Half a world away

Srinath Perur | Updated on April 18, 2014

The words ‘home away from home’ take a life of their own on the storied shores of Mexico

Today, it’s inevitable that we find traces of home no matter where in the world we travel to. Going exactly halfway around the world to Mexico, I expected to find connections with India, but was still taken aback by the insistence with which home seemed to be following me around.

The distance between India and Mexico is shortened by their occupying similar latitudes. The quality of light and the length of a day — things that create an ambient sense of place — are indistinguishable from India. The two countries share a similar climate, and as a result, compatible flora, which led to the discovery of a personal psycho-botanical minefield that I didn’t even know existed.

You see, there used to be a creeper that grew at home in Bangalore and produced enormous quantities of an insipid gourd known locally as seeme badnekaayi (or chow chow in other places). Our desire not to let any of its fruit go waste was so intense that for a while we ate its tasteless curry almost every day. I can only surmise now that the creeper for me became associated with a certain compulsively prudent way of life from which I had to escape. I learnt just how deeply the creeper had got under my skin when, standing on a balcony in Mexico, I was shaken in all sorts of way upon seeing familiar heart-shaped leaves sprawled across the vista. Agitated enquiries revealed that the plant is native to Mexico and known there as chayote. Then, another plant from my childhood made a surprise appearance: parthenium, a weed that used to occupy empty plots everywhere in Bangalore, and which I had spent many hours wading through looking for lost cricket balls. It too was native to these parts, and one of the first photographs I took in Mexico was that of a parthenium plant.

The auto-rickshaw has always seemed idiosyncratically Indian to me. Driving through the State of Oaxaca, I began to see in the smaller towns these chariots of the Indian middle class. They were brightly coloured here, and I stopped to ask one of the drivers which company made them. “Baahah,” he said. A tiny plate at the front read Bajaj.

Mexico also happened to be full of people who could pass off as Indian. This I was able to overlook until it turned out that some of them were actually Indian. One night, at a roadside snack-stall in Mexico City that looked like any other, I heard a voice ask in Spanish for masala tostada. It was a group of Indians. Switching to Hindi they told me that the stall had become popular among Indians because “Pure veg hai,’’ and with the clientele came their tastes. It served Mexican snacks, but with extra vegetables and lashings from a bottle of pav bhaji masala. If Indo-Mex takes off as a cuisine, this might well be where it all started.

Even the non-Indians I hung out with turned out to be Indian in their own way. The friend I was staying with in Mexico City is a yoga teacher, and so I made my acquaintance with the yoga community there. I went to a birthday party that had a local ‘satsang band’ lead the singing of chants and mantras in bravely enunciated Sanskrit with projected images of Hindu gods. The audience sat on the floor with their glasses of wine and obeyed blissfully when asked to close their eyes and place their right hands on their hearts. One young woman was so overcome by the mood she took her shirt off and began belly dancing to a bhajan with Ganesha looking on cheerfully from the wall. This customised adoption of a distant sacred culture seemed less about the culture and more about their own identity. This was rebellion. But then, it negated my own rebellion in every possible way. Soon it was discovered that I had a little Sanskrit from school, and a week later I found myself delivering a talk on Sanskrit pronunciation for Spanish speakers. All together, I’ve probably chanted Om more times in Mexico than I have in India. Visiting someone’s house I saw the perfect symbol for what I was experiencing — a laterally inverted Om sticker proudly affixed to the front door.

My compatriot the Dalai Lama, whom I’ve never seen in India, came visiting. He spoke of the need to pause and reflect at a raucous football stadium with vendors selling pizzas and soft drinks in the stands. Once when he paused for breath, a woman pierced the silence with “Te amo, Dalai!” Outside, it was like any other rock concert: free passes were being sold in black, the merchandise stalls had stocked themselves with rosaries and CDs, T-shirts, cigarette lighters and tequila glasses that bore the beaming visage of the Dalai Lama.

After a period of running into India and Indians by accident, I felt I might as well actively seek them out. It turns out that Indians have a long history in Mexico. One of the earliest Indians on record as having visited Mexico is a woman named Meera, born in North India around the end of Akbar’s reign. She made her dramatic way to Mexico via Kochi and Manila, courtesy the Portuguese, and ended up as a nun in Puebla. Her mystical visions were of sufficient quality for her to be regarded as a local saint, and she was later made into an archetype of Mexican womanhood known as La China Poblana. Legend even credits the traditional attire of Mexican women as having been inspired by Meera’s saree-influenced dress sense.

In more recent times, there was Pandurang Khankhoje, who after an extraordinary life as Ghadar revolutionary, worked in Mexico for three decades as an agricultural scientist. He chose to live and work in Mexico because it reminded him of India, which he could not return to while the British still ruled. His instinct about Mexico being an agronomic home-away-from-home may have been validated, shortly after his death, by the Green Revolution in India, which began with a strain of wheat developed for Mexico (though not by him). I made a trip to the Education Secretariat in Mexico City where a wall bears Diego Rivera’s tribute to Khankhoje: a mural showing him distributing bread to the nations of the world.

Some Indian friends living in the US happened to visit Mexico on vacation while I was there. On the track of another Indian revolutionary who spent time in Mexico City in the early twentieth century, we ended up one rainy night in front of a rundown building in the Roma district. It used to be the house of MN Roy, who can be said to have founded the communist parties of both India and Mexico. Now, it is one of the most exclusive nightclubs of Mexico City, called MN Roy after its one-time inhabitant. Inside, it is remodelled in leather, wood, copper and stone in soaring pyramidical configurations, a decadently chic evocation of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic roots. We were five Indians looking for a piece of our own history, and were finally let into the members-only club. We stood for a while amidst empty low tables and outlandish interiors and walked back out into the rain.

Khankhoje and Roy eventually came back to India much-changed. Most of our travels are shorter and less charged than theirs, of course. But if we think of all travel as flight from home, home may not really be in pursuit. It may be we who set out with eyes for home, seeking its refractions in distant lands so we may return changed and to a different place.

( Srinath Perur is the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai: A Conducted Tour of India.)

Published on January 25, 2014

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