates, never shaking a male’s hand or having any form of physical contact with the opposite gender. At the same time, I wore the skimpiest outfits when it was just us girls – I curse like a sailor and I love talking about the most controversial topics like sex, the woman’s body, race, sexuality, menstruation, religion and the most taboo of all, Pakistan.
I believe that Bollywood has presented India in only one light – with abundant colours, lights, music, dance, art and wildlife. The truth, however, is like the god Brahma. India has multiple faces and it took living here twice to understand that. There was a day when I was travelling to Delhi on the yellow metro line. A woman and her daughter sat beside me and instantly my eyes caught the title of the book the kid was reading. Seeing my curiosity, the mother started a conversation with me and we spent the entire ride talking to each other. We talked about life, culture, taboos, importance of books and love. On a different day, from Green Park to Huda, I again found myself sitting next to a mother and a child. The child was looking at me the way toddlers usually look at a stranger. I smiled and reached out to play with the kid but the mother gave me the stink-eye and took the child away, making them sit out of my reach. I sat there, unable to feel anything for a long time. And that is India, a nation that can embrace you with open arms, shower you with glitter and make you sing songs of beauty and joy while at the same throw mud on your face.
It’s been almost four years since that tasking first week of college; and I have been falling in love with my course, Journalism and Mass Communication, more and more every year. I think it’s the traveller in me. Just like books, journalism and mass communication have the power to transport you from one life to another. My stay in India is almost over, and it might be another decade before I return. Unlike the childhood naivety that covered my eyes in the past, today I see India for what it is. A land of vibrancy and luridness, complexity and simplicity, secularism and racism, hospitality and exclusiveness, enlightenment and ignorance, spirituality and scepticism. But most importantly, it is a land of lifelong lessons – and I am glad to have learnt some of them in these years.