By Syufra Malina
It is less than two months before I leave India. A friend of mine asked me, do you feel sad that you’re leaving next month? I smiled, and told him that I didn’t know. I could have answered in the affirmative that I was sad, but that would have been a lie. I feel neither sad nor happy about it. My feeling is plain flat towards India, which was not the case before.
The idea of India as I perceived it came into my mind in my childhood, long time before Bollywood movies, dubbed to Bahasa Indonesia, flooded Indonesia’s entertainment market. Thanks to my mother’s fondness of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, my idea of India started with my own imagination from Tagore’s poems that my mother would read out for me. It was calm, serene and full of hopes. The second idea came from an old movie The City of Joy which I watched when I was in high school. The calmness and serenity I kept about India till then was disturbed by the depiction of severe poverty in that movie.
And then there was a long gap in my mind about my thoughts for India before I finally found interest in Post-Colonial theories during my Bachelor’s degree. I felt that idea of India being framed again and inspired by the spirit of resistance and firmness, the strength being different, from being the “others”. I wanted that feeling.
There I chose India, and New Delhi. I picked Human Rights course for my postgraduate degree and packed my expectations to experience the India that I had in mind. I was ready to meet with Indian education system, hoped that my colleagues would be rich in professional experiences. I was totally ready to argue and have intellectual discourses with them. I came to India with a basket full of expectations and ideas.
But like life in many ways, reality differs from ideas. Coming from a culture where people always greet and smile at each other, even in the street, I had to face disappointment and culture shock since the first day I arrived in New Delhi. From the academic angle, I didn’t get to sit together in the class of professionals. I got disappointed, angry, frustrated, and irritated too. I was not alone. About nine to ten foreign students I know in India felt the same. Together with other foreign students, I spent the whole first semester with complaints, until I felt tiresome and realized that I had only wasted time in complaining and it did not make things better for me. I contemplated and opened my mind to the fact that despite people not smiling back at me whenever I smiled at them in public, I always had some stranger in the street help me whenever I needed change to pay to the rickshaw walla. How in the crowded buses, I’d always see passengers helping each other in passing on money and tickets to and from the conductor. How the concept of simplicity was not similar to backwardness. How India valued education more than anything else. From providing affordable education and books to creating an environment that appreciates academic and scientific thoughts. That even though my classmates are not professionally learned, they are actually dedicated and aim for higher aims in their life.
In India, I also learnt that despite the fact that social and cultural system does not side with the minorities, but the state is there to guarantee their rights being fulfilled.
Having realized that and traveled around in some other cities besides Delhi, I have realized that the idea of India should not be built from the experience of living in one city alone. To get the idea of India means to dive into the colorful sea and surf on its high and low tides.
I may not feel sad right now, and would still curse the extreme weather in Delhi, and will not be able to tolerate the unhygienic environment, and don’t want to get used to noise and behavior in Delhi’s street. But I know that I will miss the dynamics of Delhi, the chai, the voice of vegetable sellers, the mom and pops store, the rickshaw, and overall life in India with unexpected kindness. The basket full of ideas and expectations that I had brought from Indonesia may have been rotten but I won’t be going home empty handed. The basket is now full of precious lessons, with which I construct my new idea of India.
[Syufra Malina, class of 2013, is a student from Indonesia enrolled in the postgraduate Human Rights program in the Department of Political Science. This article was first published in the 2013 edition of ‘Episteme’ — Dept. of Political Science’s annual student magazine. We republish it here with permission.]