Part II: Could I Live in India? A Story of Unbuilding
“When I come to India it’s always during moments of transition,” my flat mate had said.
That night, sitting on the roof, with the iron-skeleton of an unfinished building rising beside the saffron, green, and white of the Indian flag in the distance, I found something poetic in the idea of transition. There was a bond between India and I. On the one hand, a developing nation. On the other, my own development.
I recently read the novella, Ghosts, by an Argentina writer, Cesar Aira. He used the metaphor of the unbuilt—like the rusted structure of iron ahead—as a metaphor for the flight of dreams into space.
“There is always a difference between dreams and reality,” his narrator explains in the novella, “which becomes clearer as the superficial contrast diminishes. The difference…(is) reflected in the architecture, which is… a reciprocal mirroring of what has already been built and what will be built eventually. The all-important bridge between the two reflections (is) provided by a third term: the unbuilt.”
I found the idea compelling. The unbuilt reflects dreams in their abstract design before materiality–panels, piping, insulation, bricks, and walls–flushes them into invisibility.
“Dreams are pure space…” the narrator elaborates, “Beyond this point, the timeless mental material of the unbuilt is detached from the field of possibility, ceases to be the personal failure of an architect whose more daring projects stalled for want of financial backing, and becomes absolute.“
An obtuse, complicated metaphor to be sure. But it seemed appropriate there in the shadow of the unfinished apartment complexes–or whatever dreams they might be. It encapsulated to me my own uncertainty about what I was doing in India. It evoked the friction between the real and the unreal as millions upon million’s of Indian citizens wrestled their dreams into physical existence day-to-day.
The principle of the unbuilt manifests itself in common Indian sights: the autowalla, rushing down the street, so that they can send their children to school; the boy studying on the neighboring rooftop; or the girl, with the two black braids, sitting at the end of the street in the dhobi shop, smiling over her math homework at me when I bring my laundry–both dreaming of futures as doctors, civil servants, engineers.
The unbuilt stood there by the Indian flag several miles away, one story in India’s economic development.
Like a building-under-construction, the years of my life piled atop one another like stories, pulling from wonder the existence of memory, meaning, and scars.
“I like the idea of transition,” I said, tipsy on Old Monk. “But I’ve never personally felt that way since being here.” I stood up and walked to the edge of the roof. There was no guardrail—only the leaves of the potted plants barred my chest from the sudden drop from the balcony to the street below.
“Transition implies being caught between two things, and the anxiety that causes. But I’ve always felt, when I’m in India,” my hands waved in the air in the frustration to find words, “ As if I’ve been on some kind of line. Almost every time I’ve been here it’s been for work, so that I can come back here again in the future. I’m climbing rungs, one at a time. You put in your time, or else you don’t move ahead.”
But if there was anything to move “forward to” I didn’t know. Initially, my desire to learn about India stemmed from a desire to escape from America.
But one can never escape from one’s cultural horizons—national or otherwise. They lock your eyes into their distance, no matter where you go. I had no way to assess, since I began my passage to India, how much I had actually expanded my perception of the world around me. Does one notice daily growth in millimeters? I thought. But in the pursuit of this illusory goal, other responsibilities had begun to materialize on my horizon. There was the pressure to find a respectable job and set upon my career path, or decide upon a graduate school program for the upcoming year, which would further cement the future path of my life in stone.
What was cultural understanding?
“It’s not that I’m not putting in my time too,” my flat mate, the PhD, said. He waved his hand, the ghost of my Indian-academic-future. “For the religious studies department, you have to put in at least one or two years in India—even it’s not related to your work. That’s what my professors did. It’s what I’m doing now.”
“Most of our research is from books,” he said. “But there’s the authenticity too. You have to prove your credentials. To be a “real” scholar on India you have to go and spend some time there.” He nodded to himself and stared in the direction of Govind Marg and the red neon lights of the Ramada Inn.
The contents of my glass had dropped considerably. Most of what I had learned about India had been from the lectures and assignments of my professors at UVA. What must have their own relationship to the subcontinent been like, when they were my age? I wondered… to teach so passionately about a subject they lived so far away from? Maybe they had developed an intense desire to discover another another way of seeing what the world has to offer like I had, only to face the insurmountable wall of cultural difference. What twists and turns had led them to their present positions teaching from the security and comfort of their offices and classes at UVA?
There were probably a lot of reasons—reasons I had only begun to consider. They did not want to live far away from their families and friends. There was a more lucrative demand for South Asian experts in America. They had grown fatigued by the crush of the Indian crowds, the lack of toilets, the ephemeral electricity. Hindi might have been a language too arduous for them to ever master with fluency. Or perhaps India was an idea that they only wanted to keep at a distance—to occupy during office hours, rather than invite into the intimate space of the home.
