Monday, Jun 05, 2023

Lessons From India

Lessons From India

An independent journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan writes about his experience of India and Indians after having studied history at Pune University.

Representative Image-Mumbai Airport.
Representative Image-Mumbai Airport. File photo

On 21 August 2011, I landed in the city of Mumbai from Sully. I took a taxi to Pune, where I planned to study for a master’s degree in history. I went out of the Mumbai airport and found myself in the largest crowd I had ever been in. It was raining. Cars honked and the smell of the wet ground was unbearable. Many cabbies looked at me and everyone wanted me to choose them, but I picked the one who helped me carry my luggage. When the cab moved out of the airport, I saw many people sleeping under the bridges, hundreds of thousands of vehicles, cycle rickshaws, and bikes in the streets, and many street sweepers cleaning the sidewalk. He drove in the hustle and bustle of the streets for a long time. During the three-hour drive from the airport to my destination, I wondered why the Iraqi Kurdish authorities back home could not manage to run three small provinces with the money and income they have. What if they had to rule a city like Mumbai, let alone the whole of India? I also thought about how long it would take to construct the bridges over bridges and the maze of streets and tunnels.

With the strange intense smell of the airport stuck in my head, I could not trust what I saw and I did not want to look at the heavy rain and greenish landscapes. Departing from the dry, scorching summer of Sully and arriving in the wet city of Mumbai within 15 hours, I felt dizzy and overwhelmed. The more I thought about the differences in weather and population the more I felt vertigo. These were the very early shocks I faced; later, I gleaned many differences in terms of politics, society, and culture.

Diving into the Deep End

I started my studies at Pune University. Pune is an incredible city, attracting many travellers and visitors. There were many Indian and international students studying in a plethora of colleges and universities. This is the reason why Pune is called “The Oxford of the East''. At the time of my studying, the population of the city was more than three million with a diverse range of cultures, religions, and languages.

The residents speak many dialects and languages. They also support many independent political parties, ideologies, and beliefs. They worship thousands of gods, and the gods, too, have different religions, creeds, and cultures. As a villager, I was quite shocked and could not digest all the differences.

My childhood and teenage years were shaped in my village. We had open communication channels only with the neighbouring villages, the district of Saidsadiq close by, and some of our relatives in Iranian Kurdistan. That was my universe and I could imagine the world only in that tiny area until I went to the University of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan.

All the villagers were Kurds, and most of them were my relatives. I was raised among people who spoke Kurdish and wore Kurdish clothes. Most of them zealously supported one political party and disliked the other parties and their supporters. Eating the same sort of foods: rice, meat, kidney beans, chicken with relish and thin Kurdish bread. Worshipping the same God and practising the Sunni Muslim way and the al-Shāfiʿī Madhhab, is one of the four major traditional schools of religious law in the Sunni branch of Islam. Starting a new life in India, I found myself going down a rabbit hole of difference and diversity.

Into uncharted waters

I got out of the taxi in the neighbourhood of Katraj, a suburb of Pune, where some Kurdish students sheltered me for two weeks. The first morning, I was woken up by the sound of drums, which reminded me of the holy month of Ramazan in the 1990s when Muslims were woken up by drums to take the dawn meal before fasting. I looked out of the window and saw a middle-aged woman playing the drums, several women were wearing different kinds of Indian clothes like sari, shalwar kameez and dhoti and were gathered around Miss Drummer. I didn't know what the occasion was and why they were wearing different types of clothes. I stared at them till they passed the building. This was something new.

In those days, I saw many people visit temples, churches, mosques, Atashkadeh (fire temples) and so on. They respected each other no matter what their religion was and they did not annoy and disturb one another. I saw lovers who loved one another deeply. The university professors were humble and friendly with students. Memories of one intellectual and helpful teacher Radhika Seshan stay with me. In Pune, I saw many poor, happy people.

Regardless of what country or region you are from, and what country you are going to, you probably face challenges, especially if the journey is for the purpose of studying. Lack of English language, finding a place to live, the education system, understanding cultural codes, body language and gestures, and eating spicy food were my challenges when I was studying in India.

English was the key issue. It was so difficult to communicate with people with my broken English though many of them were so kind to me. I did not get what my professors, especially, ‘Kadam Sir’ said to me. My Kurdish classmates, Khubaib and Hemin were my interpreters. Kadam Sir often gave me a hard time in order to learn English. “I will not let you pass this course for six years if you do not learn English,” he warned me one day. His bitter-sweet threat made me study hard and it was the first real stage of my life to become independent.

