by Huma Munshi
Ten years ago, I travelled to India with my parents to get married to a man I had met only a handful of times. This was not a marriage in any real sense of the word; it was done without my consent and despite my many protestations. I left that “marriage” but I have never fully recovered from that trauma and I am not entirely sure I ever will. Ironically, for a time which has had such a profound impact, my memories of my “wedding day” and the days leading up to this, are fractured – I can remember snippets but not the entire narrative.
Much has happened to me since that trip then but one of my biggest fears is to be a victim again: to feel powerless; to lose control over my life, to lose my liberty. So going back to India, which I did on New Year, was always going to be a very emotionally difficult time. Indeed, I was filled with a fear that I would have flashbacks from that time.
Some may wonder why I decided to make the journey, particularly if it was to cause me such distress. I had resisted for a long time, but had finally decided that it was time to create new memories of India and a new narrative. It cannot be the case that a part of my identity – I am of Indian heritage – can continue to be a symbol of my oppression and I associate it with the violence that was inflicted on my physical and spiritual self.
In fact, the trip would always be something different, I realise now. It was done with a supportive friend; I would be able to appreciate the culture without any familial expectations; I was not being married against my will; it was not happening again – I was safe.
One of my favourite books about India is called Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. The writer, Suketu Mehta, eloquently depicts how he fell in love with Mumbai all over again after a period of feeling alienated by its chaos, poverty, inefficient bureaucracy and corruption. It was a title that would come back to me time and time again, as I travelled the country
What everyone will tell you when they land in any city in India, if they are travelling from the west, is the sensory impact of being in a place, which is so foreign in every way. From the smells that hit you to the dry heat, from the noise – the car and scooter horns are a constant backdrop – to the dust that clings to you; and the images that stay with you long afterwards, there is the child with the brown eyes knocking on the car door begging for some rupees and the family living on the railway with their meagre belongings.
I could ramble on about the many complexities, beauty and the utterly seductive nature of this country, but for the sake of brevity I will focus on three elements.
The first of these is survival. What is striking about India, with a population of 1.27 billion, is that everyone is fighting and clamouring for survival. It is a cliché to talk about the juxtaposition of the riches enjoyed by a fraction of the country with the abject poverty the other part of the country live in. But it is glaringly obvious in every way as you travel.
As we drove around the country, young children and adults trying to sell all manner of products, from the latest books to costume jewellery, to clothes to peanuts, constantly approached us. Every possible item is there to be sold and every person is trying to grab your attention so they can be the recipients of your well-worn rupee notes.
The second thing I was struck by, was the obsession India has with colourism and skin tone. I deliberately use the word India in its entirety because it seems to permeate every sphere of the country. In the hotel that I stayed in in Delhi, alongside the bottles of miniature shampoo and body wash, was a bottle of “skin lightening cream.” The advertisements on the television were full of products with the promise that, if used, they would make the person “fair and lovely”. This legacy of colonialism, where the ideal of beauty is determined by your skin tone, remains strong. This is also linked to income and class. Middle and upper class Indians have the means of buying these products and staying out of the glaring sun to keep their skin as light as possible. For those Indian people experiencing poverty they have no choice but to go out to work in the afternoon sun, with little or no access to these (appalling) skin lightening products. So skin tone can denote both how ‘attractive’ you are and your class.
My final observation of India is that its beauty struck me. I don’t mean beauty, which is necessarily aesthetically pleasing. I mean the beauty in seeing a cow walk through a busy road, unharmed and sanguine; the beauty of the colours of the glass bangles sold in the markets that catch your eye; the beauty of the sprawling square of the clock tower in Jaipur. There is also a sense that despite its chaos, (and there seems to be so much chaos!) that somehow it all works.
I will end my first column of 2014 with a note of hope. India was once a place I associated with the oppression and horror of a marriage ceremony I undertook against my expressed wishes. My journey back has helped me redefine what this country now represents for me and perhaps, in turn, I can understand and accept my heritage as something that is no longer a source of fear or shame.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
Invictus by William Ernest Henley
 I know I say this as an outsider.
She has written widely on honour based violence, mental health, film and intersectionality. This weekly column will reflect her passion for activism, a feminism that reflects her own experiences as an Asian Muslim woman, film reviews and current affairs. Read more of her articles here.