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Tales from India – Rewriting the Story

Rebecca Mqamelo – Old Delhi street scene, India
Photography by Ram Brandwain

The scene

Lakshmi is late.

She wears a simple, earth-toned sari. Every now and then, her graceful movements reveal a pale, fleshy stomach beneath the folds of patterned elephants trekking across her shoulder. Despite the sweltering Hyderabad heat and her frazzled hair, her demeanour is calm and she exudes a lively humour. Her smile is warm and her eyes quick and kind.

There is a value in examining people; observing every crease in their clothes, the movement of their eyes, the glint of gold in their teeth. Too often our impressions are based on vague memories and constructed projections.

Lakshmi has no gold in her teeth. She laughs a lot and when she speaks, her modest humour and motherly gaze bring to mind the words “Indian aunty”. Except Lakshmi is no Indian aunty. She is a Bay Area tech-veteran and a venture capitalist, and has her name on a Forbes list titled "Women to Watch in Asia".

We’re betraying ourselves with our wildest dreams, because – we’ll never admit it – they rest on an essential qualification: that we Westernize.

“The trouble with journalism,” she begins, “is that you tell someone else’s story in your own words. I’m trying to empower people to tell their own stories, in their own way, in their own accent, with the fullness of what is in their own heart. It has to be authentic.” For the first time in a long time, the word “authentic” doesn’t make me cringe. Perhaps it’s because it isn’t coming from someone trying to help me tweak my LinkedIn profile. It’s coming from an Indian aunty in a sari, and that makes all the difference.

The backstory

Before I moved to India, my cultural knowledge consisted of cricket, Shahrukh Khan, and the odd scene from Slumdog Millionaire. My best expectations lacked ambition – I’d be happy if the highlight of my stay was four months of affordable access to butter chicken. But sometimes, ignorance can be a good thing. Your preconceptions are shallow, yet minimal, and are perfectly positioned to yield to a transformed perspective.

Chandni Chowk street scence, Old Delhi, India