Features

Foreigner

Words By: Tahlia Sanders
Images property of Kristine Sanders


There was shit on the floor of the airport.  

An arrogant, ugly smear. It had staked its claim on the territory and assumed a stance so defiant that no one, least of all the airport officials, dared question its right to reside there. It was undeniably of human origin.  

It was 1AM. Kolkata Airport. I was fourteen years old, freshly stripped of my hometown’s familiar mediocrity, still clinging to a suitcase full of myopic ideals and benign Western platitudes. The faeces seemed a fitting metaphor for the year that sprawled ahead of me.

Needless to say, I had been reluctant to move to India.  I’d created for myself a comfortable nest of all things unextraordinary in my little hometown of Mackay and saw no reason to oppose the inevitable future that awaited me: an infinite temporal ellipses; attending the parties of friends I had known since primary school and laughing humourlessly at bland, over-recycled jokes. Know-it-all neighbours, nasal guffaws and mind-numbing naiveté. The notion seemed safe and comforting.

I knew nothing outside of my third-generation small town identity.  When confronted with the sensory cacophony that was India, I became dependent upon this very finite range of understanding. I was protective and insecure if I happened to hear of new inhabitants settling in Mackay, sure that their exotic new dispositions would be corroding my place in my old peers’ memory.  Who was I, if not my parents daughter and my grandparents’ legacy?

‘The ground is lava!’

I was seven-years-old again, befuddled by the world around me and playing a familiar childhood game in a totally unfamiliar environment.

By keeping meticulous contact with each and every one of my former classmates back in Australia, I deflected any necessity to assimilate into my new Indian cohort. I stubbornly refused to use the word ‘home’ in association with my new Indian habitat and would consistently remind friends back home that I would be returning very soon.  It became very apparent in retrospect, that I was disengaging any connotations of permanency or familiarity between the new place and myself. By refusing to partake in the flurry of Indian culture that dwarfed and eclipsed me on a daily basis, I was taking a definite stance of self-inflicted isolation against any notion of belonging.

Indian life was the lava; at the base of a bubbling, hissing volcano. I resisted touching it, for fear of becoming inextricably entrenched.

But my protective rafts were quickly disintegrating; my feet getting singed.

It became hard to see myself as distinct from a culture that would press its ravenous, pleading, wide-eyed face against the window of my car every day. I struggled to remain clinical towards its inextinguishable optimism and mellifluous chaos.

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I remember distinctly a conversation that I had with the Indian lady who would cook and clean for my family, Bijali. Bijali was an incredibly intelligent, hard working young woman who had gone to the effort of educating herself. Had she of been born in Australia, she would be thriving. Instead, India’s caste system saw her incapable of escaping a life of servantry. She told me of her exhaustive efforts to procure a passport but how impossible it was, due to her mother’s inability to complete her birth certificate with literacy when Bijali was born. Bijali had been negotiating with black market dealers of illegitimate passports for years, but each time she would return to them with the payment they required to complete the transaction, they would claim that their fee had increased. Seeing Bijali’s struggle to free herself from the binds of her destiny and her perpetual optimism despite this, made it nearly impossible to take my own good fortune for granted.

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Each morning, I would wake up and, from within my air-conditioned penthouse apartment, absorb the sweltering reality that is India.  The daily ritual of the little skin-and-bones man in a rattle-and-groan truck, nonchalantly gathering the dead bodies that had accumulated overnight on the street below me, like insects beneath a bug zapper on a muggy Australian evening. The slum-dwelling sidewalk barbers; hawking close shaves with crusted cutthroat razors in the dusty Kolkata gutters to their passing suit-clad superiors. A daily equilibrium of desperation and acceptance, passion and passivity, beauty and crudeness.

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At school I learnt Hindi, along with a newfound appreciation for education as a privilege rather than a chore. I fought to keep my wall of isolation intact against my peers’ onslaught of overt enthusiasm, brutal honesty and uninhibited authenticity. Indian kids don’t have time for bullshit.

Over time I found myself unable to tolerate Internet small talk with my friends back in Australia.  Their small-town ideologies were idiotic and their understanding of the world stunted. They couldn’t understand what it meant to step over a corpse with numbing abandon while shopping at a fish market or to be swarmed by photographers, like a celebrity, while making a routine trip to the cinemas. My anecdotes were met with stilted responses or reciprocated with repetitive tales of non-descript shenanigans between schoolgirls on the bus. I stopped fighting to maintain my outdated relationships and allowed myself to relinquish the increasingly sparse hold I had upon my past identity.

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And yet I was never able to achieve acceptance into the Indian crowd either.  To them I would always be ‘The Australian”; my nasal-toned accent an immediate indication of a privileged background and stereotypically ignorant attitudes. I was kept in an eternal state of arms-length toleration through racial mockery and in-jokes in colourful languages unknown to me. Unfortunately, I was living in India during a time of intensely negative publicity towards the Australian people on Indian media channels. India was yet to adopt Australia’s stringent policy of political correctness and acceptance of diversity. While my peers never meant to offend me, my delicate Australian sensibilities saw me take their disinclusive behaviours quite personally.

I teetered eternally on a barren strip between two states of belonging; an intermediate form, never quite conforming to either group.

After a year of perpetual confrontation and sensory bombardment, I had been reduced to the raw marrow of the person I had been when I arrived, no longer claustrophobically cocooned in the sheltered attitudes of Western life. I had become secure in the cold reality of my own composition, now excruciatingly exposed, its protective encasement of ‘belonging’ long deteriorated.

Upon my final days in Kolkata, I had an intricate pattern of mehndi applied to the palms of my hands, a memento of India. As the plane began to lift off I traced my finger over the complexities of the stains on my skin.  Swirls and smudges.   Imperfect beauty. A stain that would linger on into permanency, long after the nuances of the pattern had faded.

I was a mutt, having been shaped by both cultures but belonging to neither.