Queer Lives: Narrations of Research Abroad (May 12)

A daily blog of my research abroad in India and Japan during the summer of 2024: I am conducting interviews with members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community in South and East Asia. May 12th, 2024.
Queer Lives: Narrations of Research Abroad (May 12)
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May 12th, 2024 – Sunday 

I have been sitting at my laptop for several minutes now wondering how to begin the narrative of the day, but my mind keeps wandering astray. So instead, let me open with a quick detour to one of my favourite things – something I haven’t had in months, but that I find every day in the fridge here. Something cold, airy, and light; like cotton to your fingertips and clouds to your tongue. Called by many names, it is a staple of food here, but each time I eat it requires a few moments of silence to close my eyes and fully savour the taste of it. This is a love letter to yoghurt. 

Although known to me as dahi, thayir, or curds, yoghurt is a well-established foodstuff across the world, but – with all due respect to the grocery stories of the United States and the United Kingdom, no dahi has ever tasted as good to me as the one made at home. The yoghurt I find at the Sainsbury’s down the road from my dorm is passable, but, like most store-bought yoghurts, it’s often thick and slime-like in texture. It sticks in your throat – and mixed with rice creates a sticky mess.  

Home-made dahi, on the other hand, could not be more different. Made from a starter and milk and left to sit in the heat, it forms a sleek white surface which breaks into tiny mountains when I press a spoon into it. It is light and beautiful and floods my mouth with a taste that instantly brings up memories of my childhood – watching my amma leave it to set on the countertop and counting down the hours until it was ready. There is nothing like a fresh batch of dahi, especially with a small spoon of rice and avakai pickle. 

You might be wondering just about now why I’m starting off with an ode to dahi, a praise of thayir. But it’s things like this – the first mouthful of fresh yoghurt, sitting by the open windows for the morning breeze to break the heat, the sound of the tap running as I wash dishes with Revati Auntie – which come to mind when I think about my day. In the complex, loud, bright maze that is Mumbai and India as a whole, there are also moments like these ones – and it’s the blend of the two which make the city such a wonderful place to visit. 

Today is Sunday, the last day before the six-week portion of my research begins, and I’m determined to spend the day exploring a different side of the city – Colaba, the southern end of Mumbai, home to the Gateway of India. After a cup of chai and a shower, my appa and I are out the door; the drive is long, nearly an hour, and the day is already shaping up to be hotter than the last. I watch the architecture change as we cross the SeaLink – a massive, steel-cable bridge that links the suburbs of Mumbai to the southern areas – and enter a wholly new part of the city. Here, the surrounding is immediately more colonial; two-story white bungalows frame wide streets, and the mid-road trees and concrete islands are reminiscent of those found in London. 

Our first stop is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum. I step out of the car and immediately my skin burns; the sun is beating down, and I’m grateful when we buy our tickets and enter the building. The museum has several different sections, the largest on the history of India and South Asia from prehistoric to modern times. It’s beautiful, but as we walk through the exhibits I also see some of the downsides of Indian culture. Don’t mistake me – I've greatly enjoyed being here, and I have a plethora of joy to share – but every place has its flaws. Here, it’s a habit shared by many visitors to the museum; a habit which, as a student of history, leaves me scowling and clenching my fists. People of all ages, children and adults alike, keep touching the exhibits and artifacts, some of which date back to ancient civilisations. It’s slightly sad and extremely frustrating to see the attitude towards these precious materials, and I fight back an urge to enclose them all in glass boxes. 

Nevertheless, I enjoy the museum. Some of the descriptions make me raise an eyebrow for their historical bias – Hinduism enjoys a clear favour and advantage in the proposed narrative – but the exhibits, although small, are well-thought out. I spend my time in the South Asian section, reading about the history of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism, as well as the ancient kingdoms that made up India. I learn who Chhatrapati Shivaji, the museum’s current namesake, was: a famous ruler of the Bonshle Dynasty who carved out an independent kingdom in the 17th century. 

The rest of the day is a ramble around the area; we visit an art gallery featuring tribal painters, have lunch at the renowned Taj Hotel, and pop into various shops. Towering over it all is the Gateway of India, and though I’m unable to go too close to it because of the crowds, it is awe-inspiring even from several feet away. The monument, erected in 1924, was created to commemorate the arrival of George V, the first English monarch to visit India. Tall, and almost golden in the sunlight, it carries a definite sense of prestige, and I stare at it for several moments before walking on. Studying history to me means I must also understand my own history, and although the Gateway is a tourist attraction, it also is an essential part of Indian identity. Although created to welcome the British, it took on new significance through the mid-20th century during the struggle for independence. The last British troops departed through the Gateway, ushering in a new era for the country and solidifying the role of the Gateway as a symbol of Mumbai’s resilience and rich history. 

It is the heat that finally drives us back to Bandra, as I can feel my shoulders dropping. My palms are slick and hot, and I rub them vigorously and pointlessly on my pants as we begin the long drive back to Bandra. Once we’re back, the rest of the night is quiet work until all the light fades, and the only sound left is the occasional car horn, faint and screeching. If I could, I’d stay up the entire night in Bandra; it’s the quietest the city ever is, and I find it peaceful. I’m beyond content to sit on the couch and write until I feel tired, in the company of the still air and the silence. 

 

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Go to the profile of Princess Agina
5 days ago

Your description of homemade dahi made my mouth water! Exploring Colaba and visiting the museum sounds like a great way to spend a Sunday, even with the frustrating parts. I'm truly enjoying reading through your blog posts. Thank you for sharing. Looking forward to more updates on your research and adventures in Mumbai!