Spicy food, on the other hand, was another problem. I had to have a meal outside in my university days, but the extremely spicy food made me feel buzzed. “Please bring me whatever food you have but no spices-zero spicy,'' I begged the waiters each time. They shook their heads, “Theek aahe bhau” (‘Alright, brother’). He brought the food “Aha, zero spicy, very delicious,” he said. Trusting his word, I started eating. As my tongue touched the food, my mouth and the back of my throat burned. My lips were numbed and I hurried to drink water. This happened to me many times till I asked for yogurt with each meal to balance the spicy food. Later, I became a lover of spicy food.

A Country of Love and loyalty

The images of young Indian lovers will never leave my memory. On the second day of my new life in Pune, I strolled into a park on the main campus of Bharati university. I looked at everything: the statues of Indian leaders, activists, and artists. The design and architecture of the building. Lovers who sat underneath the trees or on the benches. I saw many lovers stare at each other with tears rolling down their cheeks. I did not know why they looked at each other like that. I was so inquisitive to know whether they were mad at each other or if it was an erotic moment.

I sat a few meters away from a couple. The boy wore an achkan and the girl wore shalwar kameez. Both cried and laughed at the same time. Both talked loudly in Marathi and then kept quiet. I glanced at them but did not understand anything.

Months later, I saw many couples sitting beneath the banyan trees, at cafes, and in cinemas, sinking into their romance. They smiled and stared at each other silently. The boys touched their chins with Rakhis tied on their wrists while the girls fiddled with their dupattas. I did not know how much they loved each other, but I understood the intimate moments in the mythical love story of Chitrangda and Arjuna or the real love between Bajirao and Mastani.

When I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, I was told about the story of the gorgeous building and how Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor of India, built it for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal in 1632. I realized where pure Indian love comes from. I understood that falling in love does not require elegant and luxurious clothes, modern cars, and palaces, in other words, love does not require to be shown off. Rather it only needs a pure heart, loyalty, confidence, and honesty.

A Country of Sweet Noise

After two Kurdish students and I rented three uncomfortable bedrooms in Bavdhan, another suburb of Pune, I planned how to get the right mindset and start studying because I had fallen behind. The next evening, I heard loud explosions and firecrackers, reminding me of my childhood during the Kurdish civil war in the 1990s.

Loud music interrupted me from studying and a wave of smoke came in through the windows. I did not know what was going on and how long it would take. My housemates told me it was Ganesh Chaturthi—a festival celebrating the birth of Lord Ganesha who is believed to be the remover of obstacles. I went out and saw several volunteers carrying Ganesha’s idol and hundreds of thousands gathered around, dancing and singing.

It was the first Indian festival I participated in and discovered how people enjoy their time. And then there were many more significant festivals: Navratri, Diwali, Christmas, Buddha Jayanti, and the rest of the other festivals came one by one.

On the one hand, the festivals were noisy and highly polluting. It was hard to live in that situation and study. In a larger sense, people expressed themselves through dancing, talking, and playing games. Instead of staying aloof, I participated in some of the events and I learned I had to be respectful and digest the diversity because it was someone’s belief that all festivals, rituals, and events bring happiness and delight.

Happiness, a three-step process

After each festival and ceremony, people returned to work. Poverty is the main feature of the majority of those people who celebrated the festivals. Some people earned less than 100 rupees which was a few dollars at the time and many had nowhere to live except the streets, but they were satisfied with their lives and knew how to bring about happiness.

I saw old women do difficult work: construction, spreading asphalt on the roads, and building houses. Despite looking exhausted, they laughed and enjoyed listening to music and eating in their small containers during their short breaks on the side of the road.

In addition, my classmates labored in the early morning, after that they came to class and then they studied at Jayakar Central Library of the university until it closed at 10 PM. Despite challenges, they enjoyed their humble lives: dancing, eating, and talking about cricket, movies, and TV shows.

I often asked my classmates, especially my favorite friend, Mahesh Makneh, how satisfied he was with his life. He usually said, “My life is excellent, my friend.” Conversely, he asked me how it was for me. I said it was very good, but it was not true. Every time, I compared my life with his and the other classmates. On the one hand, I was financially much better off than them. On the other hand, I was not satisfied with my life and did not know how to enjoy life. At parties, I thought about homework and studying and vice versa. In fact, I was jealous of them. But I found that they worked for the moments that they lived in; they did not worry about an illusionary future like me. Thinking about an illusionary future and forgetting the present moment used to be a part of my life. That was the cause of my stress and fears for several years until I came to India.

I had a fear of everything increasing in my region: population, houses, cars, and poverty. These were the issues that often play out in my mind. I was worried, stressed, and burned out about my risky future although I never acted on anything at the time. The Indian lifestyle taught me to discard the negative energy and turn it into a positive one in three steps: first, I stopped being negative about the future. Second, I decided to enjoy the moment that I lived in, like the Indians. I enjoyed traveling, meeting people, parties, and chatting with friends; I even put away my cell phone, computer, or whatever I had in my hand. I just listened to everyone around me. Finally, I learned to be realistic. I realized I cannot prevent the population from increasing and could not change everything. Instead, I tried not to be a part of the toxic system. I realized my life got better once I started thinking positively.

