A Trip to the Taj
There is something sexy about the term: “international student.” It’s an integral part of my identity, writ into my scholarly badge…For the past six years in California, I have rarely introduced myself simply as a graduate student; I’m importantly an “international student-from India.” And yet, I understand this term but little. It now feels as if it alienates me as much from the land here, as it makes me homeless in the land I left behind.
This January, my fiancé and I went to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra. We somehow made it out of the intense fog that was draped over the highway between Delhi and Agra, through a perilous journey with a driver who only the mildest person could describe as a speed demon. I would describe him as a driver with a death wish. I had visited the Taj only once before (at age 5), though it has, metaphorically speaking, been in my backyard as I grew up. Therefore, this was a particularly exciting trip, especially since I would be able to share what promised to be a magical experience with him (Jonathan, that is, not my driver).
As we entered the Agra city limits, I was struck by the stark poverty: with between 2 and 4 million tourists pouring in annually, one would have imagined at least some money would have ended up in developing the area. In any event, we reached the Taj’s parking lot (about a mile from the Taj), and then hired a camel carriage to take us to closer to the monument. The carriage driver (what else do I call him?) kept up a steady stream of historically minded (and mindless) chatter with me in Hindi, which bothered us terribly (Jonathan’s American, and knows no Indian languages yet, so he couldn’t understand). Finally, I shut up the driver/guide with an exasperated sigh, starting a loud conversation with Jonathan so that the pseudo-guide couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
We got down at the entrance to the Taj, where we were both feeling the thrill of anticipation. I lined up at the ticket counter, and shelled out Rs 20 for me, and Rs 750 for Jonathan (there are different prices for Indians and foreigners). Armed with the tickets, we queued up in the segregated lines. Several women in groups passed before me through the security line with little or no comment from the security guard: in fact, he was barely looking up. As I handed him my ticket, I said: “यह लीजिये, भाई” (Take this, brother.) He looked up-and I smiled into his eyes. He looked me over quickly, and said-“ID दिखाइए” (Show me your ID). I continued in Hindi, “क्या? क्यों?” (What? Why?). He stared coolly at me and said that I needed to show my Indian ID since I was holding an Indian ticket. I fired off in rapid Hindi: I am a Delhiite, I come from two hours away, brother, what do you mean? Listen to my Hindi, listen to me…how could I not be from Delhi? And you didn’t ask anyone else for their ID! He didn’t budge: Show me your ID. My voice cracked as I said, I study in America but I am an Indian citizen. Listen to my Hindi, brother, I am not carrying my passport but you can hear from my tongue that I am Indian. I am a Delhiite. He said-produce your ID or buy the foreigner’s ticket.
Shaking with horror, I called out to Jonathan, and seeing the anger in his eyes was almost as unbearable as the pain throbbing in my heart. He wanted to go talk to the guard, but my instinct was-I wanted to see my monument. I went back to the counter, and my hands shaking and my voice breaking, I explained what had happened, saying: “”यह अन्याय है, आपको पता है यह अन्याय है” (This is injustice, sir, you know this is injustice.) The man at the counter didn’t say a word-though I could tell he clearly sympathized with my plight. I walked away saying, You just have to listen to me speak Hindi to know I am from here. Look at me, I am from here. A Caucasian woman behind me was shocked at what happened and murmured her disgust. I walked away, feeling like my very citizenship had been snatched from me. My tongue had been made foreign, I had been made foreign. I felt cheapened holding the new, glossy, and expensive ticket in my hands.
When I went back, there was a new guard there, and after I went through the metal detectors, I stood on the side and cried. I’m a proud citizen and passport holder from India-my homeland-MY HOMELAND-MY HOMELAND. And I was holding a foreigner’s ticket. A. foreigner’s. ticket. I would have paid a thousand Rupees more to have received the Indian ticket.
It’s a sexy term, that one-“international student.”