Assistant Professor & Assistant Academic Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana.
One of the few things I take great pride in is being a wanderer, or an ‘awara’ as one may call it in Hindi. I know the term has a negative connotation, but then for the sake of this story, let’s assume it is free of any negative connotation and simply means a wanderer. When I started my journey as a wanderer moving out from Jamshedpur to New Delhi and then from college to University, shifting from one hostel room to another as I successfully completed the various educational courses that one is expected to in the long arduous journey called Ph.D., little did I know that the term ‘awara’ would mean so much to. That too, so much in a place the people of which did not even know the meaning of the term ‘awara’. Immediately after reaching Delhi at the age of 18, I was lucky enough to meet a fellow ‘awara’ who I eventually married. Every possible break we got from our respective colleges, we spent traveling to places being the ‘awaras’ that we could afford to be way before COVID19. Cut to 2011- I bagged a fellowship to study in China- no, it was not to be an ‘awara’ further! It was to study and learn the language which would help me in my Doctoral research. Well, I was enrolled in Chinese Studies from 2010 onwards and developed an active interest in China during my Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
While I knew quite a lot about China’s history, politics, geography and international relations among other things, I did not know the language. My Ph.D. supervisor pushed me to apply for the fellowship to go and live in China- to understand China first hand. The impression I had when I applied for the fellowship and even gave the interview during the selection process was that it is going to be a LOT of studying. As much as my better half likes teasing me for being way too serious about things including studies, fact remains that all work and no play makes Jane a dull girl! Some of the parting things that my supervisor told me and which stayed with me for life were- travel, travel, travel as much as you can while in China. That is the best way to know a country. Traveling would also entail speaking in Chinese, because well, communication is what we humans do!
While I left my beloved JNU, my beloved Delhi, my beloved hostel, my beloved dogs, my beloved family and the hardest- my beloved fellow ‘awara’ behind in India, the prospects of utilizing ‘awaraness’ to further my language skills kept me going. But of course, to get to that first I had to know at least survival level Chinese. The first few days and weeks in China were rough- starting from not being able to explain which dormitory I have been assigned to, to procuring a sim card to realizing that water is not a free commodity in hostels the way it was in JNU or in the hostel of Lady Shri Ram College, it all took a heavy toll on me. There was even a point on the very first day itself when I literally broke down in the middle of this place called Beer Garden in Beijing Language and Culture University and cried out in my mother tongue- “Aar parchi naaaaaa!”, or “I cannot take this any longer!” Well, while I have seen this in both Hollywood and well as Bollywood films that screaming out in anger leads to release of frustration, what actually happened to me was way better! A few people immediately came up to me and asked me if I am a Bengali. For those who know me, I do not speak much of my mother tongue, since that is how urban Indian education shapes most of us- we primarily speak English followed by the language most prevalent in the state of domicile. For me, the second language is Hindi, not my mother tongue! But then, well yes, I did realize that somewhere deep down inside me the Bengali is still alive. It tuned out that the people who approached me were Bengalis from Bangladesh. Camaraderie happened instantly and since they were way better than me in Chinese, having lived in China for many years, they became my troubleshooters.
In the very first semester itself, with basic Chinese language skills in my kitty, I ventured out. I traveled within Beijing to places ranging from the Military Museum to the Purple Bamboo Garden to the Forbidden City among others. The subway was of immense help after my bicycle got stolen and I could not even report it to the police because well I knew how to say bicycle in Chinese then but did not know much beyond that. My subway rides also helped me understand people more. I even could manage conversations in broken Chinese with co-passengers. All of this boosted my confidence and I even started taking train journeys by myself to far off cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai among others.
What I did realize while living away from India is that the absence of the languages one is most comfortable in, the life settings one is most used to, the day to day rituals that people collectively engage in, be it lining up for the metro, or having street side golgappas, or discussing the most random aspects of international/Indian politics over cups of watery ‘chai’ becomes the basis of what is known as homesickness. In addition to this, the oddities of the culture that one lives in, in the country of residence start becoming more striking. While I was lucky to have international friends who were of the same wavelength (Chinese and international students were not allowed to take classes together in my University), I did miss a lot of things from my life in India- even things like the humid weather of Kolkata, the loud songs on loudspeakers during Holi in Jamshedpur, the overcrowded Sarojini Nagar market, bus number 615 which I would often take to reach JNU among a long list of others.
To deal with all of this, to find an escape from homesickness, I found a window to travel again and boarded the train to Zhengzhou. As I sat on the seat, I overheard conversations between my co-passengers about how people from Northeast China have different physical structures than the ones from Southern China, how smoking in shopping malls and public places should be banned and whether the ‘laowai’ (foreigner) sitting across understood Chinese. But of course, I merely smiled. There are times when even a generally talkative person like me wants peace and quiet.
I saw an old man with three heavy bags board the train. He probably did not have a ticket, or was traveling for a very short distance, and stood close to where I was sitting. After observing him for some time and battling with myself on how the old man and the other passengers would react if I offered my seat (since I was the ‘laowai’), I decided to go offer my seat. After all, I would hope someone does the same if my Father travels on the train by himself with three heavy bags.
The old man initially refused to say it was okay but eventually agreed. After taking the seat and thanking me, he immediately said Indians are kind. While I do not take much pride in something that I have not actively worked for, I was touched by his words, and by his correct guess about my country of origin. Blame it on the homesickness! I instantly asked him why he felt so. He told me he did have Indian friends in the 1950s when he was working at a University back then. To my greatest surprise, he even told me about Bollywood films from the 1950s- probably my Mother would have loved the conversation since I had absolutely no idea of the films he was talking about. He probably read my expressions and started singing this song… “awara hoon” Now, that was a song my Ma hummed often, and I knew the lyrics of. I joined him, and the rest of my journey was relatively happier than when I had started out. Also, the fact that he guessed correctly that I was an Indian stayed with me. Most people I met outside my University and my dormitory guessed that I was from Pakistan given that the chances of meeting a Pakistani student in Beijing are 100 times more possible than that of meeting an Indian student- this time blame it on international politics!
This worked in two ways for me. I got interested all over in knowing about China’s foreign policy and tracing where the fault lines lie between India and China. If Hindi songs were so popular back then, why is it so different now. Also, I realized that there are more people like my Ma and Baba whose children live far far away and if not anything else they could do with some decent conversation with people who remind them of their offsprings. I actively started looking out for opportunities to go to old age homes or help any old person that I came across. The ‘awaraness’ that took me to places also became the cause for the strength to push aside homesickness and do what I was in China for. Add to that the sweet old man singing ‘awara hoon’, whose contact details I no longer have. China was, is and probably always will be a mixed bag for me- and I say this not just in terms of political analyses, but also in terms of the emotions I have for the country!
Dr. Sriparna Pathak