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.]