“FIVE RUPEES EACH, yes, five Rupees only,” he demands, laughing. He raises his eyebrows at the young men encircling him. As soon as I open my mouth, the men, bachelors or husbands disgruntled with their wives’ cooking, close theirs. A brotherhood of thin smiles and black hair glossed in coconut oil hunches towards me and the egg seller in curiosity.
My grouchy egg guy serves omelets, scrambled and hard-boiled eggs from a bright blue wooden cart that sits in the roadside dust near my house. I go to him for raw eggs and he knows I’ll only pay four rupees each, the normal price for raw eggs in Bhuj, but tries to charge me five every time.
“Nati, no!” I put twenty-four Rupees in his hands and demand half a dozen eggs.
The huddled men giggle in unison and wide-eyed excitement. As I triumphantly clutch six eggs in a bundle of day-old newspaper, they resume their chatter. I turn away, making up false translations for words I can’t understand.
I smile at my neighbors as I walk back to my house. Women on their porches glare at the knot of hair atop my head, which should have been in a neat low braid instead. A woman wrapped in a long polyester sari organizes dust on the ground into little piles with a straw broom. As I pass her, she grabs my earlobe and lifts her wrinkled hands in an aggressive accusation that I interpret as, where the hell are your earrings?!
I have no response.
This is my routine.
Before I moved to Bhuj to start 10 months of service at a grassroots women’s empowerment NGO, I participated in a month-long orientation run by my fellowship program. In the mornings, the other fellows and I took language classes. In the afternoons, we sat around a wooden table under a peeling painting of Gandhi to grapple with and guess at the challenges and possibilities of spending a year in India.
We discussed the importance of wearing dupattas over our long kurtas to cover our chests and eating chaval and dal from a stainless steel stackable lunchboxes with our right hands at office lunch breaks.
We were given prompts and created skits based on alternative behaviors towards the following scenarios:
Fellow A completes her work assignments on time and engages with her coworkers during the week. During the weekend, she hangs out with her American friends and participates in activities such as going to bars and house parties.
Fellow B speaks fluent Hindi. She has local friends, eats local food and has adapted to local norms. She gets angry when people treat her differently, and becomes furious when rickshaw drivers charge her more than they would charge local people. She spends almost half an hour arguing with rickshaw drivers each week.
Fellow C is friendly with all of his coworkers. He engages with them in the office, but after work, does not invite them to his house or participate in activities with them. He prefers to spend his leisure time with his local friends who are university educated and live a lifestyle similar to him.
It was easy. Fellow A should tone down her American weekends; fellow B should tone down her anger; fellow C should tone down his superiority complex.
We listened to a prior fellow explain how she had slept on the floor with mice and cockroaches because she didn’t want to offend her coworkers who slept in the same space, and how she had earned more respect because of it. At meals, we practiced scooping soupy rice from our steel plates to our mouths with just our fingers.
By integrating our habits into local norms, we’d gain trust, build strong relationships and have access to all things Indian. I knew I didn’t want to mirror fellows A, B or C, and I felt eager to trade my American-ness for habits more aligned with Indian culture. I was excited to blend into a new community.
Bhuj is a small, conservative town in northwest India, in the state of Gujarat. Ten months ago I moved into a house, alone, in a neighborhood where the homes are stacked like legos, with small alleyways running between them. The set-up reminds me of my freshman dorm: thin walls enforce the separation of interwoven spaces. Women shout at one another from their terraces, children scramble in and out of homes as they please. When I peer through the bars on my windows, I find faces looking straight back through the bars on theirs, searching for something in my room to explain my bizarre presence in their neighborhood.
When I arrived in Bhuj, I set out on the path towards integration optimistically. I introduced myself to my neighbors in limited Gujarati and sat for chai with almost everyone that offered. I wore Indian clothes and bought my vegetables from the corner market with the women who lived on my street.
But when I’d leave the corner market, women inspected my canvas bag full of tomatoes and peppers and corn. They laughed to express their doubt at my ability to cook the vegetables and at my obvious confusion: tomatoes, peppers and corn do not go together in any Gujarati dishes. What was I playing at? I was a single woman. I lived alone in their neighborhood. I was strange. I didn’t beat my clothes with a wooden stick when I did laundry, I ate vegetables without chappati, the color of my dupattas never matched with the pants I wore, young people who weren’t my brothers, sisters or husband came into my house after dark and since I didn’t massage coconut oil in my hair everyday, I’d soon be bald.
As I shuffled down my alley each morning, I smiled and waved at women with white hair pulled into braids that reached their tailbones.
“Good morning, Kemcho!” I called out.
“Hello.” One or two women smiled cautiously before they turned their backs to me.
Others looked at me and retracted to the insides of their houses. Everyone stopped when I exited my front door to shift their eyes up, down and across my body.
My anxiety about the limits of integration grew, and I became angry with myself for assuming it to be a feasible target. I became angry with the people surrounding me for not recognizing my efforts to shift my habits.
Early in the morning on March 12, 2011, I left my house and a neighbor waved me to her porch. She leaned over and said something in Gujarati while pushing her hands back and forth through the air as if she were conducting a band. I looked at her, confused.
