Onam festival kicked off between my time in Palakkad and Kochi, with the big feast of sadhya. Onam, is an annual harvest festival, and is one of Kerala’s most important holidays. It’s similar to Christmas to us Americanized Christians: There’s the figure King Mahabali, an actual key figure. He’s kind of like Santa Claus. Everyone says, “Happy Onam!” and gets in the festive spirit. Neighborhood kids in Palakkad played street games like tug of war and seeing who can get from one end to the next while threading a needle.
The ashram held an Ayurvedic sadhya. The next day, the hotel I stayed in Olive Downtown hosted a special 32-course sadhya. I think I stopped at about 16 courses.
INDULGING IN SOME AMERICANNESS
After spending nearly two weeks in a country and a culture and language not of my own, I kinda needed a little reintroduction into my own Americanness. I could have gone out. But unlike Fort Kochi, Mainland Kochi wasn’t made for foreign tourists to just walk around. Even the streets are a challenge to Northern Indians. My hotel room was too kind to me to part ways. I had a fabulous room with buttons for everything. An incredible shower that featured a very cheeky floor-to-ceiling window near the bed, international cable that showed some American programming. And excellent room service, and an excellent view of downtown Kochi.
One of the things I really missed about the U.S. was seeing dark-skinned people in media. Seriously. It was jarring to see hundreds of beautiful dark-skinned people. Yet, I’d see commercials, music videos, print ads, movies, with either light-skinned or nearly white-looking Indian people. We in the U.S. cuss and fuss about the underrepresentation of people of color—including dark-skinned folks. If we get Viola Davis, Lupita Nyong’o, Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Hannibal Buress, Idris Elba in mainstream media—it’s because we talk about it. We force the conversation, even if others don’t want to have it. That, I missed.
I LOVE YOU INDIA, BUT WE NEED SOME TIME APART
"I CANNOT ASSERT OR ASSUME A FICTIVE KINSHIP THAT IS NOT THERE. THAT'S MY BLACK AMERICAN PRIVILEGE."
My travels to Europe, Costa Rica, South Africa, Brazil, and Australia, have a afforded me a kind of privilege. That I could meet anyone from the African diaspora and immediately connect. If asserted any privilege, it was mine about India. I thought there would be some kind of fictive kinship. Thinking,
Oh, they are dark like me, we’ll relate.
I cannot assert or assume a fictive kinship that is not there. That’s my black American privilege.
Given that, I don’t think I have ever been to country where strangers are allowed to openly stare at foreigners. I have been to Australia where I don’t look like anyone. At least when people caught me looking back, they smiled or diverted their gaze. I had been invited several times to return, especially to the ashram. And I really want to. But frankly, this might be the first country I’ve been where I did not want to return. The staring alone was too much. Like a fellow foreigner said, it feels like being an animal in a circus where everyone is staring at how different you are. The measure of a country’s friendliness to visitors should not be measured in its hospitality. But by those who don’t know you, will never know you, and treat you with the dignity they would want.
So maybe we’re not ready to see each other again. India has an incredibly nuanced cuisine. The landscapes are almost unreal. The eye for color and detail indicates an intelligence in taste. But far too many eyes and words have lingered on my body and mind to make me think I am unwelcome. With time, I hope my feelings will change. I hope India’s will too.
Something also tends to happen the closer I get to leaving a country. It’s the mix of relief, regret, and regard. I got a moment to capture some of that on the way to the airport. Goodbye, India. For now.
Sela Lewis is the owner of Inherent Design by Sela Lewis (IDSL). She is a graphic designer, world traveler, feminist, a pretty decent cook, and a strong believer in the power of fashion and design. Sela has worked in such varied settings as commercial real estate, law firms, retail, and political campaigns. Currently she works in education advocacy. IDSL is based on the idea the strong design is set within the fibers of the work. More Sela: Inherent Design By Sela Lewis