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A moment that changed me: I travelled to India – and discovered what really defines me

Rich Pelley

Wed 26 Jul 2023 07.00 BST

I was adopted as a baby and was hoping to answer the question of where I’m from. Instead, the trip reminded me of my deep love for my family

'Do you think I’m Indian?’ … Rich Pelley visits the Taj Mahal

Our three-week trip to India was coming to an end and I still hadn’t found an answer to the question that had ostensibly prompted the trip. I decided to ask the woman who owned the Goa beach huts in which we were staying. “Do you think I’m Indian?” “No,” she replied. Oh well, never mind. At least that was out of the way.

I was adopted when I was three months old. I was born in Bristol but have never had any real idea of my heritage, other than being south Asian. And I have never cared a hoot. Mum and Dad are my mum and dad, and my younger brother (my parents’ biological son) is my brother. Who cares if I have slightly darker skin than the rest of the family?

It wasn’t something I had to address as a child. But when I got to university, I found myself having to explain, especially when my brother (who was at a different university in the same town) would turn up. We have always been close and, after a few drinks, there is always a lot of “I love you” and brotherly kissing. If I had not explained, people might have been a bit confused.

After university, I went to live in Australia for a year with my best friend, Phil. A few years later, we had the chance to take a three-week trip. But where should we go? We thought about Vietnam, because we had seen Apocalypse Now, and Thailand, because we preferred Hot Shots! Part Deux. India, though, promised mad beach parties under the guise of a soul-searching trip to work out where I came from. (Neither of us had seen A Passage to India because we were too busy watching Hot Shots! part one.)

The plan was to fly into Mumbai, do north India for a bit, then fly down to Goa. As for sightseeing, the highlight was the floating Monsoon Palace in Rajasthan, where Octopussy was filmed and every bar shows Octopussy on heavy rotation. I asked the waiter how many times he had seen Octopussy. Three times a day, every day. Had he seen any other James Bond film? No.

Queueing for tickets to the Taj Mahal, I remembered the advice given to me by the taxi driver from the airport, who asked if I was local. There are two entrance fees for the Taj Mahal – 1,100 rupees (about £11) for tourists and 50 rupees (about 50p) for resident Indians. He reckoned I should just queue up with the locals. To disguise the fact that I was a westerner, though, I shouldn’t say anything.

I would have got away with it if Phil hadn’t come bounding over having paid full price and ruined the illusion. I had the last laugh, though. For the rest of the holiday, the locals – who weren’t used to seeing a white man – would point and yell: “Freddie Flintoff!” Phil doesn’t look remotely like Flintoff.

I certainly didn’t feel Indian. I wasn’t keen on the local delicacy, the Maharaja Mac (made with ground chicken patties instead of beef, because cows are sacred). Indian men hold hands, which I did like, but the whole wealth division, with homeless people lining the streets of Mumbai, was eye-opening and upsetting.

But when we got to Goa, I instantly felt at home. Days were spent playing Frisbee with the locals, who would gasp in disbelief if you jumped into the sea to make a particularly stylish catch. Evenings were spent at the beach bar, failing to chat up the three Swedish girls for whom we had clearly fallen into the “friend zone”. We also wondered who else books a trip to India in monsoon season when the rain buckets down and there are zero beach parties.

When the Indian lady at our beach hut hostel said she didn’t think I was local, I didn’t mind. It might have been nice to be able to give an answer to the question: “No, where are you really from?” when I usually say: “Bristol.” But I was never genuinely on a soul-searching exercise, as I have such a loving family. I realised that my heritage doesn’t matter: it is the people around me who have defined me as a person, not the colour of my skin. Plus, it means there are still plenty of countries left to visit to see where I came from (preferably not in monsoon season), to sample the local McDonald’s, watch a Bond film and fail to chat up any women.

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