Prairie Perspectives

Late summer horizons against which the corn towers arrogantly, greet my arrival in the American prairie and I brace myself for my first experience of country life. The years pass me by at warp speed, and as I leave Urbana-Champaign six years later, I leave home all over again. Now the cycle of mid-western seasons is a part of my life, playing in counterpoint to the older melody of summer interrupted by monsoon. I sit down to write about America, and as always, it is India that comes to my mind. 

It is hard for me to think about my impressions of the US. There are days when I go about my business, oblivious as to where I am. There are days, after all these years, when I look around me and think, "Ayyo, where is this? What am I doing here in this strange place?" I remember myself as a child in Colaba and I wonder how I landed up in the middle of Michigan. What a strange place this is! Like Alice in Wonderland, on days like that, I notice everything and everything seems a little bizarre. And yet, commenting once on my reactions to experiences in a third country, an American friend reprimanded me for not being open to new cultural experiences. When I pointed out that I had been living, studying and working in a foreign country for five years, she said, "I never thought of that. I never think of this as foreign for you or of you as a foreigner." And this, when I wear sarees to teach, take sambar and rice for lunch, listen to Indian music… Sometimes the two worlds do flow seamlessly into each other and sometimes they are all of seven oceans apart. And I belong to both and neither and only one of them and several others besides, at the same time. How can I describe something that is at once so familiar and so terribly strange to me? 

Furthermore, there are not just two entities or environments to compare. In addition to ‘India’ and the ‘US,’ there are Bombay and the Midwest at the very least—the local contexts of my life in either country. (I should clarify that I left Bombay when it was still Bombay, and so that is the correct usage for this essay.) And graduate school, not a location, but certainly a state that colours one’s experience of any geographical setting. Bombayites experience India differently and so do Midwesterners, the US. 

So how can I compare my two homes? With great difficulty. My India is hot, the Midwest is either very hot or cold. India is very diverse; the Midwest less so. India is chaotic; the Midwest is the epitome of order—streets in a grid, trash in its place and god in his heaven. India is vivid, garish even; the Midwest is grey, green, gold and blue. India smells of incense, spoilt milk, masala, burning coal, camphor and fish; the Midwest smells of what-I-think-is-salami and wet grass. India is assault-by-sound; the Midwest is death-by-silence. India is more faces than you can see, more elbows than you can avoid; the Midwest is empty and lonely in spite of the warmth of the Midwesterner.

Or is that graduate school? Am I alone in the Midwest or incommunicado because I am writing my dissertation? Is the thin ice a Midwestern winter or the insecurity of graduate study? Is a biting wind howling through the Prairie or is that my colleague scoring discussion points by ripping my work to shreds? Are those Fall leaves or the shreds of my self-esteem? Is the snow covering the ground or burying my dreams? Where spring fever is a frustrating inability to read or write at the desired rate and where summer is a season when the streets are bereft of undergraduates, you can dial into the network faster and the library is quieter, that is graduate school. It just happens to be in the Midwest. Which happens to be in the US. Which just happens not to be India.

Denizens of the two American coasts turn up their noses at the Midwest. Well, that’s fine, because that just shows that they lack the discernment to see its subtle, minimalist beauty—the straight lines, the clear skies, the sparing but dramatic use of colour and the uncompromising but liberating flatness of the land. I surprise myself as I write this—did I not just say to someone that I needed to inhale the assorted scents in the Arabian Sea air, to feel the monsoon rain in my soul and to feel the pulse of Bombay revive my flagging exiled spirits? I do, and very much. But if Bombay is my spirit and life-breath, the Midwest is the haven to which I have returned in trying times. The Midwest is vast, but it is not empty—it is home to some of the warmest and most welcoming people I have ever met.

I tell my students that India and the US, Indians and Americans are very alike: proud to be who we are, but driven to preemptive self-criticism and apology; quick to take offense and quicker still to preach; naïve and strategic in the same moment. I tell them too that India is what the US can become, given enough centuries of immigration and cultural synthesis. So I tell them that they should study the history of my country to understand the future of theirs. They don’t buy it. No more than I do the notion that we all have to become like ‘Americans,’ whoever they are. After seven years, I still don’t eat ‘American’ food, listen to ‘American’ music, prefer ‘American’ clothes and yes, I do believe my life was more comfortable in my upper middle-class Indian home. 

