Chennai, India - February 12, 2008
06.02.2008 - 12.02.2008
We learned that when things go awry in China, the catchphrase is “This is China;” when plans get thwarted in India, the phrase is “India wins again.” Upon leaving Indian territory and trying to process that portion of the trip, all I can say is that India won repeatedly, but I give myself points for good sportsmanship and not being a sore loser. The only time (that I know of) in which I earned some strikes against my global citizenship card was when B. and I took refuge from the great Chennai outdoors in a sari shop. The proprietor, as is customary, insisted on removing reams and reams of saris and other fabrics from the shelves, seemingly in hopes that by showing us his entire inventory we’d feel obligated not to leave him with a mess by taking lots of it off his hands. However, I wasn’t falling for it. I felt bad, but I had simply wanted to get out of what had felt like Dante’s Inferno outside. It was scorching hot and wet rag humid, but women must cover their shoulders and out of respect, I was wearing a long sleeve shirt over a t-shirt. I was also wearing jeans, which is probably the absolute worst thing to wear in such conditions but after two days of running around in Indian clothes that felt mentally uncomfortable, I was insistent about wearing my “real” clothes, no matter how physically uncomfortable that felt. B. was game, however, and she picked out several items. Bully for her. The shopkeeper turned towards me and swept his hand over the now totally covered counter – a riot of colors and textures, as if a unicorn had choked on a rainbow. He urged me to buy, saying, “You must! You must!” I politely replied, “No, thank you. They’re beautiful, but this,” making my own dramatic sweep of the hands, “is how I dress.” He wagged his finger, while uttering, “But you’re in India now,” at which I snapped back, “Yah, but I’m leaving.” Both he and B. looked at me as if I'd done something as uncouth as if I'd picked my nose and wiped it on sari. Taken aback by my reaction, B. pulled out a sheaf of rupees, and we reentered the fray outside of the shop. I hadn’t intended to be rude, but at that moment I had had it.
Ultimately, my experience of India was a masochistic one. I would go out and within minutes feel like I was drowning and fighting for my life, trying to get back to the shore. I would berate myself – how could I have done this to myself again. Then I would go limp, emotionally, and as soon as I stopped fighting, I’d feel encouraged. “Yes,” I’d tell myself, “I can do this.” But even that attitude would get sucked away by the heat and by nonstop assault on all the senses – my clothes sticking to my back and legs; the endless chatter of car horns; the barrage of colors and indescribable poverty adjacent to new development; a parade of odors both good and bad, every three feet; a cornucopia of flavors from sweet to fiery hot. No matter the circumstances, I would always end up feeling beaten down at the end. I’d slink back to the port and be so grateful to see the ship again, though at times when we’re it sea it feels like purgatory at best and prison at worst. I’d take several hours to recuperate in whatever ways were possible – sometimes lying down in my cabin, other times commiserating with other people who felt the same – and everybody who stayed in Chennai felt the same. Then after half a day or a day, I’d go out again, entirely optimistic, unbelieving that I would get my ass kicked again.
The day we left, I would say that more than 50 percent of the people on the ship were more than ready to leave. A typical banter was: “What’d you think of India?” followed by a hesitant pause and then, “I’m ready to leave.” Both parties would laugh, and someone would say, “yah, everybody’s saying that.” I honestly think almost everyone just wanted to get the hell out of there, but I have to admit that now that we’ve been at sea for a day, I miss it. I don’t miss Chennai – I don’t ever want to go there again. But I know that there were so many other places that I didn’t see, and I want to give them all a chance. I want them to give me a chance. I really wanted to go to the Kerala backwaters, and the folks who went there raved about it. I want to spend a week or a month at an ashram – there’s a famous one in Pondicherry that I visited, but the 20-minute tour was just a tease, as is this entire 4-month long trip. I only had time to eat in Mamalapurim, but there are rock carvings there that are supposed to be magnificent. Of course there is the Taj Mahal, which those who saw marveled about and yet the area around the Taj is supposedly even more destitute than the bad parts of Chennai. I want to see Ganges River and the places where they cremate the dead. I want to see all of it. Even in Chennai, I would like to visit the film studios like one of the groups did, so already I contradict myself. I would go back Chennai to see Chollywood.
