Sometimes–like today for instance–when confronted by hideous stacks of folders filled with papers with tabs like “ideas for development”, I hate myself for being unable or unwilling to throw stuff away. I have narrowed it down now to one room–my office–and at least once every two years I go through and get rid of some. Always I promise myself, when I get back (from wherever we’re headed, usually a trip of some sort that takes command of precious time needed to ready for the trip rather than devoting to search and destroy projects, and why is it I’m inspired to do it at those times?) I’m going to really get rid of this junk. And just as often, sometimes–like today–I’m really glad I don’t.
Today’s continuation of my India 1980 re-capturing was to have been devoted to the train journey commencing in Delhi to our destination in Madras, where Hubby’s mother lived and where he spent much of his childhood. As I’ve explained, however, this series of reflections based on my first impressions has come about through notes jotted on a kitchen calendar. There are just enough notations that I’m able to partially reconstruct much of the events of each day in an orderly fashion. While I remember what I felt much of the time about so many new experiences coming all at once, obviously those feelings have been tempered over the years by other visits when I was less “new” and knew what to expect. I keep thinking that it’s too bad I didn’t write these in a journal DURING, not 30 years AFTER that trip.
The following is almost as good as a first-hand journal, as it captures more succinctly than this series does my love-hate issues with India. I found it–it appears to be a draft of an essay–in one of those old yellowed folders. It’s printed on fold-out paper and the print is dot-matrix and looks so ancient, so I’m pretty sure it was something I wrote for a University of Ohio writing class, which I believe had to be around 1985 or 86. It’s untitled and I have no clue as to the theme I was trying for, but it is quite revealing, I think, about the person I was at the time. Although it’s putting the horse before the cart in a sense–as it winds up with a paragraph of the visit to my mother-in-law’s cottage I intended to share after this one–I decided to post it here as it was originally written. The next post then will re-cap, with a little more emphasis on what it’s like to travel a long length of Indian countryside in a sleeper train–an experience I now treasure. I hope you enjoy seeing this as much as I did! Like a long-lost version of myself.
How can I not hate India? It is a country of such diversity, such contradictions. It is a brown country, so hot and dusty and dry until monsoon that one becomes filthy traveling across country in trains. Parts of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, and myriad other cities smell like–and are–public urinals. People defecate on the roadsides, the only privacy being in their genetic makeup*. I have walked in streets strewn with excrement, human or animal, doesn’t matter for it all looks the same, and I have walked on thick Persian carpeting in a home in Simla where the walls were lined with wonderful paintings in ornate frames. The summer home of Mrs. Gandhi.
Make one statement about India, immediately comes to mind a statement–equally true–that completely challenges the validity of the original indictment. Women have no power there. Many are not educated and thus are doomed to lives of poverty. Many hold higher degrees of education and are held in great esteem as the fabric from which home and family are woven. Home and family is the most important seam in the greater fabric called India. There are many influential and political women throughout India’s history. How can I not love India?
I love the animals. Those forced to live in captivity: monkeys with skull caps and embroidered vests–collared and leashed–that dance in circles; large birds with brilliant splashes of color–reds, turquoises, yellows–as if sprayed there by an artist gone mad. Giant curved beaks, cocked heads, beady eyes looking as if they possess the larger truth of life that I will somehow never find; smaller birds among squatting sidewalk vendors, circling, declaring your future by a single peck on a chosen pebble; temple elephants painted with intricate designs from hoofs upward, garlanded with perfumed flowers of various hues, scantily clad brown skinned bones atop them–their mahouts, or keepers.
I love the animals. Animals living free among the thronging millions: giant myna birds with their incessant caa caas, pigeons leaving their droppings indiscriminately, squirrels balancing aloft like acrobats on power lines; monkeys in tree tops, the females watching out for the babies, giving them as much leeway on tree limbs as possible, then reaching out to rescue them just before they venture too far and fall. They scold them, sometimes resorting to spankings when a repeated reprimand seems to have fallen on deaf ears, just as millions of human mothers have done for eons.
I will never forget the magical moment I saw my first family of wild elephants in the forest on a car trek to Coonor, a mountainous resort villa with quilt-patch tea farm terrain. Actually I was told later that the elephants were probably part of a farm herd used by tractor-less farmers to assist with heavier farming chores. Despite the fact they were required to work for their living and weren’t truly free as I’d at first imagined, how sharply that image I saw and remember from that day contrasts with that of a metal stake in concrete in a zoo . . . a rope leading to an elephant’s rear hoof and attached to an riveted iron band . . . straw and dung scattered over a dusty floor, while her ancient watery eyes seem to look only inward, recollecting a faraway jungle home perhaps.
