[Column] Stranger in a strange land

Our new columnist Vishal Onkhar found that since his arrival in the Netherlands, he is more in touch than ever with his Indian roots.

Vishal Onkhar: “Rembrandt’s forays into Indian drawing techniques might have guided his hand in The Jewish Bride, a copy of which hangs in the hallways of 3mE.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

I had a rather curious discussion with a friend recently. He had just graduated with his master’s degree from TU Delft, and had visited his family in India for the first time in over two years. During his stay on the subcontinent, he told me he felt … out of place, like he did not belong, despite being in territory that was decidedly familiar. After all, he had lived in his home town of Bangalore for 22 years before moving to Delft! The feeling was akin to one of discomfort, he said, an inability to fit into his old lifestyle or interact with those around him in the same way as before. He blamed his long absence from the country.

This news was troubling. Particularly because his experiences seemed to be a grim omen of my own to come, given that I too hadn’t been back in a couple of years. It reminded me quite a bit of the Turkish film, Körfez (The Gulf), which I had the good fortune to catch at the Rotterdam Film Festival some months previously, and which had remained in my mind’s eye ever since. In the movie, the protagonist’s sense of malaise caused by him being back home in Izmir led to a bout of aimlessness, with disastrous consequences. He realised his extended stay in Istanbul had changed him fundamentally, not unlike how Delft had changed my friend, and probably me as well. The film ended with hints of optimism – shots of tortoises tirelessly inching forward in places they had no business being in – like malls, hospitals and dumps. Clearly, these were intended to convey that with time and perseverance, things would go back to the way they were, no matter how different we had become. Easier said than done, for time was a luxury I would not have on short trips back to the motherland. And since I planned to work in the Netherlands after my studies, short trips would be all I could afford.

I found that I spent a lot of my time listening to Indian music

As our conversation drew to a close, I grew reflective of how Delft had changed the person I thought I was. It struck me that since my arrival in the Netherlands, I was more in touch than ever with my Indian roots. I found that I spent a lot of my time listening to Indian classical music, tuning in to Indian radio, following Indian politics, and watching Indian movies – activities I never originally pursued. Further, it dawned on me that I had inadvertently switched my preferred language of communication with my closest friends from English to Tamil. All this had happened as I was simultaneously imbibing Dutch habits and culture! So it was hardly a simple case of homesickness. In the space of two years, I had matured into a person whose identity drew heavily on two cultures, but likely at the cost of never fully fitting into either one of them!

At first, I thought that this was detrimental, that I was so far along this transformation that my future visits to India would leave me feeling like a foreigner in my own country. But on further consideration, I realised that that was not so bad after all. I had this newfound desire to be a tourist in my native city of Chennai, to visit its popular destinations that I had once taken for granted, to explore its streets and wander through neighbourhoods I had not frequented, and to sample cuisines I had once found unsavoury. No matter that I did not settle into the comfort of my usual routine; I would cherish the joy of rediscovering my beginnings and noticing that which I once overlooked! I would be a stranger in a strange land.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD in Vehicle Engineering at TU Delft. He is an avid player of chess and video games, but he also harbours a special interest for reading and writing fantasy fiction. He doesn’t drink coffee but good music and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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