I hope my writings haven’t given India a bad rap; for, as our speaker Raghi cautioned us, we can’t judge India too harshly for the problems she has are shared by everyone everywhere. When I mentioned the homeless in San Francisco, it was nowhere near what I saw in India, but for sure it is everywhere – as is the chaos and constant struggle and the battles both won and lost. And for all the things that blew my mind in a negative way, there were pockets of … I don’t know what to call them. For instance, the ashram in Auoroville, founded by Sri Aurobindo, was an oasis in the even larger oasis of Pondicherry. It was so calm and peaceful there. Similarly, when our group visited the temple on Day 3 of our AFP, I genuinely felt … something. We weren’t allowed to enter, but I physically felt all my cells humming. I can’t explain how or why. N., I., and I had hired a driver to take us to Pondicherry and on the way back that night we passed a tree that was entirely engulfed in flames – a burning bush. Moments later, our driver stopped at a roadside eatery, where a man was cooking up something that smelled delicious in a wok over an open pit fire. Though it was Indian food, N. said that the style of cooking was very Chinese. When our driver had completed his business, we returned to the road, only to come to a dead standstill moments later. We couldn’t see what was going on, but it looked like there probably had been an accident further up the road. A mishmash of vehicles and gawkers on foot were chattering away, but of course the three of us were in the dark, literally and figuratively. I thought we’d be there for hours, but just as suddenly as we’d come to a halt, we were moving again. I never saw what had caused the pile up, but in the distance I saw what I thought was more fire … which, as we got closer, revealed itself to be lights – like Christmas lights – outside of a roadside temple. Fire, fire everywhere, punctuated by stars high up in the sky. Oasis. Moments like those were a precious find and helped to make good on India’s tourism slogan: Incredible India.
I think the act of driving (and being driven) provides the best metaphor for what I experienced. As I mentioned just getting into a vehicle and being carried somewhere felt like throwing caution to the wind, risking one’s life just the sake of changing locale. Maybe this is true everywhere, but there it felt like the reality of one’s frail connection to life was outlined in flashing neon brightness – a brightness that one fought to keep from being blackened by all the pollution.
Time and again I was reminded of the old Atari game, Frogger. When I mentioned it to T. one day, he laughed and said “Oh god, please don’t bring that up. I was horrible at it, and I don’t want to think about it now.” We were walking, and even in walking, every moment was a near catastrophe, but each disaster avoided became a triumph, and so, in India, I felt that every moment teetered and tottered on the midway point between calamity and crowning glory. We made it – across the street, across town, across India.
Of the many questions I had about this overgrown Tiger, as she is sometimes referred, many were unanswered. I don’t know if he will reply, but here’s what I wrote to B.S. Raghavan:
I wanted to take a moment from our hectic schedule to thank you for so graciously welcoming and interacting with our students a few days ago. We are all agreed that our visit with you was the highlight of our academic program. Each of us was inspired by your wisdom and attitude towards life.
I was particularly thrilled by meeting you, having come across some of your writings when I was a graduate student myself some years ago. But in preparing the students for meeting you, I was warmly surprised to learn that you are a poet as well. While I’ve not had the opportunity to read any of your poetry, I felt a kindred spirit in that I also have published some poetry, though only in journals. As with our student Kandayce, spirituality is the basis of my creative connection to my surroundings. I believe that my highest writings of that nature occurred after my mother passed away a few years ago. I wanted to ask you more about your writing endeavors, and particularly your Hindu poetry, but I didn’t want to take time away from you and the students.
I had so many other questions, and I am hoping that I may ask them now. While I would appreciate your thoughts or comments on any of the following, I hope you will respond only if you find the questions genuinely stimulating.
My first question is about the role of skin color in India. During our meeting with you, the students asked about the caste system and the status of women, but the matter of gradations in skin pigmentation was not raised. I am curious as to whether darker toned individuals meet with any kind of differential treatment in your society than lighter skinned people do.