I recollect other contradictory images of India. My mother-in-law Neelu standing in the doorway of her tiny four room flat. She has been boiling water for tea on the tiny Bunsen burner stove on the floor of her kitchen. There are no table and chairs to sit at, no sink below a window to glance outward at birds while preparing food or cleaning after a meal. We have entered through the front of the cottage, passing through the kitchen area to the room Americans refer to as the “living room.” As the honored guest, I am led to a single wooden bench, the only furniture except for one or two woven bamboo stools standing nearby. On opposite sides of this room are small lean-tos where Neelu presumably stores things–colorful sarees, blouses, woolen shawls–in old fashioned trunks with brass hinges. Letters and photographs rest in ornate brass and cardboard boxes alike. Neelu is an orthodox Hindu from the highest Brahmin caste. I know that to her I am an untouchable, even though my husband has teased her that I am an American Brahmin, that my family “went to America on the Mayflower (not true, I’m sure). I think she half believes it because she wants to. But I wonder if she’ll scrub the bench where I’m sitting after I leave.
*It occurs to me this might not be understood as it’s written, so I should state that what I meant by this statement is that when you grow up in a country of such crowds, I believe you are forced to move through your days as if you were the only person around. Since I grew up in the U.S. in the country, I was terribly self-conscious for much of my adult life, thinking that everyone must be looking at–and judging–me for being so awkward. Only after a trip or two or maybe three, to India, have I learned not to assume anyone is noticing me. It’s such total freedom I’m glad I finally figured out.]
Fascinating!!!! You have given me a new perspective on India and yourself! I can identify with some of your feelings.
I love having you as a reader Kay! Thanks for your comments as they encourage me to keep on doing this.
You make me sorry I have never been to India, and probably will never get there. I am fascinated by your recollections. And isn’t it wonderful that we finally understand so many things as we get older. I guess that’s what’s called wisdom.
Well Ruthe, I like to think it’s at least bordering on wisdom. I look at 30-somethings now and remember myself at that age thinking I knew so much. This is the part of growing old no one tells you about because too many focus on the things you can’t do as well as you did when you were younger–but I wouldn’t want to be growing in reverse (younger), even though it sounds like it would be a good thing, not at the cost of losing those layers of understanding I have now.
I have trouble seeing your husband’s mother in such a small place…..probably because of her caste. I have trouble seeing yourself relax into who you have become and enjoy life now.
We are off….I’ll chat with you when we get home….with lots of pictures too. You had better bring us home volumes of them too. This is going to be a great trip.
His mother was a widow and could have lived with one of her well established sons and wives, but she wanted to be independent. The four-room flat was probably a servant quarters behind a larger home, something like the carriage houses attached to bigger homes in this country. There were people looking out for her. Until widowhood she had lived in a large (for India) house she and her husband built and shared with either his or her mother. She was watched over, I believe by relatives relatives living in the main house. I didn’t meet them, but this is my impression.
You’re whetting my appetite for India and I’m certain that your upcoming trip will only heighten this – I can’t wait to read about your trip.
And I’m ready to go! Got my RA infusion set for Monday (20th) and Jan. 3–just in time to maybe kick in during the trip so I’ll be able to dress myself and help with the luggage. I feel like surviving cancer has made me wiser somehow, at least help me understand what’s important and what isn’t, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it affects the way I see things in travel. (Hope the two T’s are well and will be home to you for the holidays!)
I enjoyed your “love and hate” approach. You are such a gifted writer and you were clear back then … way back then. India holds a fascination for me now and I look forward to your travel reports. I am so proud of you for coming out on top of the cancer. I have thought of you often the last two months as I have been going through my own health issues. I hope to follow your lead in recovery. I also hope your RA doesn’t accompany you on this trip. One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve been on oxygen is that my fibromyalgia pain isn’t as bad … especially since I started the Prednisone. There is a silver lining even now.
Bless that prednisone! It’s what is keeping the pain at bay for me while I wait for the infusion to begin again, which the technician at my RA doc’s office says will take a few weeks. Oh, and thanks for that lovely remark about the writing and India posts. I think I’ve found my voice as they say! 🙂
I’ve never looked forward to someone else’s trip more than I have yours. How strange. You have the unique ability to let me feel as though I am walking right beside you.
Hope you’ve purchased an extra memory card for your camera. I’m looking forward to photos and your travelogue!
Bless you, Colleen! Where were you all those years ago when I thought no one would take my writing seriously? I do appreciate you.
So fascinating. I, too, am anxious to read your post-cancer reflections. Age, alone, makes such a difference in how we view life and places. I am ALWAYS touched by your writing. One day I want to venture north and meet you! In person!
Take care of yourself.
Wonderful idea on both counts, writing post-cancer reflections and meeting up…afraid you may be disappointed in the real me and the writing me, however. I’m more the wallflower type that “grow on” people, or so I’ve been told. Hope your holidays are merry and bright! 😀