Sunday, April 19, 2009

My India 2009

City State Country
For six months, I explored a handful of destinations in India, including, but not limited to, New Delhi, Amritsar, Bombay, Goa, Lucknow, Benares/Varanasi, Assam (Guwahati, Kaziranga, Manas, Majuli, Pathsala), and I explored them thoroughly. I was lucky to have had contacts in all of the geographies I visited. I encountered and experienced lifestyles (e.g. urban, rural, jungle, bachelorhood with and without parents, happy and unhappy non-marriage, no happy marriages, monogamists and polygamists and Brahmacharyas, students and young corporates, retired and purposeless etc.), considered worldviews (e.g. leftist socialist Congress, rightist Hindu nationalist, pro-corruption, anti-Muslim versus anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan versus anti-Pakistani, anti-Bangladeshi-migration, anti-Anglophone, separatist, conservationist, extremist etc.), and conversed in several tongues (e.g. English, Hindi, Punjabi, Assamese, Marathi, Sindhi, and Urdu).

India’s reputation of unprecedented reception and accommodation, of overwhelming hospitality and interest-free warmth, has fled town. In big cities, like New Delhi and Bombay, capitalism, consumerism, and competition pollute traditions of generosity. Indian urbanites honk you off roads and are quick to shuffle away overnight guests promptly after breakfast. You will be made to feel like a burden with messaging all so ambiguous: “The maid complains that her back aches from having to wash an extra set of clothing. Maids find every excuse to skip work” , “You must be missing home. When is your return flight? Stay for longer, though, no?”

