Cliché as it may be to disclose by this point — plenty of people born in America in 1986 have enough foreign parentage to share a similar experience — I remember standing in a Bombay kitchen with my grandmother, grating red carrots into homemade yogurt. Or folding dumplings, stuffing tamales or hanging fresh noodles up to dry, whichever your cultural equivalent might be. I call it Bombay and not Mumbai because it was still Bombay when the grating occurred. I worry I’m being insensitive by saying Bombay sometimes, even regarding gin.
My theory is that American children who grow up regularly visiting a developing country are imbued with a duo of emotional fortitudes: capacity for shock, and enhanced compassion thereafter. As a six-year-old, you can’t get your taxi window tapped on at traffic intersections by that many desperately ragged fellow six-year-olds without feeling something big. When you go back to first grade after winter break, things are confusing. The more you go back, the less important you find things other people your age find very important. Valentine’s Day cards for every single person in class, for example. You wonder if anyone else knows about the mangy feral dog with saggy nipples and flies who had to be shooed away loudly from the street food stand with a stick multiple times. Also, the smells you were smelling while observing this scene didn’t exist in any way, shape or form where you lived.
Please don’t take the last couple of sentences as indicative of how I feel about India. I don’t know how to describe my relationship with it. My father left at age twelve and never lived there again. His accent is down to about 3%. The other 97% is made up of an amalgamation of the other places he’s lived: Switzerland, Boston, New York and California. At this point, you’d just call it “American” and not give it a second thought as someone who’s probably not on the lookout for a functionally insignificant low single-digit percentage of an individual’s native accent.
I wish I could watch my 16-year-old father from afar at Logan Airport as he tried to make sense of the Boston accent during his first minutes in this country. I wonder if he thought someday he’d go back to India with everything he learned in this country of bountiful and well-endowed engineering schools, and help turn his native land into a technologically superior paradise. The Taj Mahal would pale in comparison to its gargantuan architectural works of splendid art, were it not made from India’s famously impermeable Rajasthani Makrana marble (physically unable to be further lightened).
Instead, India is home to some of the most egregious suffering on the planet, and has little in the way of progressive social reform. It plays host to some of the most savage imaginable crimes against women. Profound inequality, limited access to a quality high school education and a culture that openly embraces bribery and corruption all fuel violent tendencies in young men who are raised to believe the opposite sex is fundamentally and irreparably inferior. Organized crime is deeply ingrained within the economy, both legitimate and otherwise, and here’s the thing of it: I could easily be talking about America. We just happen to have fewer open-air sewers and aggressive rhesus monkeys wandering around.
On my second-to-last visit, India messed up my best friend’s visa and then her bowels. Her entire digestive tract, really, for days. And on my last visit, still fresh in my mind, I became trapped in three straight days of toxic “severe plus” Delhi smog that shut down schools and made international headlines. It’s been the worst and longest incidence of concentrated air pollution in 17 years; a perfect storm of crop-burning, fossil fuel and coal exhaust, factory output, deforestation and the right weather conditions to trap it all close to the surface of the Indian capital and surrounding areas. It is entirely man-made, and will repeat again, perhaps worse, next year.
Research suggests that breathing the air in the worst-affected areas for just one day is the equivalent of smoking 45 cigarettes. I was there for 72 hours, 135 cigarettes or one Mary-Kate Olson wedding. Much of the time I was there was spent on foot, in an auto or bike rickshaw or in a car whose air filter could only handle a reasonable quantity of pollution before becoming useless. The sun broke through the haze now and then as a watery copper beacon, like an old penny at the bottom of a pool, providing little in the way of light. Symptoms were immediate and severe, from respiratory distress and audibly lower-pitched voices to eye and throat discomfort I still haven’t quite kicked more than a week later. The level of fine particulate matter was, and still is, 30 times the safe limit set by the World Health Organization. Delhi’s problem dwarfs China’s, and China’s problem absolutely sucks. China, however, has proposed and implemented legislation towards maybe becoming better probably (it’s too soon to tell). India can’t even fly its smog-reduction sprinkler helicopters around because the smog is too goddamned thick.
Those monkeys I mentioned, they’re allowed to be around by the tens of thousands in urban areas because they’re sacred in Hindu mythology. Ditto cows. All animals play some part in the larger canon, and outside with no protection, they too suffocate and develop illnesses. Poisonous dust settles in water sources and on trees and crops. The medical impact of the 2016 smog emergency accounted for 6% of India’s total health expenditure. Tens of millions of Indians have died prematurely of a dozen different respiratory diseases simply from being outside. And when it comes to something like respiratory disease, does it even matter which one suffocates you, or how? Does it become “I hope you have whichever one dispatches you to your next incarnation the fastest?” Is that the modern-day equivalent of “I hope you feel better soon?” And yet the subcontinent’s propensity towards laughter in the face of adversity endures, with a timely slew of whip-smart political cartoons on the subject.
Before this visit, I was able to reconcile what I’d witnessed visiting India all my life with my thoroughly American upbringing. It began to make sense to me: You’d bring a live chicken on an overnight train so as not to have to buy one from what could be an unfamiliar and perhaps dishonest chicken salesperson upon your arrival. Now I’m debating the value of bringing my future children there. I wonder if the fact that seemingly nothing has changed for the better since I was six years old, staring at my dirty, smoky-voiced mirror image through a taxi window, means I should find another way to encourage that particular degree of emotional depth. They’ll need it to be the kind of people their father and I wish for them to be.