“Rocket gadi (car), rocket gadi!” children in my neighborhood one day shouted to reach the road to see a new car. It was a glossy, sky blue sedan – grand in appearance and longer in size than the usual sedans we saw on the road. The high and bright rear red lights stood out. The design gave it a striking look. Inside was a handsome western man in gold rimmed glasses and dark blue striped shirt. He was smoking a pipe. His face and neck were bronze-red in color – not the usual white that you would see in the regular Caucasian people. There was graciousness in his look. Though the youngsters tried to dignify the automobile by comparing it to a rocket you won’t really blame them for their ignorance. Because none had seen a rocket in his life except that he knew that it was an engineering marvel. Somehow, the shape and the extravagant look of the car suited their imagination. And the kids followed it as far as they could. The car, however, left the running kids behind in cloud of dust. And it vanished soon after.
The uniqueness of the car made us believe that it must be an American car. We felt ‘smart’ enough to know that no one else could have manufactured such a marvelous machine. And though the passenger was American his bronze-red skin color convinced us that he could not be of European origin. We theorized that this man must be the real American: a ‘Red Indian’. Who else inside an American car would be smoking a pipe? Because we knew that pipe smoking originally came from the Red Indians. We sympathized with that ‘Red Indian’ man. We were also taught that a European navigator named Columbus sailed from Genoa to find an alternate route to India. But he arrived in a new land that he mistook as India. So he called its inhabitants Indians. But the new land was really America.
I forgot that story of the nice car and its ‘bronze-red’ passenger soon after. And it remained buried in my memory when I made it to America many years later.
And now many of my colleagues and friends are regular Americans – mostly white in skin tone but also black, brown, yellow and many in between. We marvel at America as the melting pot of the world, except when racism pops its head up during brutality against blacks and immigrants or international terrorism or financial crises that affect this land in regular succession. But the memory of the car still remained hidden in me as I fought for everyday survival to reach the semblance of the mythical American dream. Till one day I traveled to my ‘old India’ as an American tourist – rather as an ‘American Indian’ tourist.
The group I was traveling with stayed in a lodge in front of a huge gray white granite rock in the Aravalli hills in Rajasthan. The lodge, a beauty of the middle age Indian architecture, belonged to the family of Maharaja of Jaipur. And though old it bore the elegance of its royal owner. The Maharaja’s family stayed here when they came out for hunting excursions in the countryside. From my room, behind an expansive open roof, I could see the statue of a white elephant perched on the top of the high rock. Blooming bougainvillea on all corners of the charming residence created a memorable ambiance. As I looked around with my camera in hand to take some pictures of the surroundings my Canadian neighbors John and Mary Ann came out of their room nearby. They both appeared fresh and happy. As they looked around from this second floor roof in the afternoon shade I could tell that Mary Ann had finished her shower. She sat on the sofa set at a corner of the roof. She softly brushed the handle.
“This is the kind of residence my family would be living in my childhood,” Mary Ann longingly said as she tried to strike a conversation with me.
“How nice!” I stayed short.
I did not want her to know that I would not have had an opportunity to enter into such a residence ever had I not migrated to America.
“I lived like this for the first eight years of life,” she mentioned. “You know I was born in India?”
“No kidding?” my surprised American vocabulary popped out spontaneously.
Mary Ann softly looked down. She was serious.
“Born in India?” I could not stay silent. “Where in?”
“Bombay,” she said softly. “I learned to speak Hindustani before I even learned to speak English.”
“Whoa,” I exclaimed. I realized a real history was unfolding in front of me. “I would have never thought that I would meet someone like you in India.”
And I waited for more.
Mary Ann’s parents belonged to the last batch of British administrators and technocrats who arrived in India to serve the queen in those waning days of the Empire. Her father, a Scotsman was an engineer for the imperial army. And her British mother was one of the many secretaries that Lord Mountbatten had in many of his regional offices.