A Nation of Ambedkar and Phule

After I registered at the international students’ centre at Pune university, I asked students how I could get into the history department. Someone guided me to the department but they mentioned a strange name rather than the history department. “This is the department you are looking for,” the guide told me. “Department of Babasaheb Ambedkar”.

Before I entered the three-storey building, I saw a bronze statue on the left side of the main door. But I was in a hurry and not in the right state of mind to give the statue the attention it deserved.

In the second semester, I learned about Babasaheb Ambedkar through a course on Dalit studies. Dalits are the lowest-ranked Indian caste, with the Brahmans being the highest. Babasaheb Ambedkar was born in a Dalit family. Like many lower caste children, he could not enroll in Brahman and other upper caste schools. Dalits did not have the same upper rights, especially women.

Dr. Ambedkar, as a true political and social reformer, fought against injustices and demanded for the rights and dignity of Dalits. He uplifted the status of lower castes and raised their awareness of their rights. He also fought for the rights of women and abolished the Manu Smriti that laid down the rules of the caste system that subjugated Dalits and women. He believed that people of both genders should be equal in terms of economic, political, social life, and so on. I was taught that Dr. Ambedkar fought against traditions and conservatives. He had a big role to play in the Indian Independence movement and in creating the Indian constitution.

For his beliefs, ideas, and morals, Dr. Ambedkar paid the price. He was isolated, disrespected, and hated, but he changed Indian society. After he died in 1956, many public places were named after him. There are many statues, pictures, and sculptures of him throughout the Indian subcontinent. Many politicians and parties race to celebrate his heritage and hold seminars and events on the anniversary of his birth and his death.

Similar to Dr. Ambedkar, Mahatma Phule is another real Indian hero who I admire. In the third semester, we also studied Phule’s attempt to educate Indian society to arouse and provoke many Indians to study,

women in particular. Phule had many similarities with Ambedkar, as he also grew up in a Dalit caste and was not allowed to study and participate in social and religious events with upper castes. He also paid the price for his vision to change Indian society for he too, was subject to hurtful criticism.

One day I went shopping and ran into a group of people, who were clapping and singing loudly. I saw that they had surrounded a statue and were chanting Mahatma Phule’s name.

I learned from such visionaries that if one stood for one’s morals, rights, and does not give up, one can fight governments, societies, and traditions until they succeed. If you believe in your beliefs, ideas, and vision and work for the interests of people as Ambedkar and Phule did, you will get there.

The majority of my classmates came from lower castes and many of them were women. The local and federal governments helped them a lot. When I saw them, I wondered if they could get into a place like Pune university if Ambedkar, Phule, and other leaders had not stood for them.


Overall, embarking on the adventure of going to India without speaking in English and having little information about its cultures and rituals was the riskiest decision, but it was the best decision of my life. India taught me how to be patient, work hard, respect people’s beliefs and rituals, be friendly and multicultural, and be optimistic in life. I visited 13 Indian states and many cities, and I found new things in each one. I like how Indian people are proud of their identity and who they are. When I left India, I had a sort of feeling that it was like a noisy girl who you don't like at first but you know that she is loyal and passionate.

As I expected, I went through a tough time once I returned to my homeland. In 2013, I returned to Kurdistan but had nowhere to live in Sully and no money for living expenses. My previous housemates gently allowed me to stay with them and they paid the rent. I was not allowed to teach in any of the universities or colleges because I was not affiliated with the authorised political parties. Instead, I worked with a TV channel in Sully. This time around, life was much harder and more insecure because my dreams and ambitions were simply not met by working with the TV station and my lifestyle in Kurdistan was like living in a closed circle without any growth. Generally, the life of independent journalists was becoming harder.

In 2017, I decided to take my second adventure and moved to Canada. Security, stability, and the country’s humanitarian policies that accept refugees were the main reasons I chose Canada.

I left all the belongings I owned in pursuit of my two ambitions, more knowledge and security. I have now lived in Canada for almost four years, starting from scratch, but I see a bright future ahead of me. Canada, however, is not paradise. By working hard and insisting on attaining my goals, I can gradually gain a better life. But I will still recommend everyone to visit India even if it is a short trip to taste life in another universe.

Diary Marif is an Iraqi-Kurdish journalist with over 15 years of experience as a reporter, editor, and researcher. He earned a master's degree in History from Pune University, in India, in 2013. He moved to Vancouver from Iraq in 2017, where he has been focusing on nonfiction writing and has recently written two book chapters for two different projects. He is an author at New Canadian Media- writing about immigrants, newcomers, and minorities. He participates in rallies in solidarity with minorities and subminorities and fights against discrimination and racism.