(I planned to see Pina Bausch’s “Bamboo Blues” so I’d have an excuse to write about India; I decided I could miss the performance and simply write about India instead.)
I start with a sound. An aching, melancholy call to prayer joined by the scratch scratch of a young man sweeping the sidewalk. It is the sound of religion, and class, and dirt.
Before my husband and I arrive in Mumbai, my father’s friend who is Indian and who we have never met asks if this will be our first time. When we answer yes, he says he will be there to pick us up. We find him slightly to the side of the people pushed up against a metal gate waiting for passengers. He greets us with a restrained (and most-loveable) warmth and nods towards a waiting car.
Cigarette in hand, he points out his city as the car lurches its way to our hotel. He sees us in and I am embarrassed by how fancy and western our hotel seems. He says he will meet us in the morning, show us around.
He brings his wife and charges ahead to museums, the zoo, the restaurant. He is funny and warm (I have to use the word again) and cynical. We hear about government and history, flora and fauna, beggars and money and the US. We are jet-lagged and also swept away by his embrace and his plans.
He gives us his time in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. Eases our transition to a foreign world. Is my favorite person I have met in a very long time.
He tells us he grew up an Untouchable.
(When I checked in a few weeks ago, he said he listened for many hours to gunshots during the recent terror attacks. Housed refugees in his apartment.)
My husband and I make our way from Mumbai to Delhi. The physical chaos overtakes me now that we are on our own. The mass of people and cars and motorbikes and bicycles moves fast and furious. I am scared to cross the street.
My body remembers the dance classes I’ve taken in which we practice moving in chaos. In those classes, we learn to stay grounded in the midst of upheaval and the unknown and passionate, crazy dancing. In those classes, we look for the empty space, find ways to slide and swirl around each other, never bumping in.
When my husband and I ride a bicycle rickshaw, our western bums don’t both fit fully on the passenger seat. We half-sit and grip a metal bar. We swerve down roads with cars much faster, and heavier than us. We hit a traffic jam in the old part of Delhi, try to stay in our seats amidst rickshaws and cows and horse-drawn buggies. I notice that I am the only woman not wearing a burka. I feel a little scared. I am a visitor. I am different and I don’t know if I am welcome here. And I remember to find my center, the one that is grounded and resilient, quietly present.
I begin to see the speed and the chaos as a wild and quite functional dance. The people of the city know how to ride this rhythm, just as New Yorkers ride theirs.
In Delhi, I alternate between being timid and being engaged with the city. I walk around walls. (There are so many walls.) And I hide behind them. I walk down tiny alleyways with stray dogs and chickens getting their heads cut off. I enter an old courtyard near a mosque where an old man offers me a candy, nods to the sun. I see a very old dance form in a very new and desolate skyscraper-mall-town. I listen to an electric tabla played by a robot developed in California.
We listen to the call to prayer and the street sweeper from a hotel room in a gated area. Children, many holding children, walk into the middle of the busy smog-ridden streets to tap on the windows of our air-conditioned taxi. As we make our way to the airport, they ask for money.
We go to Varanasi. Ganges River. Hindu holy place in which to die and be cremated. A little girl sells candles to light and float on the river. 10 rupees for good Karma.
The smell of a human body burning. The price and weight of the wood with which to burn the body. Death as a part of life. Commerce as a part of death.
A fat old man and his two skinny dogs, all three barking orders to hotel workers. The white woman wandering around with her sari and bindi, seemingly unmoored and floating on her “spirituality.”
Like a picture from the guidebook, women wash colorful clothes in the river. The rhythm of dunking and twisting, laying out to dry. Sunset. Big black plastic speakers set up along the river blast the soundtrack of Varanasi.
And Calcutta. My father’s friend’s family invites us to a meal. (From Mumbai he’s given his mother instructions about what to make for us. How to welcome us in.) I am so touched, in fact overwhelmed. Again.
And my husband is sick. And I am a bit scared to go to my new friend’s family by myself. It’s something about the pain of feeling things that are so tender and giving. Someone who’s never met me cooking a whole and special meal for me. I don’t even cook for myself. I give in to my fear and cancel, try to find comfort (it isn’t possible) behind a hotel wall.
Calcutta is about realizing how overwhelmed and saturated we are. We traveled to India for my husband’s photography work. He talks about how his work is to be present and porous, to take everything in. When he is photographing, he cannot hold his breath, pull away from gravity, lower his eyes, indulge those things we do to pretend we’re safe and separate and sterile.
We have taken in a lot. And have still managed to pull away from a lot. It has been a study in culture, and contrasts, and comfort.
We are ready to go home. And yet even the concept of home has been forever dislodged and set in motion. How do we find home in our own bodies? In a foreign culture? How do we make a home? What could possibly explain the vast differences between the physical homes of the poor and the rich, in India and in the United States? What millions of factors converged to birth us into our particular families and circumstances?
After 20 hours in flight, we arrive back in the US. Newark smells clean, almost alpine. New York City moves in slow motion. It is obsessively orderly. It is easy. And it is not the same.
See more of Matt's photography for his project, The Global City here.
Read choreographer Jill Sigman's reflections on her trip to India, "A Postmodern Passage" here.
Some related musings and questions on Slumdog Millionaire will be coming soon.