“She was a man of a lady,” Mary Ann was fond of her mother. “Tall and handsome she would go out hunting on high boots riding her horses.” She took a breather. “She was also a MI-6 agent.”
I was absorbed in her story.
“When India was given independence my parents were still working for the new Indian government,” she continued. “But like other British folks at that time they remained undecided about what they would do next: move back to England or go to Australia; or what?”
“Difficult choices,” I chimed.
“I was born after India was given independence,” she continued. “I was eight years old when my parents decided to move back to London.”
“Nice,” I might have been a little too quick to point that out to her. “So you are an Indian by birth.”
“Well,” she slowly moved her head back and forth, looking down with a conflicted smile on her face. “Yes, you can say that”.
Mary Ann appeared to be apprehensive of that prospect.
“My family felt insecure in India,” She said. “There were signs of intolerance against the British bureaucrats. And so my parents left India.”
“Interesting,” I gently replied. “And my family came to India for safety. We became refugees here.”
I realized that we both were the victims of greater geo-politics of that period. India did indeed gain independence from British colonialism. But it was partitioned into two different countries. And the fallout from the partition changed so many of our lives forever.
“But my family could not stay in England for very long,” Mary Ann said.
“In Ottawa,” she said. “My father became a Canadian civil engineer working for the federal government.”
Mary Ann and John belonged to the group of visitors with which I traveled to India. Most of the group was from Europe, North America and Australia. Except for me, an Indian American, others were all Caucasians. Now living in Ottawa, Mary Ann decided to travel to India, where she was born after India gained independence from Britain.
“Yes,” she repeated absorbingly. “We left for England when I was eight years old; lived there for two years and then moved to Canada with my family.” She paused a bit.
She could not finish her story when our tour director rushed in looking for us.
“Here you are,” Mr. Tripathi feigned surprise. “We have a meeting for our next trip. How many of you would like to join the leopard watch party tomorrow morning.”
We went to see the leopard early the next morning in an open Jeep. These are the animals that the Maharaja and his royal guests hunted in the Aravalli hills. Distant hillocks covered the vast expanse and the main mountain range was visible not far away.
The distant sharp peaks in the Aravalli hills made me remember that I might have seen such peaks somewhere else, in America. And yes, it was in the south-west USA: the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I went there to visit the ancient pueblos in the Native Indian reservation. Apache and Navajo Indians lived there from prehistoric periods. Europeans colonized the land and called the inhabitants Indians. That moniker still remains. In the reservation we moved from one house to the next. Poor inhabitants sold traditional silver and jade ornaments, clay pots and strands of dry lavender stalks that they burned to ward off mosquitos. And they all wanted to talk.
“I am Tony,” one shopkeeper introduced himself to me. “Where are you from?”
“I am coming from San Jose,” I answered. “It’s near San Francisco in California.”
But in the USA if you are not of Caucasian origin then the ‘where’ in the question always subtly demands another answer: “Which country have you originally come from?”
“Before that I came from India,” I told Tony before he could ask me.
“You know you are from that India for which the European colonists arrived here and colonized our land,” he smiled ruefully. “You are the real Indian.”
“And you know what,” I wanted to dignify him. “You are the real American.”
Tony remained silent. There was pain in his look. He must have heard such answers many times before.
“Do you have a real American name?” I asked Tony.
“Yes,” he said. “Eagle Blue fox.”
“Eagle, Blue, fox,” I repeated the words softly. “But those are European words – eagle and blue and fox,” I demanded more. “What is the name in your native language?”
Tony gave me his name in his native language. But I could not understand it and that sounded very different.
“Would you write it for me?” I was about to ask for paper and pen.
“My people use only spoken words,” he said, “but not written. The young people in the tribe are in the process of creating an alphabet.”
We spent hours going from one stall to the other. The sellers did not appear to be healthy. Many looked amputated. I learned that a very high percentage of the native population suffers from diabetes, a result of moving away from their traditional plant based diet to the cheap European fast food.
