Whenever I think of India, I dream of hazy days blended by Karnatika heat and gentle embraces of terra cotta dust on my shins. Every memory a blur as if cotton saris were held over my eyes. But one experience at age seven jolted me from adolescent slumbers.
For the entire summer every year, my parents and I made our annual pilgrimage to their past. We were reunited with sanctums of nostalgia filled with roadside tea stalls and vegetable vendors. While my parents attended to obligations of meeting distant family members, I was left to play. My older cousins never wanted to leave the family compound so I meandered through the Bangalore neighborhood and met my friends on the other side of the road. I never really noticed the crumbled buildings, the little shacks lined by the path. I never really noticed the shards of glass that had fallen in open gutters. I never really realized how strange it must have looked for a girl in bright white Nikes and pleated skirts chasing behind girls who did not look like the other girls because their faces sunk in from hunger. I never knew that the huts I found comforting were slum shacks. I never knew I had befriended slum children. But as business as usual, I met my friends who wore tattered saris. We used to roll tires down little hills and play imaginary games like “Indian princess”. My friends always poked fun of my American induced Telugu, but I never thought it set me apart because I saw my friends the same. I brought them chocolates from the “Amereeka” as they excitedly held the silver wrapping to the light. In return their mothers handed us dates from the corners of their shawls. I saccharinely loved them in a way children do with such hope. Business as usual, we ran, hand in hand, my vagabond friends and I. I wanted to invite my two worlds together: my family tucked in the compound and my friends beyond the main road.
I told my cousins to come with me. They disgruntledly trudged behind. We came upon my little alcove. My friends Chitu, Cheema, and Babi ran out shrieking and holding scrap paper they found behind their home. We hugged tightly just as kids do. I turned to my cousins to introduce my friends. They looked at my friends in disgust. We left Mr. Bean for a bunch of street rats? Street rats. I did not understand this word. Before I knew what was happening my older cousin took me by the hand as his twin shooed the children, my friends, into the shacks. I looked over my shoulder to see the girls sucking on their raggedy smocks, faces dark with shame, with fear. They were street rats? I was confused. How did I never notice their grubby hands? I thought. They disappeared behind me, shacks only visible. And why did I not notice those huts before? My cousins pulled me ahead. Did it even matter?
The sleepiness of India lifted. I found myself in bustling streets of Bangalore. I saw wary faces of paan sellers and little girls in shabby frocks. Why had I not realized? I never knew this was the reality of India. India was not just the land my mother’s tongue spun stories of. It was a land of hardship. And no one knew how this tableau was imprinted in my mind. The phrase slum children causes my chest to tighten. I now see the pain in my country and it makes me mad. It makes me want to lash out, bear my teeth at all those who uttered the words slum children under their breath as little barefooted migrants run past. Noticing difference, although it broke me in two like a seed, was for the best. Ignorance washed from Indi-youth hazy daze where India was a land of nostalgic virtues. But nothing is virtuous about the struggles of the intentionally marginalized. I did what generations of epiphanies did: I read.