But, then again, many of them had married Indians.
“I bet our teachers asked ourselves these same questions, when they were our age,” I glanced up at my roommate. “Professor X and Professor Y. They probably also wondered how long they could stay in this country. I used to think I could only stay here for a few years. I thought that the strain would be too much.”
“Living here can definitely be exhausting,” my flat mate said. He emitted a sigh. “Always navigating your way through the traffic. Everyone shouting at you and looking at you. The trash. Not being able to talk to anybody.” He pursed his lips. “But maybe that feeling changes after you’ve been here a while. I’ve never stayed in India for more than a few months. This year in Jaipur will be an experience.”
“I haven’t either.”
“Want to get another drink?”
A ladder caked with rust connects the top of our roof with the floor of our apartment. We carefully descend the stairs, holding onto the railings. We had left our wooden front door wide open. I had worried about intruders and the safety of our things while on the roof. But now the door welcomed us like an open arm. The light of the ceiling lamps reflected off of the pearl-polish of the marble floors into a golden glow.
My roommate picked up the Old Monk bottle. It splashed and rose in small amber waves against the side of the glass. He trudged to the sink to cut the rum with water from the plastic tube connected to our filter. The water from our filter always comes out warm, sticky, and zapped with electricity.
I lifted the bottle. I poured my glass, and wondered about cultural understanding–whether the interaction between cultures was really so different than the interaction between individuals.
Despite your closeness with another person—despite your capacity to understand them, love them, empathize when them, internalize them into yourself—isn’t it impossible to maintain a state of shared unity with them? Isn’t it true that in the end, we have no choice but to retreat back into the isolated walls of our individual selves?”
The alcohol was having its effect. I grinned at myself: literary metaphors and philosophizing in a single night! There are all sorts of drunks—happy drunks, depressed drunks, angry drunks, Romeo drunks. Whenever I had a couple of glasses, and the company was right, I inevitably slide into nonsense. I imagined Galib, an Urdu poet. He would often spend his nights writing poetry and wandering around his kitchen with an open bottle of wine, wrestling the apparitions of his earthly and divine loves onto parchment with his ink and quill.
I topped off my Rum with Coke and led my roommate back up the iron stairs. Each of our footsteps resounded with a metal clang. Once again we surfaced into the clear night air with the panorama of the neighborhood, rooftops, roads, lights, windows—and, further back—hills hugging the city in their wide embrace. On the front street a single man walked steadily down the road, with his arms hanging and swaying at his sides with a looseness particular to the Indian stride—one of many things I would have to learn to imitate.
If individual consciousness can never escape beyond itself for long, I continued, settling into my chair, then is culture a larger manifestation of this same principle? Are we American individuals—here in India for trade, scholarship, tourism, diplomacy whatever—only like exchanged words in a larger historical conversation between two larger cultural consciousnesses? Will culture, eventually, collapse and pull us back in yearning for itself, like a spider it’s web: for family, familiarity, and home?
The night-lights swum pleasantly. We were less like animals than ideas ourselves in the swirling-night-sky-pool–consciousness-of-the-world, our own dabs and splashes if color.
And it was beautiful.
But my epiphany was not progress toward an understanding of the “Other India”—an ideal my younger self perhaps believed in—so much as it was sinking into myself.
Cesar Aira explained through his metaphor of the “unbuilt” that our thoughts, desires, wishes, and aspirations worm their way into physical reality. And when they collide with hard materiality, they don’t take the forms we intend. But there we sat, miracles of a cultural exchange whose proof was our very existence.
And if such existence is possible, then understanding and belonging are also possible–perhaps in patterns we don’t expect.
“People say that India is this tolerant, accepting place,” my flat mate said, tapping on his glass, as if to awake me from my dreaming. “That nobody is racist here. But that’s not true. India is an incredibly racist country. They look at our skin and assume we’re rich. They take our photographs to show off their white Western friends. That’s the thing for me. No matter what we do, we can’t escape privilege.”
I stared down at my hand. How lucky, to be sitting there on that roof. How lucky, to be sitting on this end of globalization. I felt in the palm of my hands. The goals, strivings, and struggles of countries and individuals over the past hundreds of years had formed an opacity in the space between my eyes and knees. It was a reality I had not intended, but nevertheless could see and feel and embody. Was it possible that this unintended opacity was a door locking out the passage of some types of understanding from the real of existence?
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