Along with the dangerously extinct tiger and elephant, old India of unconditional warmth is secluded to rural areas. While in the state of Uttar Pradesh, during a visit to our driver’s village, we spotted a gorgeous zucchini plant hanging off the edge of a clay home. We asked our driver to stop the car so we could admire the beautiful vegetable. Fourteen people, trailing behind an elderly woman, exited from inside the humble clay home. The woman noticed I was gazing at her family's lovely zucchini. She reached towards the plant, tore the fruit from its stem with the clang of her four gold bangles, and gifted it to us. I refused to accept! Her family could starve with any slight shortage in crop. Once our driver translated to the grandmother my concern, the woman offered to gift me her family’s cow because the honour that would be bestowed upon them would fill their bellies far more than any meal. I was made speechless.
Rural Assam is where I was spoiled with unmatched affection. All members of all families in the villages of my friends were eager to inquire about my country, entertain me in their homes with introductory chai, and invite me to return later that evening for dinner. Following supper, when parents retired to their quarters, laughter and rice beer was exchanged between youth sans strings. Whenever I communicated my interest in reaching an Assamese locale, my friends would secretly arrange for an entire group of us to visit together. Motorobikes and engine oil, deep fried flat bread and boiled water, and a scenic route would all be charted. My interest in reaching any tourist destination catalyzed for all others a much needed group outing. I remember rural India most romantically.
Transport Me Hitherto
  • Indira Gandhi Airport, though significantly refurbished since my last arrival four years ago, still stank like the armpit of a drainpipe.
  • Bombay’s domestic airport, in comparison, was fit for a vintage Hollywood film, with white parachute canopies tenting the receiving area.
  • Transportation between Bombay and Goa aboard a non-air-conditioned and non-insulated coach bus was hardly enviable.
  • Biking along the sandy coast of the Arabian Sea for eight hours to the southern tip of the state of Goa was well rewarded with crispy pakoras (i.e. deep-fried potatoe fritters) and a milkshake flavoured with freshly grated coconut on Benaulim Beach.
  • India’s railway trains are comfortable. Booking railway tickets, though, is frustrating!
  • Driving through the state of Uttar Pradesh during the night, from Benares/Varanasi back to Lucknow, was terrifying. Roads present drivers with countless stop points, where rail trains pass, and your vehicle is forced to huddle alongside numerous politicians and their armed guards who are constantly alert for possible assassins hiding in the surrounding jungle.
  • The three-hour ferry ride between Majuli, the world’s largest river island, and mainland Assam was surprisingly serene and relaxing. The ferry lacked a barrier wall and, with any slight push from the rowdy men gambling behind me, I would have been sunk straight to the bottom of the Brahmaputra River.
  • Sleezy autorickshaw drivers in Delhi, always keen to overcharge, were counterbalanced by honest autorickshaws throughout Bombay where rates are fixed and honoured.
  • The metro in Delhi is incredibly modern, punctual, safe, clean, and affordable. But, patrons have much to learn in etiquette. Seats labeled, in English and Hindi, “Reserved for Elderly”, “Reserved for Women”, and “Reserved for Children”, are not intended to serve able-bodied business men.
  • Reach Assam to ride atop the hood of a public bus, in the open air, with hands clutched to an iron railing, opposite the conflict-ridden tribal territory of Bodoland along the border of Bhutan, abode to wild elephants, tigers, and monkeys!
33 Beds
Constant travel required I become intimate with all too many beds. I slept in 33 beds, which averaged to a new bed every week for six months. Indians sleep atop foam mattresses or down-filled blankets, layered with more blankets and bed sheets. Mattresses and box-springs (unlike myself) remain foreign! All bedding was stiff and most of my sleep was unsatisfying. Preferring to travel light, I improvised a weightless and portable pillow: an empty pillow case stuffed with clothing I would later wear.
  • The best bedside view was offered from the window beside my bed in the sleeper class cart aboard a train. The landscape was decorated with patches of neon green mustard fields and, later, an orange sunset that illuminated silhouettes of palm trees.
  • The most uncomfortable bed was in Manas, Assam, where I was put to sleep void of a mosquito net and suffered scratchy (and, subsequently, bloody) wrath of extremity.
  • The most memorable bed was at the Hilltop Lodge in Guwahati, Assam. Deers' heads were mounted on the walls and the shaggy skin of a tiger was sprawled on the floor with its mouth kept open.
  • My most anxious night of non-sleep was in Delhi’s neighbouring satellite city, Gurgaon, where, the following morning, I was due to write my Graduate Record Examination for application to a PhD program.
  • The most luxurious bed was in the posh colony of Lodhi Estate, New Delhi, where I stayed at a grand and marble home fitted with Persian rugs. Portraits of Chinese Emperors on the wall opposite my sleigh-bed seemed to have been surveying me.
  • My most awkward night of sleep was in Santa Cruz, Bombay, when I was forced to sleep at the home of (who was at that time) a complete stranger in order to help my friend sober up from a glamorous evening of 130-Rupee-Rum.
  • The most charming night of rest was spent in Amritsar where, five of us, including my giggly mother, laughed ourselves to complete exhaustion atop a single queen-size bed.
Moments in Memory: Good Bad Ugly
  • In Amritsar, my headstrong uncle proved to me his fortitude by pushing through a crowd of teen-aged testosterone to sneak us into a beauty pageant.
  • I watched my favourite Bollywood film, Dilwale Dilhunia Le Jayenge (1995), at the Mathura Mandir Theatre in Bombay, which has been playing the flick daily at 11:30 a.m. for over 13 years now.
  • I was (temporarily) homeless in Goa.
  • Hindu extremists can be found at the Waga Border of India, opposite Pakistan, yelling ‘Jai Hind! Hindustan zindabad! Long live India!’. Pakistani nationalists, on the Pakistani side of Waga Border, fervently exclaim in response 'Pakistan zindabad! Long live Pakistan!
  • I ran into friends from the cities of Toronto and London on the same night and at the same nightclub/disco in New Delhi!
  • During Holi, the relatively secular Hindu festival of colour, I witnessed a drunk teenager torment a mentally ill beggar. When provoked, the destitute woman ran into the street, mindlessly. The woman's blouse tore off, baring her exhausted breasts to the burning sun, and the drunk teenager laughed without relent.
  • I suffered violent vomiting after eating Chinese food in Delhi. Diagnosis? Chinese cuisine in India is flavoured with Ajinomoto (a.k.a. MSG!).
  • I was befriended by eight different people during my journeys between mainland Assam and Majuli. Majuli is an island situated in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. The day I departed Majuli to return to mainland Assam, the captain of the sole ferry that operates between the ports of Assam and Majuli, the kindest of all friendly strangers, volunteered to drive me back to my home in Assam and effectually rescued me from six hours of bumpy roads and body odour aboard public transportation.
  • In Bombay, we paid an exorbitant 120 Rupees to an autorickshaw driver to take us to Juhu Beach for a midnight sip of ghola (i.e. a fruity sugary syrupy concoction poured over packed shavings of ice).
Missing My Favourite Things
I miss the feeling of security. I want to seek respite on a bed that is situated in a room and in a house that belongs to me and that no one can drive me away from. I want to return to a space where, if people are being a disturbance, I have complete impunity when I request that they ‘please, shut up’.
I miss continuity. Every time I establish myself in a new geography, I have to navigate which languages I need to converse in between English Hindi Punjabi, introduce myself and develop friendly rapport with curious family and friends, and participate in that first week of superfluous hospitality between host and guest coloured by excess smiles pleases thank yous. I learn quickly my way around the home, including which bedrooms I will remain uninvited from entering for reasons undisclosed. Weeks pass and I carve out for myself a niche in the domestic politic of my new home. Host and guest create a common language consisting of two or more tongues plus hand signals. I frequent the kitchen tables of curious neighbours who cheer my name and though, at first, I feel damned because I cannot remember any of their titles, my memory eventually licks up their names. Similarly, after having given my digestive system opportunity to adjust to new foods and local water, my feces settles on a single family of shades.

And, predictably, most sourly, the onset of further time ushers in how genuinely accommodating my hosts necessarily are. I am made increasingly aware that the party is over and, soon enough, I shift geographies. I arrive in my new land and endure this process (language, personalities, shit, facilities, formalities) all over again.
I miss a sense of belonging and of fitting in. Every time I make friendly with new people, I am educated on the different personalities habits histories of the characters in my new circle. With each new circle, I am (understandably) demanded to declare my personal professional ethnic identities to help others decide how much of me they are able and interested in engaging with. Their old jokes are new to me and my old jokes are wasted on them. The most frustrating situation is when the people around me exchange words in a language I do not understand and they translate their conversation for me only when they conclude I am fit to be informed. While they have the ability to converse in a language common to us all, including one or more of English Hindi Punjabi, they remain committed to one of India's one-thousand other tongues. I cannot even participate passively in conversation, by just listening, because I have no access to the language. I imagine a glass barrier that excludes me and only I seem to be aware of this invisible barricade. Interestingly, though, I overcame language barriers by (unconsciously) developing a sixth sense for reading body language and tone of voice.

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