Part III: Could I Live in India? The Permanent Tourist

“You know its racism because sometimes I think the Indians are staring at me even when they’re not,” I said to my flat mate, glancing up from my hand, and once again resting it on my leg. A few moments before my flat mate had brought up the issue of privilege in India, and our inability, as American visitors to escape from the perception of privilege: the privilege of belonging to a rich, Western country, where public facilities like water and electricity flowed like milk and honey in a promised land; where everyone drove a car down beautiful, clean, uncongested streets; where the government, politicians, and bureaucrats weren’t as corrupt; where want had been perceived to be eliminated.

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Privilege seemed to be a particularly heavy word to my flat mate. Heavy like a stone he bowed his head under, nose hanging over his rum glass. The lights of the windows in the Jaipur neighborhood winked off to sleep, one by one. Before this moment it had seemed like the rest of the city was up with us that night: a man wandering down the road; a father flipping the page of a newspaper from his armchair in a living room; a servant dipping roti into daal in the kitchen after dinner had been prepared for the family; a mother tucking her children into bed. But now the windows were dark; it was difficult to see one another’s faces. The two of us sat alone on the roof.

It was interesting that my flat mate used to word privilege to describe his barrier to belonging in India. I knew only a little about his upbringing, aside from what he had personally told me during other nights of drinking and conversation. He grew up in California in the 80s, where youth culture was more liberally anxious and politically active than my own conservatively quiet Oklahoma upbringing. My flat mate told me that when he was college he joined protests against the discriminatory treatment of illegal Mexican workers, “Like the ones who assembled in front of the local grocery store for day labor in the morning,” he had told me. My flat mate was ethnically Mexican, on his mother’s side. His father was a roofer. He was the black sheep of his family—an intellectual—who had entered into the world of academics and middle/upper class white privilege.

In America, discrepancies in privilege were probably boundaries he felt more acutely than I did. It was within this world that our paths intersected with one another.

“I took a class on Harlem Renaissance Writing my junior year at college,” I went on. My own personal experiences with discrimination in the U.S. had mostly been confined to a second-person account of how it felt from books, in which authors expressed the psychological complexities of being looked at differently. But of course, the positive discrimination we experienced here in India—where people wanted to take our pictures to brag to their friends—was not the same as the more damaging racism that had occurred in America.

“All of our novels were from the perspectives of African-Americans in the 1920s and 1930s,” I said, contextualizing the class. “One of the novels featured a self-conscious girl with especially dark skin. In school she thought that everyone was laughing at her, even when they weren’t. In the narration it was difficult to tell how much of her anxiety was caused by real racism, paranoia, or her other personal insecurities. The author made an important observation about racism, I think.” I rose from my chair to stretch my arms and legs. “Whenever I hear a sudden burst of laughter when I am walking down the street in India, I feel like people are staring at me, judging me, or cracking a joke about me, even if I suddenly turn around and see they’re not paying attention to me at all.

The suspicion of being a walking spectacle, undoubtedly, is aggravated by living in a tourist city. Tourists flock to Jaipur every year. They stay in fancy hotels and spend their days wandering through the marketplaces buying local Rajasthani handicrafts, statues of the gods, artwork, and Indian clothing. They sometimes wear clothing inappropriate according to Indian standards, showing off too much skin—especially girls in tank tops. The tourists travel in pairs, with backpacks and expressions of wide-eyed wonder. When Indians approach them to talk, conversation is limited. They answer in French, Spanish, Italian, or English, tucked behind an invisible cloak of semantics only breached by the most persistent of dukandars (shop owners).

On a train, a woman with her baby had told me, “You must understand our surprise when we hear you speak! Often we see the tourists, but are unable to talk with them.”

Whenever I walk down the streets of places like Raja Park, I am mistaken for a tourist. Autowallas on the side of the road jump from to attention as soon as I approach.

“Aao, Aao,” (Come, come!) they shout at me. They scramble out of their front seats. “Bathiye!” (Please sit!) they call, sweeping their hands toward their cushioned seats.

I swerve around them, trying not to make eye contact. I know exactly where I am going, I think. I walk to save money. I do not need an auto. Please do not assume I always need an auto. Still, they shout after me, as if I am a lost tourist, “Please? Yes? Where are you going?”

“It’s not only the autowallas who reinforce the feeling that we’re foreigners,” I said.

“The young guys are the worst,” my flat mate responded, nodding his head in shared annoyance.

Young men will ride by on motorcycles and yell at us with grins and giggles, “Hello, Hello, how are you?” The best you can do is smile and repeat with a wave “Hello, I’m fine, thanks?” before continuing on your way. If you stop, the boys will exchange glances with one another: good one, you got the Westerner to talk! Then they approach you with the questions: “What is your name? Where are you from? Do you like India? What is your phone number?”