At the end of the day we went out to dinner in an upscale native restaurant in the reservation. It was run by native people and the restaurant served pre-colonial Native American food. The young server explained about the authentic tribal food that we were served.
“This is pre-contact diet,” the server explained. “Our people were expert agriculturist”.
“What’s pre-contact?” I was amazed by the explanation.
“It’s before the Spanish colonists arrived in our land,” he said. “They brought European foods and changed our native Indian diet.”
“Thank you,” I expressed my gratitude to the ancient people. “You know I am from another India.”
“I know,” he was quick. “My father is from India.”
“What?” I was loud. And I was surprised. “Where are you from?”
“Karachi, Pakistan” he smiled. “My name is Ibrahim.”
I learned that Ibrahim arrived in New Mexico as a student. And to earn an extra income he works in the restaurant. His look and skin color matched very elegantly with the native people here. His father was born and grew up near Delhi before he migrated to Pakistan after the partition of the Indian subcontinent. Ibrahim still thinks that his father is Indian. But a young man from the Indian sub-continent serving and explaining Native American food in America?
It was then that I remembered the visitor in my childhood. He was driven in a shiny sky blue car with rather elongated front and rear lights. His skin was bronze red. And we children theorized that he was the ‘Red Indian’ from America – the real American. But during my trip to the pueblos I realized that my childhood visitor could never have come from these Native American people. These people were too poor, too malnourished and diseased. Their skin tone was faded brown, rather chalky. They looked older than their biological age. Their shape and image stripped away my long held imagination of the true ‘Red Indians’ of America. And the natives didn’t have enough educated youths to serve the rich non-native clients in an uber-modern restaurant in the reservation. So they had to hire a South Asian student to serve and explain the pre-colonial native food and agriculture. I woke up to a new reality.
As our trip in India was nearing its end, one morning I was sitting alone at the breakfast table in Jaipur. Most of the clients in the restaurant were of Caucasian origin from the West and Australia and New Zealand. The server brought the toast and omelet to my table.
“Sir,” he softly asked me, “You are Indian. No?”
“Yes,” I looked up at him.
“I guessed correctly,” He seemed happy to have his countryman in America. “Not many Indian people here can afford to come to this restaurant.”
“Oh.” I was not sure how to respond.
It was like in the restaurant in the Native American reservation, where the native people could not afford to dine. I felt emptiness in me.
“Very nice to meet you Sir,” he smiled and promptly left for his manager’s call.
Before we said goodbye to each other, Mary Ann and John informed me that they would come back to India again, “To visit the south of the country.”
“Kerala,” she said with some emotion in her voice. “I have not seen this country where I was born.”
I smiled at her, “Neither have I.”
Mary Ann must have grown soft for this land over time. As people grow old, they seem to mellow from many mental restrictions that afflict them in their midlife struggles.
I looked at the distant Aravalli peaks. I did not feel about the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the same way when I visited the pueblos in America. I just visited them then. Saw what I could through my naked physical eyes. Over time I realized that the American visitor in that shiny sky blue sedan in my childhood must have been a European American who got his bronze-red skin color from the ‘tan’ he had in the Indian sun. And I learned that the ‘rocket car’ he was driving was a vintage Cadillac from the 1950s.
Now I am an American citizen. In the race profile of this country I am an ‘Indian American’. And Tony, my shopkeeper friend in that Native American pueblo is an ‘American Indian’. Look at how we order our past and present nationalities to identify us. My travel director Mr. Tripathi is an Indian, I mean an ‘Indian Indian’. And Ibrahim’s father in Karachi must be called an ‘Indian Pakistani’. These are our identities – insignias that we are stamped with in the travesties of where we ended up living. The waiter at the breakfast table staring at me, who I know knows me – the ‘Indian American’ – more than he knows the White European Americans, is also an Indian. And so are his coworkers. And Mary Ann too.