I did not make the trip from the Third World to Paradise. Quite the contrary. I have learnt in the US about poverty and anxiety, drudgery and struggle. I have become familiar with the seasons of the land—sowing, harvesting, waiting. I have learnt to manage and cope and do without and make do. I have learnt to notice when the buds appear, when the leaves darken and when the stark silhouette of the branches and twigs laces the sky. Like most of my school and college friends who are here, I am nostalgic about an easier life. I tell my students this when we are studying development. I also tell them that although I am from what they consider the Third World, I grew up in a family of very strong women who knew that there were no limits to what we could accomplish. When I teach government, I recall with amusement that I was almost sixteen before it occurred to me to use a masculine pronoun with "Prime Minister"! I feel sorry for my students—they move away from home, work three jobs, study harder than I ever did as an undergraduate and are pressured into social lives that do most of them little good. My own college life seems boring to them, I know, but I am older and I can see what they cannot—that I was secure, healthy, sane and free to pursue innumerable channels of self-development, from music to yoga to writing, in a way that they are not. My students secretly feel sorry for me (when they don’t hate me) and I secretly feel sorry for them. 

If truth be told, there are many things I do like about being in the US. As an academic, I cherish above all, the access to resources that I have here—even with a dozen citizenship restrictions. I love the fact that I can make phone calls affordably and stay in touch with people I love. I am thankful for clean bathrooms and running water (even hot water!) and for the absence of insects in the winter. 

I also do like Americans—they are nice people. Except of course, when they talk slowly because you look different. Or assume they cannot understand your accent for the same reason. Or wonder why you don’t know or care about football or some obscure trivia from American pop culture. And most especially, when they ask you why you are still hungry when as a vegetarian, you can eat salad. But apart from all that, they are nice people. And very innocent, even naïve, in many ways. They believe in democracy. They believe that they can make the world a better place. They want to solve people’s problems because, well, they are nice and they don’t like to watch bad things happen elsewhere. Yes, yes, I too criticize all these things when they become American foreign policy, but you know, where I have been living, people seem to genuinely believe them. Indians are a lot like this so I do understand this need to show the way, to hold the torch. We are just much less naïve, I think. 

Indians talk a great deal about our family values and how well we relate to one another. But the ability to extend love and kindness to friends and strangers is not an Indian trait alone. I have experienced it in many parts of the world, and it is what has made the Midwest a haven for me. I have received help and support, love and friendship beyond anything I could have expected, from people who have never seen me before, know none of my relatives and have nothing to gain from opening their worlds to me. Living in a massive continent, under limitless skies on a boundlessly bountiful land, the Americans I have known have large hearts and warm, welcoming hearths. They may be small-towners, but there is something about their spirit that mirrors their land. As someone from a large country and a large family, I am instantly at ease. Here, I need not bend, nor shrink, nor fade a little, to fit in. There is nothing small about these people—not their country, not their cars, not their pizzas, not their faith in who they are. 

And then, Indians and Americans share that reluctance to be comfortable or happy. In India, or at least, in the India in which I grew up, one hid material success like a guilty pleasure—a guilt that was reinforced in every context. One did not want to attract envy. In the US that I have come to know, it seems to be de rigeur for people to be stressed and depressed. They relax by working out at a punishing rate, transform work they could love into self-destructive obsession and insist on being self-reliant as though it were a strictly enforced prison sentence. And between the computer and TV screens, their work and play are meticulously directed, indeed driven. As a Bombayite, I approve of this work ethic wholeheartedly. 

Having now visited countries outside of these two, I am aware of another important similarity between them. Clichés notwithstanding, these are two democratic societies. We say what we like and do what we like and for the most part, no one stops us. The difference is that Indians are obsessed with politics. We are a sub-continent of op-ed writers and deconstructionists. We also know. All of us know. We know who met whom where, why, when and who else was there. Americans don’t need to know because they are an information society. Like my student who argued that he does not need to learn to spell because he uses a word-processor, most Americans feel no pressing need to know, because it is all there in their wonderful libraries and data-systems. And besides, America is the most powerful nation in the world, anyway, so why bother? They know that, and what else is there? Within American society, there is a small sub-section of people who were supposed to be born in India but ended up American—they now host news discussion programs on twenty-four hour cable news channels! In India too, there are misplaced Americans, but since this essay is supposed to be about the US, I will leave it at that.

I complain about being in the US and I complain a great deal. It is cold and it is gloomy and the winter is interminable. Americans are ignorant and Americans are arrogant. I hate being alone in a foreign country. I miss India. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseum. My American friends are patient and sympathetic. They let me sit in their homes and even feed me while I complain. And I have to confess, "Actually, this is the only place in the world I could live outside India." (I also have said this about a couple of other places, but that is neither here nor there!) Who else would let me do this? 

And then I meet other Indians who live here, who have chosen to build lives for themselves here and who speak about becoming citizens—and even as I understand and the political scientist in me applauds the decision to invest politically, every fiber in my being recoils from such a choice. This is not my country. And in that simple statement, lies the biggest contrast that I could make between these two locations that I have called home. I may live here, but India is what gave and gives me life. I may work here, but it is that other context which gives meaning to my work. Every part of who I am is inextricably tied up with the being and becoming of India. I must serve out my exile as best I can, neither able to return nor able to stay. 


Swarna Rajagopalan
East Lansing, July 30th 1999

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