I was born in India. What can I say about India that hasn’t already been said about this big, beautiful country, where the culture and history run so deep that the people there have been killing each other for centuries and centuries? India is the most interesting, smelly, soulful melting pot of too many things and too many people I have ever seen. And the food is so good, the people so kind.
But India failed women and India failed me.
When I moved to the United States on a scholarship to go to Bard College in upstate New York in August 2009, I still had my high school hair (bangs) and my high school boyfriend. I did not know anything about America. When I arrived at the John F Kennedy airport, I was alarmed and traumatised to learn that you had to rent the luggage carts for $5. At the time, this converted to about Rs 250 and luggage carts were always free at Indian airports. How was I going to earn Rs 250 back for my parents? My parents had saved up for years so that my brother and I could pursue this life, and I couldn’t even drag two suitcases around on my own. I felt guilty as well as poor.
When I arrived at Bard later that same week, I found myself confused about whether I was under-dressed or over-dressed. Hipsters were trending that year, and I looked around the campus and thought to myself, “they must all be here on scholarship.”
In my first class at Bard, First Year Seminar, or FYSEM, we talked about Hegel. I had not done any of the reading, because I had started to and then didn’t understand a word of what Hegel was trying to say. All I could think, as my peers used big words to discuss and refute Hegel’s ideas, was Hegel rhymes with Kegel. It was going to be a long four years.
In the years following my not learning anything about Hegel in FYSEM, many things changed for me. I studied math and also became a convincing BS-er. Every semester I signed up for as many classes as I could fit in my schedule. I learned how to sit at a big round table and say things in a way that made it seem like I knew what I was talking about, and soon enough I was able to make a convincing argument about pretty much anything. I also learned how to drink irresponsibly and still live to experience the hangover the next day. In other words, I became college educated.
What changed the most for me, though, was how I thought about my own country. I was about eight thousand miles away from my parents, from the house that they had moved to in Mumbai that had never felt like home. Every time I flew back in college – a total of three times – I started to feel more and more isolated from my country. I felt anxious when I flew in that direction, and relieved when I flew back. When I made it past the mean but mostly bored Customs and Border Protection employees at JFK, I breathed. I felt free.
The last time I flew back to India, almost six years ago now, I was a senior in college, about to graduate. When I stepped out of Mumbai’s international airport, into the humid but cool “winter” air, my father did not recognise me. My mother would later joke but not joke that my father had pointed at every young woman walking out of the arrivals area, except me, and enthusiastically exclaimed, “there she is!”
When I sat in my parents’ shiny new Honda that they were so proud of, they asked me about my flight, and then asked me if I was ready to get married. They were joking, but I told them no, I was not.
Then what was my plan? they wanted to know. I was about to graduate from college, what was next? How was I going to survive? I’ll be fine, I said, you watch. I didn’t know that I was going to be fine, but found myself saying so in a small voice anyway. They relented, I relented.
I looked out of the window, onto the familiar streets of the city I was born in, a city I once loved.
I spent much of that winter break in my parents’ apartment, in the bedroom that was only mine when I was there. I volunteered with Teach for India during the day, but spent the evenings in my room. My parents didn’t allow me to leave the house alone after dark, because India was not safe for women, and I didn’t know my way around the city. Sexual assault and violence against women was a well-known fact in India, and it was about to become a world-famous fact too.
I felt oppressed. Not by my parents, but by the weight of being a female in a country that didn’t know what to do with its women. I wondered what it would be like if I ended up having to move back. But if I had to, I would be able to do it, I told myself. India wasn’t made for women, so what, I had to live, right?
On December 16, 2012, a girl who became known as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless,” was gang-raped, tortured and beaten by six men on a bus in South Delhi. She was 23 years old, a physiotherapy intern, and was coming home from watching a movie with her friend on the night of her assault. I watched with the rest of the country, and soon enough the rest of the world, as the gruesome details of the incident unraveled. When Nirbhaya died a few days later in a hospital in Singapore, we were all stunned into silence, but only for a minute. Then there was anger, and grief, and protests. People took to the streets across the country and asked the bigger questions – how could we live in a place where the circumstances allowed something like this to happen? How could this happen? How could men do this to women?
Then there were the anti-protesters, the ones who blame women, the ones who think nothing is wrong. That’s a lot of people in India, and the world, unfortunately. I guess this is what happens when a country is shaken like this, we become polarised. But, at least we see each other.
My departure day for the United States was fast approaching. I counted down the days, because my anguish had turned into sickness and anger. I hated India. Nibhaya’s death represented something bigger, for me and the rest of the country. I grew up accepting that I would have to adjust my lifestyle around men, their advances, their violence. It happened every day in India. Women were brutally raped, assaulted and killed on a daily basis, sometimes in cities, many times in remote, isolated villages and towns. Those incidents, we would never find out about.
The police and government participated and enabled. It was terrible, but no one wanted to become a statistic. So we went on.
After Nirbhaya’s death, there was a public outcry for change. And there was, in fact, some change. The maximum punishment for rape became the death penalty, instead of life imprisonment. The leaders acknowledged that the government and the police had failed. Some of the things we already knew were spoken out loud. This was hardly compensation, but it was something, a dialogue, at least. Finally.