I was also curious about your thoughts on India’s relationship with Pakistan and India ’s general attitude towards Africa, whether the continent-at-large or any specific to any region. Coupled with that, I know that many Indians have settled in East Africa and in Durban , South Africa for generations, and I wonder how this is viewed in Mother India. Does India miss her Indians of the diaspora? Along the same lines, I saw a billboard in Chennai calling for investments in South Africa as an “emerging market.” Does India view herself as an emerging market of equal status, or does she regard herself at a different level of "elevation?"
Regardless of whether I hear from you or not, it was a great pleasure and honor to meet you. I cannot lie – I am as changed as the students were by our meeting.
All the best,
Lorna Mpho Mabunda
Global Cultures and Social Change
Assistant Director, Learning Resource Center
The Scholar Ship
Within a couple of days he wrote back:
I returned this morning from a week of engagements (mainly addressing coferences) in the deep south, and I was overjoyed at being greeted by your warm-hearted message.
All of you would noticed how happy I was in your midst. Believe me, I have rarely seen such a group of bright persons who are also so very friendly and intellectuously curious.
Now to your questions:
Yes, Lorna, people in India are conscious of skin complexion...generally fair complexion enjoys a high premium in choice of brides and bridegrooms, and predisposes employers also in the job market. I wish we were not so very skin conscious, but we are.
India's relationship with Pakistan is a complex web of contradictions. We were one country when the continent was partitioned and shared a lot of the cultural and civilisational heritage. Now the relationship has degenerated into a suffocating distrust, although we keep talking of confidence-building, people-to-people contact etc. I do not see any quick resolution of the issues between the two countries.
As regards, Africa, the countries there are not too prominent on the psyche of an average Indian...whether he is an average householder, academic, youth, business persons and so on. There is of course tremendous admiration for Mandela, but otherwise Africa generates neither positive nor negative vibes. But, of late, policy makers and academia are turning their attention to Africa and efforts are being made to build bridges and bring about a greater understanding.
India's diaspora is doing well wherever it is and contributing greatly to inflows of wealth. Thanks to modern communications and easy travel, there is close contact with members of the diaspora who nowadays visit India very often. So, we do not particularly miss them.
India has been ranked 4th among world economies after US, Japan and China on purchasing power parity terms, and is expected to overtake Japan by 2020. It is no longer an emerging market in that sense, and perhaps regards itself, as you say, at a different level of elevation.
Your very kind and affectionate words about the meeting have buoyed me up considerable. I hope to be hearing not only from you but many of the others as well who were on the Scholar Ship.
Please send a few poems of yours .. meanwhile, I shall also share some of mine with you.
My greetings to all the members of the group.
With all best wishes:
That Raggie responded at all made me very happy.
Meanwhile, as a last note on India, there were some who were moved in such a way by what they saw that they definitely want to come back. By and large those were the students who created their own service projects, for instance those who went down to Kerala to teach English at a local school or those we went back to the Mother Theresa orphanage to play with the children. They fell in love; I did not. But I appreciate having had the experience. There were some who felt that Chennai is not a port that TSS should return too. I think the bulk of those who expressed that opinion, were those who are more inclined towards the Club Med style of vacation. Though I was confronted with myself repeatedly, I feel like it’s just the sort of place that TSS should go to – although, it’d be nice to have more preparation, though some feel that a bracing plunge, such as we had, provides the best education.
I will add that not all of the dangers were imaginary or tame. Apparently there were some genuinely troublesome encounters with persons of authority and/or locals. I don’t want to go into detail in this venue but suffice it to say that an investigation by the U.S. Consulate is being urged by a staff member who is a Human Rights attorney. Some of the incidents were grievous in nature, including some attempts by port police to coerce bribery or actual incidents of confiscating personal goods like cameras that were never returned, and in at least one case, a student allegedly had a gun drawn on him or her and was allegedly pushed in front of a train after failing to produce what was wanted. I know of one faculty member who was also roughed up a little and nearly had some recently purchased DVDs confiscated from him. I didn’t have any encounters of that nature. There was the drunken escapade, in which I foolishly snapped a photo, but nothing really happened, and I never genuinely felt like I was in danger of any sort of irreversible repercussion. So again, I won’t say that India was “bad;” only that it wasn’t easy.
Next stop: Seychelles.