JApun, JApun, JAPUNNNN, she tilted her head, as if she was asking me a question.
I continued the walk down my alley and neighbors shook their heads mournfully as I passed them. I peered into homes and saw families huddled in their main rooms surveying newspaper photos and video clips that captured the damage of the massive tsunamis triggered by an 8.9 scale earthquake in northeastern Japan.
In 2001, a 7.7 scale earthquake hit Bhuj and its surrounding area, leaving over 20,000 dead. The ancient architecture of the old city turned to rubble, and relief organizations from all over the world set up camp in Bhuj. Traditional livelihoods such as farming and cattle herding faltered or died out as people were displaced from their villages into relief camps. Walking through Bhuj today, reminders of the loss suffered in 2001 are visible via crumbling stone facades that once stood as magnificent gates to the walled city.
When the news of the earthquake in Japan hit Bhuj, a cross-cultural connection formed in an instant. My neighbors sat glued to their TV sets watching coverage of the disaster. Children tested their reading skills with news articles about the recent quake. Everyone prayed for Japan.
This event boggled my judgments. I wore salwars and dupattas; I made my own curd from buffalo milk delivered by the neighborhood milk-man; I stumbled over Gujarati greetings with my neighbors every day; I learned how to concoct gooey Kichdi out of mung dal, rice and ghee. But still, people shielded their eyes from my “otherness” each time I attempted interaction.
My neighbors had no idea how Japanese people styled their hair, or whether or not they wore earrings every day. Yet I watched them hurdle over cultural distance in an instant.
I left work early that day. No one noticed.
My walk home was quiet. I thought about the people in Japan who had lost their homes, their siblings, their parents, their children, lifetimes of work. I walked past neighbors and felt their sadness. I thought about shared suffering, emotional empathizing, blindly connecting.
In mid March, soon after the earthquake in Japan, Mithali, my 17-year-old neighbor, came to my house on one of her usual check-ins.
Mithali can’t stop giggling when she is around me. I can’t tell whether she is intimidated and nervous, or just thinks I’m plain ridiculous. In the beginning of my time in Bhuj, our relationship was based on her curiosity and my eagerness to make a friend. She’d barge into my house, continuously apologize for disturbing me, and simultaneously head straight for my kitchen shelves to ask questions about their contents. Our conversations didn’t go much beyond our eating habits and housework.
But when she came to my house this time, I told her to take a seat in my room. I took pictures of my boyfriend and I out of their hiding place to share them with her. She gaped, “My god!” at images of Alex and I standing hand-in-hand after our graduation ceremony in Washington, DC.
“Your husband?” She asked.
“No…” I felt nervous.
“Oh,” she paused, “You’re engaged?”
I took a deep breath, “No. This is my boyfriend, Alex. We lived in the same hall during my first year of college.” I claimed it – Yes! My life is very different from yours!
She told me about her fiancé for whom she’d move to Australia in a year. We sat on my floor for nearly an hour, laughing about her fiancé’s good looks and my awkward dates from high school. I told her about Alex and what he is doing now, at home in California. We recognized each other’s nostalgia and excitement, huddled close on the bed.
The reason I wear Indian clothes is out of respect and solidarity. But clothing did not give me an “in” to my community. Honesty did. Hand-holding pictures aren’t something I’d pass around my neighborhood, but I shared them with a friend. The superficial habits that I adopted were important (Imagine if I had walked around Bhuj in a tank top and shorts! No one would have allowed me to work alongside him or her, much less attempt to connect with me).
But, by attempting to integrate into a community based on some cultural formula, I failed to recognize the value of individual connections. With Mithali, I crossed the cultural-appropriateness line; I shared an experience with her that was unimaginable in an Indian context, but true to my life. She didn’t dismiss me when she learned that I had a boyfriend as I had feared. We drew one another in with our shared vulnerabilities and secrets.
The day after the quake hit Japan, I went to my egg guy to pick up some eggs for dinner. For the first time, he didn’t test my unwillingness to pay extra rupees. And as he handed me a newspapered bundle of eggs, he looked at me. He looked at me!
In a concerned tone, he spoke in Gujarati and gestured. His eyes met mine as he lifted his hands up through the cloud of smoke above his skillet and brought them back down steadily. His eyes turned into a sincere, inquisitive squint. The men around us were silent, holding on to one another’s lower backs in a display of camaraderie. I tilted my head towards him to signal understanding. His hands illustrated the tsunami, and his eyes wondered if I was following his concern. He looked to his feet and spoke softly, “Which country are you?” He followed my answer with a sigh of relief, “Acha.”
The next time I went to my egg guy, I practiced my Gujarati to translate my mother’s omelet recipe that feeds my whole family on weekend mornings. Since sharing it with him, my egg guy offers me samples of his egg experiments on each of my visits. Last week he made me try egg-boil-fry, sliced boiled eggs fried on a skillet and sprinkled with salt and masala. I ate it reluctantly, and he and his posse of men laughed at the expression on my face as I swallowed. It didn’t take much to figure out that wasn’t my cup of tea, but each week, we try something new.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]