Sunday, September 5, 2010

The India Readjustment Period (And How I Did It Anyway)

Bangalore Got Many Malls. and bikes.

I came back to India, and for the first day, I thought, "Why in the name of God am I here? What was I thinking?"

I am told this is not an unusual reaction from those who return to India. It is, as you can imagine, an even more common reaction from first-time travelers. A couple have (or so I am told) reached their hotel room, called up a nearby travel agency, and booked the first flight again. The cab ride through Old Delhi was more then enough for them. Jai Hind.

My reaction did not surprise me, of course. India is a slap in the face, a kick in the groin, a lascivious nudge on the sidewalk: India is something you cannot just step off the plane and wham-bam readjust yourself to. The experience is there, and the memory is there, of course. But they do not come on automatically, at the flick of a switch. To get these faculties back, the ability to Survive in India, that is a process and a matter of timing, a matter of patience.

You have to gain the ability to block out 89% of the sensory information you receive on a daily basis. You have to regain the ability to pay rapt, intense attention to the other 10%, because that is information that you will save you from being ripped off by rickshaw drivers, pillaged by gypsy children, and mowed down by Punjabi long-distance truckers. You have to regain situational blindness, the ability to un-see, the ability to look through and ignore and totally disregard most everyone you meet on the street - of particular import for the solitary female traveler. These are things that are possible, and instinctual if you have been before, but they are not easy, they are not easy to regain.

Abandoned house (and car) in Bangalore.

I was interested to find how guilty I was, how embarrassed I was simply to be seen there. I had just come from the ultra-modern paradise of Singapore, and before that, had spent two and a half weeks in the wealthy and incredibly quiet environs of Perth, Australia. And here I was in India, bypassing rabid rats and kids missing essential body-parts, and thinking to myself, "And I'm here to look at this, why? I'm not helping anybody. I'm not here to save anybody's life, console the sick, build schoolhouses, or feed the hungry from the largesse and generosity of the Mighty West. I am, all things said and done, on a holiday."

After all, those of us who reside in nice and quiet Western countries very rarely find ourselves questioning our presence, our existence, where we are and where choose to spend our time. We feel we have a right to be wherever we want, doing whatever we please: we exist in a state of extreme comfort. Even in a dangerous area in the USA - say, in my adopted home of New Orleans - I feel a certain amount of legitimacy. Someone may fuck with me, true, but they're fucking with me in a place we share, and in a culture we share, and makes me doubly indignant and pissed off if and when it happens. In India? There's a small twinge in the back of the mind. I'm an interloper. What if I deserve to get screwed over, for intruding, for staring, for ogling? What the hell am I doing here?

I had to learn how to cross the street, again. Crossing the street is by far the most nerve-wracking and personally distressing experience one is likely to have on a regular basis. Many third-world travelers like to say, with a tone of wonderment, "The traffic does look awful. But I've never seen anyone get hurt or killed. It must not be all that dangerous."

This is a classic logical fallacy.

The Bangalore palace grounds.

In fact, the traffic fatality rates are worse then you could possibly imagine. A person who crosses the street in India is playing live-action Frogger, and there are no extra lives. I relearned by crossing in packs - waiting for groups of people to gather, then shuffling across with them. Easy enough.

I had to learn how to look through people again. This behavior is considered incredibly rude and snobbish in the USA and in most parts of the Western World. It's basic survival as a foreign female in India. Men - be they horndogs, beggers, or touts - are not supposed to approach strange women in traditional Indian culture. It is perfectly within your rights to remind them of this on a regular basis. Same goes for female beggers and con-women as well. You've got to look right through them. Pretend they're not there. Don't even flick an eyelash. A lot of foreign travelers make the mistake of saying "No thank you" or "Well, not today," or even "Fuck off or I will kill you and your family." All of these phrases translate, in the Indian begger/tout/horn dog mind as, "Oh, please, would you follow me for the next mile and a half and refuse to leave me alone? Please please would you?"

This is also a bit like saying, "Oh, yes, I am indeed a walking ATM! So terribly clever of you to have noticed."

No, you have to look right through them. Thankfully, this comes easy to me. Everyone who knows me is aware that I'm something of a prodigy in the "ignoring stuff" department. Some of us are more talented then others, right?

Chaat corner I used to frequent, back in 2008.

The guilt, that was harder to shove away. I wasn't here for any reason, really, other then my own curiosity. Sure, I had a blog, and was doing some private research on Hampi and the Vijayanagara Dynasty. I was doing food blogging, and making an effort to seek out interesting local foods and food-sellers for the somewhat hazy benefit of the General Internet. But I wasn't there to fix anything or help anybody, like Tom. I was an ogler. Charity's never come naturally to me, anyway. I'm an observer and a speculator. I make comments, usually wry ones. I'll walk into any bug-fuck insane place and I'll wander through any bazaar and I'll eat anything put in front of me, but getting involved? Nah, that shit is scary.

So I walked down the street self-concious, for the first few days. People stare at you all the time in India, unabashed and astonished staring. I was in Bangalore - a generally gentle Southern city with a lot less edge then Northern hot-spots like Delhi or Agra - and people almost always left me alone. But the sensation of sticking out, of being so obviously The Other. That's hard to readjust to.

And it's necessary to experience. I think all white upper-middle class people from the USA or Britain or Australia (or any majority Caucasian country) have got to do something like this, just to have a little taste of what it's like to be the Freaky Minority of the week somewhere else.

I had a discussion about this with the lady who ran my homestay.

"Indians stare more then anyone else, and at everything, but especially at you guys, you white people. It's horrible. I don't know how you foreigners handle it, the constant staring, all that looking."

"To be honest I get to a point where I stop noticing it. It's just part of life in India. Sort of like feral dogs, sewage pits, and evil auto drivers. But I'm not sure Indians are the only people who stare."

"Would people stare at a foreigner like that in your city, in California?" she asked, obviously incredulous.

"Probably not. We have pretty much everything in California. Even the bad stuff. But, trust me. If a woman wearing a sari, like you, walked into a small town in a place like Nebraska...well, Nebraska, it's like...the Bihar of the USA, right? Middle of nowhere, backwards, empty, very few people. You'd get stared at all day long. People would point at you and giggle, and follow you around, and take photographs. You'd stand out like a sore thumb."

She was shocked. "Even in the USA, people would still do that?" She hadn't really thought about it, of course. For her, the USA was a cosmopolitan place, mostly defined by the hyperactively diverse opposite coasts. But there's that whole giant middle to consider. My Indian friends would be freaks from Planet Hind there. I'm the giant freak from Planet New Orleans here. Same, same, different different. It's good for both of us, I think, to get a little taste of it.

I'm writing this from Old Delhi, about three weeks later. Of course all that initial anxiety and worry and guilt went away. It took exactly five days - I was curious about how long it would take for the tension and uneasiness to melt away, if it would. I woke up on the fifth day, walked into the street, got into a shouting match with four rickshaw drivers until I met one who wasn't actively evil, bargained for a couple pineapples on the street, and ate a masala dosa with sambar at a local South Indian joint. Everyone in the place was staring rapt at the Pakistani Cricket scandal unfolding on the TV screen above us, including me, and I was drinking lots of local filter coffee, and it was raining just a little bit outside. I stopped noticing, for about an hour, that I was in India, and then I stepped outside, and remembered. And it was "Oh, okay. India. I can do this." And that was that.

No comments:

Post a Comment