How the Commonwealth Games pushed me to learn about India
The dust raised by the Commonwealth Games drove this child of Indian immigrants to begin reading about the land of her ancestors.
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That’s what I remember most about New Delhi. It permeated everything. It slicked the cars like spring pollen each morning; it trickled into homes and under rugs, making the undersides of your feet black; and if you spent more than an hour outdoors, it infused your nose and throat with a dry, sandy mist.
Even Delhiites said there was more dust than before, but like most Indians, they complained little and adapted well. My brother-in-law took to keeping an undershirt in his trunk and wiped down his silver Maruti Swift each morning before work. My husband’s family covered their rugs with sheets, which they changed and washed each Friday. And daily or twice-daily showers were the norm.
Dust, I learned, was a side effect of India’s success. All of Delhi, it seemed, was under construction, thanks in no small part to the upcoming Commonwealth Games, and the dust was its irritating byproduct. In fact, the only time my relatives spoke of the Commonwealth Games, about which most Indians were utterly uninterested, was when the dust reminded them of it.
To me, the dust was as palpable a sign as any that India was booming. New homes were going up in Delhi’s sprawling suburbs, the subway was adding new lines, highways grew extensions and overpasses at every juncture, and stadium shells sprouted overnight like mushrooms, for India’s Commonwealth Games.
As a first-generation American whose parents had immigrated to the US decades ago, I had never paid much attention to India. My Urdu was atrocious, Bollywood was alien to me, and apart from Manmohan Singh, I couldn’t name a single Indian politician.
But the dust started to change that. It wafted into my suitcase and followed me home to the States, reminding me that I couldn’t ignore India anymore. So I dove into books, trying to understand the country I had disregarded my entire life, the land from which my father had come 43 years ago, which has so transformed that my parents no longer recognize it.
Some books were recommended; some were time-honored classics, some I simply stumbled across in the library, and many, many are missing, yet to be discovered and read. All helped me understand a little slice of this booming nation.
Here are a few of them:
"A Suitable Boy," by Vikram Seth. A brick of a book, weighing in at 1,474 pages, this novel reads like one long, sweet lyrical love note to India. It is, at its core, a love story, the tale of a young girl’s attempts to find love – and her mother’s attempts to secure a "suitable boy." It unfolds against the backdrop of a newly independent India preparing for General Elections, struggling to establish itself in the world, and eager to chart its own future. (A sweet surprise – the table of contents is written as a poem.)