Saturday, April 08, 2006
For twenty years I’ve been hearing stories about India and knowing I must go. But partly because it’s such an important destination for me, the trip got shunted aside. It’s the Everest of hard travel; huge rewards and huge challenges. Among the challenges: heat, filth, poverty, and worst of all, an unending army of drivers, shopkeepers, beggars and lunatics to pester the rich foreigner like flies on a fat cow. Among the rewards: A huge country that is profoundly spiritual, full of friendly and diverse peoples who speak relatively good English (see also in challenges).
I considered myself a pretty hardy traveler, having circumnavigated the Northern Hemisphere on land and then some. I’ve slept in more than my share of squalid excuses for lodging and eaten things any reasonable traveler wouldn’t come near. Still, this place has been kicking my ass.
I was prepared for the crowds and the hassles and the piles of poop in the streets, but for heaven’s sake, where are the clean parts of Delhi? This isn’t even Calcutta.
I was prepared for the smell. Hey, Bangkok isn’t exactly a perfume palace, and Hong Kong made good on the promise of its name, but I had never imagined the depth of the bouquet of stenches that wash down the alleys of Paharganj and the even narrower pathways of Varanasi. Sometimes it’s as though one has taken a wrong turn and walked up the bowels of one of the gentle cows there. (Speaking of bowels, I’ve fully recovered from my bout with what they refer to here as, “loose motion.” I escaped with merely three days of mostly lying in the heat, studying the miraculous ceiling-gripping skills of my bug-eating room mates.)
Of course, the squalor is part of what makes me so glad I’ve come; and if there is a more intensely foul environment of this scale to visit, I want to go there as well. But it raises an issue for me as an artist. I’ve come to consider myself pretty good at unique takes on special places. But here I’m just another overwhelmed visitor to the oldest civilization on this planet. Every observation I make echoes in my mind with the trite tones of a musty British travelogue.
I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so tied up in having a distinctive angle on things. I didn’t realize my self-image as a writer was so fragile. Wow, what I’m learning in India is as much about myself as it is about the world! [Cue trite echo chamber of musty British travelogue.]
So I write to you here a humbled traveler, a humbled writer, a humbled soul. This is all good. Humility is a virtue I can always use more of.
(Lest you suspect I’m being distracted from the novel, this is a planned two-week break from it and I’m doing some paid work for the Connecticut Center for the Book.)
Coming back to East Asia twice now has been good, but it’s wonderful to be in a new environment. Though I feel hassled and under siege, I also feel accepted here and welcomed. I’m feeling less alienated and it’s helpful to be able to communicate with more of the locals. One bonus, people here are for the most part delighted to be photographed.
The intensity of the experience feeds my curious side. One evening in Delhi I visited the Jama Masjid mosque and then wandered north of there through markets and alleys until I had very little idea where I was. On a main thoroughfare there was a bustling of people washing their feet and checking their shoes and there was a temple and sign that said something about a martyr who had defended the hindus’ right to exist.
It was made clear to me that I was welcome, so I checked my shoes with the nice women and washed my feet and climbed the marble steps into a polished and fantastic place. There was an altar bigger than my apartment and a chandelier almost as huge. Reaching from the vaulted ceiling for the red carpet floor an inverted forest of fans spun, each at its own speed. There were singers and drummers and a good number of folks sitting and watching while others moved about with purpose.
People were worshiping and making offerings of silk and incense and flowers and food. There were Indians of all walks of life and modes of dress from shiny bright fine gowns to homespun country wraps and a cadre of bearded mountain fighters observing together quietly in the center of it all.
The tall man with the spear allowed me passage through the back to a free kitchen. They were serving Indian food that night, and I peered into an open doorway where a boiling kettle of aloo gobi the size of a hot tub was being stirred by two men with what looked like a canoe paddle.
Next thing I knew I was sitting at an ankle-high stone table covered inches deep in flour and puffs of dough. It wasn’t long before they got me to where I could roll out a decent chapatti in only about twice as much time as the kids next to me, and even faster than the man in the jiffy-pop turban across from me.
It felt good to work and it was nice to be included like this; especially to be treated as slave labor, instead of a pink source of easy money. It gave me time to get some perspective. The day had been full and hectic. Eventually the whole picture resolved itself for me and I laughed at myself sitting there, at the long funny path that had brought me to that spot.
“Where the hell am I?”
“What am I doing here?”
They were rhetorical questions of course, but answers came up nonetheless.
“I am right here.”
“I am rolling chapattis.”
If I can maintain that simple perspective, I’ll have re-learned an important lesson there (in what I later learned was a Sikh temple).
India is taking care of me. The universe is taking care of me. I am right here. This is what I’m doing.
at 3:30 AM