Bollywood Boy Goes to India

by Stephen Munzer ’17

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

As the taxi driver swerved around another truck into oncoming traffic for the third time, I found myself in awe. I had made it. I was finally in India. It was beautiful. I looked outside at the Rajasthani desert sprawled out before me and tried not to scream as the driver floored it once more.

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People usually ask me if I’ve been immersed in Indian language and culture my whole life. And it always seems to come as quite a shock when I explain that it’s only been a short while, and that, yes, I am sure that I am not (to the best of my knowledge) part-Indian. Yes, I can tell the difference between a Bombay accent and a Delhi accent; I know that a dosa without sambar and chutney is no dosa; and I have strong opinions on Ranbir Kapoor’s and Katrina Kaif’s rumored engagement announcement. But I am still no expert, and I never will be. I am just someone who loves and appreciates other cultures, and I hope to be able to share my passion and excitement with others.

My fascination with Indian culture began two years ago, in what, I imagine, is probably a rather typical way for foreigners: Bollywood. I wasn’t expecting to like it – I’m not usually a fan of musicals. Lacking both physical coordination and any semblance of rhythm or pitch, I usually try my best to stay away from dancing and singing.

However, senior spring rolled around and I was desperately looking for a way to procrastinate instead of studying for AP Exams. Unsurprisingly, my small-town Massachusetts suburb didn’t have much to offer in that respect. At the suggestion of a few friends, I decided to finally give in and watch a Bollywood movie. You can imagine my surprise when, halfway through the movie, I was blinking away tears, clinging to the white text flashing across the bottom of the screen. I don’t usually cry, but when I do, it’s because I’m watching “Jab We Met.”

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Admittedly, it took me a while to grasp that these films were not an accurate depiction of India. Obviously, I knew that prancing around on snow-covered mountains in sarees wasn’t particularly realistic and that every romantic relationship wasn’t necessarily a love triangle. Nevertheless, just like any new thing, our preconceptions are based on our exposure and experiences. Looking back, I realize that I was lucky enough to have a great group of friends, who were willing to share the movies and culture with me, but at the same time, explain and remind me that it was mostly movie magic and to take everything with (very) large handfuls of salt. After I –a little grudgingly– threw away any romantic preconceptions of India that these movies had instilled in me, rather than feeling disappointed, I felt inexplicably excited to explore the culture behind the scenes. As I’ve always had a particular fascination with languages and their ability to foster a connection between people of different backgrounds, I figured I’d start there.

Therefore, I’d love to say that my foray into learning Hindi was purposefully planned and premeditated. Instead it was the result of really bad luck in the first year seminar lottery here at Brown. After a summer full of feasting on really spicy snacks in a friend’s living room as we streamed Indian movies, I decided I might as well attempt to learn Hindi. After a few too many instances of pretending to understand what was funny as the audience around me roared with laughter, I realized that the subtitles were lacking (as was my dignity). When the end of the summer rolled around and I had to pick a first year seminar class, I saw Hindi and figured I might as well put it on my list. Being a personal interest, as opposed to an academic one, I put it as my last choice, figuring that I probably wouldn’t even get it.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

I was wrong. To my great astonishment, I managed to get a lottery number (reminiscent of my housing lottery numbers these past few years) so low that all three of my top choices were already filled. Being a naïve freshman, I was unfamiliar with the appeal process. It was settled: I was going to be taking Hindi after all. The first class was as humbling as it was inspiring. I couldn’t pronounce anything correctly and the script looked impossibly difficult. When I was asked to speak, thanks to Bollywood and an optimistic friend, I could only say, “I love you” and “My heart beats for you.” Suffice to say, neither of those are appropriate to say to your Hindi professor.

Yet, I learned to love the language. Over time, I came to know how to tell the difference between the four T’s and D’s, how to nasalize my consonants to make words plural, and how to aspirate my sounds so I made sure never to mistakenly call myself “a horse”, i.e. “ghoda” instead of “white”, i.e. “gora”. After a few months, being able to understand and speak the language was immensely empowering. I finally learned that the subtitles are horrible. Re-watching only a few movies, I felt like I was watching a completely different film. There were so many linguistic nuances that had been lost, elements of cultural irony that had been glossed over.

Moreover, I’ve always found something extremely rewarding about being able to speak someone’s mother tongue, especially when they least expect it. The look of joy and appreciation (often accompanied by shock, in my case) makes it all worth it. It fosters a mutual respect on each of our parts. On mine, for not attempting to always fit those around me into comfortable (English) molds, and on theirs, for correcting my pronunciations and teaching me new words. But when I was in India, it was all about the little things: being able to order something by yourself at a restaurant, being able to hold your ground in a bargain, being able to thank a local boy in his own language for trying his best to get the awkward foreigner – me – to dance.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Photo courtesy of Stephen Munzer.

Through studying the language, I began to learn more about Indian culture and traditions. For example, I learnt that when eating home-cooked Indian food, no matter how many ways you manipulate the language to say you aren’t hungry, more food is always piled onto your plate. Furthermore, nonverbal communication is just as important – the headshake really can mean, “yes,” “no,” and “maybe.” Lastly, as emphasized by the fact that Hindi has the same word for “yesterday” and “tomorrow,” Indian Standard Time is at least 30 minutes later than what is planned. Looking back, my “bad luck” in Brown’s first year seminar lottery, turned out to be some of the best luck I’ve ever had.

It’s been less than two years since I’ve immersed myself in Indian culture, and I’ve been extremely lucky and am very thankful to have been welcomed with open arms. Thanks to my friends, I’ve played Holi, danced Garba, and lit a diya during Diwali. I’ve eaten Indian food so spicy that I teared up and I’ve watched more Bollywood than I thought possible. But when I was actually invited to visit India, I was awestruck. No longer would I have to rely on the skewed representations in books and movies. I would finally have the chance to experience it all for myself.

My trip to India was (I am trying and failing not to be too cliché) the time of my life. I made traditional Indian sweets in an ancient temple in Udaipur, rode an elephant, hailed an auto-rickshaw, tried paan (sweet betel leaf), haggled over souvenirs in markets, got “Delhi belly”, visited Amer Fort and the wind and water palaces of Jaipur, boated around the Taj Lake Palace and the enclaves of the Udaipur royal family, and even brushed shoulders with the likes of Shilpa Shetty and Parineeti Chopra – big time Bollywood stars.

While I got to see many parts of India, I know that I only scratched the surface. I know that there is still so much that I don’t understand and there are some things I will never understand. I was born and raised in a different part of the world with different norms and different values. I consider this neither good nor bad, but simply an important reminder that my perspective is, and always will be, one shaped by a different culture, and therefore, limited.

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As the driver continued to speed down the highway, I looked around the van for something to eat. I opened a bag of warm banana chips and bit one hesitantly. All of a sudden the horn blared and the car lurched forward once more. “Yup,” I thought. “This is definitely real. India, are you ready for me?”