But, the issue with systemic oppression and cultural bias is that change is not enough. You have to undo the damage already done. You have to look inwards, and ask the harder questions. What were the messages Bollywood had been teaching us for decades? What had our history taught us about men, and women? What were our own biases?
Driving to the airport in Mumbai in January of 2013, I decided not to come back. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. Immigration, especially for Indians in the US was an uphill journey. Every year thousands of Indians, and other immigrants returned to their home countries who did not want to return.
But I was going to find a way. If not the United States, somewhere else. I could never again live in a country where, to some, to many, I was less than a human.
My resolve to stay out of India ruined my psychological well-being for a few years, as these things go. I would not go back. But now, instead of being up against potentially violent Indian men, I was up against the United States Customs and Immigration Service and the Department of Homeland Security.
After graduating from Bard later that year, I went on to work at a private boarding school in a small city in New England as a high school math teaching fellow. The programme was a two-year fellowship, through which I earned a master’s degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania. My coworkers were smart and kind, my students bearable on most days, and the opportunity almost too good to be true. The school worked with me to extend my visa, and I was grateful, as this meant that I was not buying that one-way ticket to Mumbai. Yet.
But I was unhappy. The truth was that I had accepted this job because it kept me out of India, not because I wanted to teach. When it came time to apply for jobs the fall of my second year, I applied for teaching jobs again, because this just made sense. On interviews, the people on the other end of the phone asked me why I wanted to teach. I told them about that time that student who hated math discovered that she loved math in my class, or how I enjoyed teaching my students about Graph Theory in a Geometry class, and how teaching math had taught me to look at math differently. I became pretty good at my “why I want to teach” speech.
But I didn’t want to teach. I just wanted to stay the hell out of India.
I eventually accepted a job teaching high school math at a private school in Minneapolis. When I flew into Minneapolis for the interview, it was early February. I had never been that cold in my life, but looking around the city, the lakes, the tall, bundled-up people, I thought, “Sure. Why not?”
The school in Minneapolis invested thousands of dollars into hiring lawyers who put my packet for the H-1B visa together. The H-1B is a work visa that American companies apply for every year to hire foreign talent. The applications go through a lottery, and every year 65,000 applications are accepted for review.
In 2015, the year that my application was sent in, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services received 172,500 applications for the 65,000 slots. Mine, of course, didn’t make it through the lottery. I suppose sometimes the universe steps in.
The day I received the news, I went to my long block class in the afternoon and taught something about vectors, maybe.
I had applied to graduate programs in computer science on the side, being the type of person who covers her bases. I was not a good candidate, since I hadn’t studied computer science as an undergraduate. I had written a small program in Java for my senior math project at Bard, and knew a thing or two about web development. I wouldn’t have accepted me.
The only school I was accepted to in the end was the University of Southern California. It was the only way I would be able to stay in America, so I moved to California.
The master’s programme at USC was my biggest failure to date. The programme had been marketed toward people who didn’t have a background in computer science – me. When I arrived on campus, I found myself surrounded by mostly Indian and Chinese people who had studied computer science or worked in technology for years. I knew why they were there; it was the same reason I was there. I passed my classes, but barely, even though I studied every day, all day. This had never happened to me before. A couple months into working for my boss John at my campus job, I quit, holding back tears of shame. I would have to drop out and go back to India. I had failed in my own mission. That fall, the only thing I looked forward to was the moment I could fall asleep every night.
In the meantime, the US Army had opened up a programme enabling non-US citizens and non-permanent residents to naturalise through the Army.
I joined the United States Army at 23, feeling that I was out of options. It was the toughest decision of my life, but I made it overnight, me on this side of the world, my family on the other side, all of us apprehensive, but somehow sure. I enlisted in the Army Reserves in November 2015. I dropped out of USC in December.
A few months later, having completed basic training, I swore in as an American citizen in the uniform of my newly adopted country’s army, in front of a couple thousand soldiers and civilians. I wondered what lay ahead of me. New struggles, probably. Better struggles, in my mind. Struggles I could handle.
I’m an American now. But America has problems too. I worry for people of colour, for women, for people in the LGBTQ community, for people who find themselves in the line of fire of a psychopath’s gun on a Sunday night at a concert, or at a church, or at a club, or on the street. I worry for people who have been systemically oppressed, people who are up against forces greater than them. I know what this is like.
But, if I need to leave my house at 3 in the morning to drive to drill 100 miles away, I do. When I am out late at night, I don’t worry too much about coming home alone. I forget to text my mother sometimes that I am okay, but when I forget, she forgives me, because I live here, and not there.
I have not returned to India since the winter of Nirbhaya’s death. I will go back someday soon, so I can see my parents and my four-foot-11-inch-tall grandmother. But I will be coming back, to where I can breathe. Even if it’s just LA’s dry, dusty, smoggy air.
Correction and clarification: This article originally appeared with the headline ‘First person: I loved India. But after Nirbhaya’s rape and murder, I decided to leave it forever’.
This article first appeared on Quartz.