Their intentions are good and curiosity understandable. The annoyance isn’t so much a matter of intent, goodwill, or what they say so much as it is the number of times you are forced to answer the same questions. There is nothing you can do about it; it is an aspect of India of being a guest in this country that you must happily accept. But in the evenings, after time the heat has pulled all the sweat from my pores, I would prefer to walk home in peace.

The tourist “type” works both for me and against me. Sometimes I throw on the costume of the tourist when I am tired, and do not want to interact with the upturned hands and inquiring eyes. I act dumb, like I don’t understand. I recall the Mexicans I used to work with at my dad’s furniture warehouse in my own country.  They joked that when they didn’t want to deal with a troublesome client, they slipped into Spanish.

“Que Paso?”

But the tourist type usually does not work in my favor. No matter what I do, people believe that I have come to Jaipur to see the sights and to wander. I must be in the city for two or three weeks, but no longer, they assume. The only way I can communicate that I am currently living in India is to fight my way through their thick cloak of expectation by using Hindi words to display my earnestness and individuality.

I have invested years learning Hindi, learning about your religions, your politics, your history, your cinema, your literature. I have returned to your country four times now. I’ve invested a lot of time: please don’t distance me with your eyes every time you meet me.

But I am the outlier, the exception to the general rule. My skin signals more than my words do.

“There was one night in Lucknow where I think I felt what people call culture shock,” I told my roommate, suddenly. I turned back in the direction of my chair and paused; I wasn’t entirely sure this was a memory I wanted to share. My flat mate didn’t seem to notice; he continued staring past me from his chair out at the dim desert stars. He occasionally raised his arm to take a sip from his drink before once again lowering it to his side.

I decided to address this ghost too. If fascination with India’s customs, clothes, architecture, foods, spices, dancing, and arts had characterized my first Indian experience—akin to the Jaipur tourist—then disenchantment, frustration, exhaustion, and apathy with India had certainly been the primary emotions of my second.

“All of the minor stresses I was dealing with last summer came to a head,” I said, leaning my hands over the metal back of my chair. “I wondered what had driven me to this country, so far away from absolutely everything I knew. That night scared me—it scared me how capable I was of sending myself away.” 

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 In Lucknow I sat on the edge of my bed in my room, staring down at my knees. The sheets of my bed were green. It was black outside my window, and the lamp above my head illuminated the room in artificial bright light. I could hear the hum of the electrical current funneling through the circling blades of the ceiling fan. It must have been around 10:00. My host parents had gone to bed. All was silent—a silence that only comes from knowing you are the only person awake in a house in a foreign country.  

Sheets of Urdu homework were sprawled over my bed. There were always an infinite number of words left to memorize. It was getting progressively difficult to memorize vocabulary. The words entered my mind in the same way that a finger, after poking a single spot repeatedly loses the sensation of touch. I repeated the same monotonous schedule every day: class at the Urdu institute, lunch, wandering alone around the city, dinner, returning to my room for the vocab that waited for me. I despaired over ever learning Urdu or Hindi. I sat there staring at my hands cupped between my knees.    

The real issue wasn’t language. It was India. The exhaustion had built up slowly. I missed the peacefulness of walking out onto a neighborhood street without having to keep an eye out for stray dogs and headlights. I had grown tired of the amount of energy that had to be expended for even the smallest adventure: like arguing with the rickshawalla over your fare every time if you wanted to move from one side of the city to the other; of the beggars in the marketplace who shoved their hands insistently at you with their needs, “hungry, hungry”; the fatigue at the atmosphere of India’s collective striving and competition with one another; the constant, ephemeral surprise when you tried to speak with anyone in Hindi, whether on the bustling street or the relaxing atmosphere of a home: “where are you from? Why are you here? Where did you learn?”

Then there was the filth and the poverty. That baby on the street with the swollen, red rotten ear, with the flies buzzing above her head, lying on a blanket on the sidewalk; the emaciated frame of the man, also lying on a blanket, at the train station, who looked as if he had not eaten in months, and had perhaps died of starvation; the Indian eyes trained on you at all times with barked greetings of “hellos, please come,” which coalesce to remind you every day: “You are a foreigner, you are a foreigner, you do not belong” to stimulate in a lonely, tired mind the question: what are you doing in this country?

The fear—is their any other word?—of my unanticipated detachment from the country and myself quivered through my hands into my knees and made me wonder about privilege: the influence first-world comforts had over my emotional and mental states, after I had been so long without them. It made me despise my reliance on my privilege and feel weak. We humans like to believe we’re above material attachment, and hate ourselves when we aren’t.

But more than the nostalgia for first world facilities, cleanliness, and order, there was the nagging question of what had driven me here in the first place, away from the safety and comfort of my home…what it was inside of me that drove me away from the people I knew to the other side of the world.  

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“And so that was the first time I really began to question what I was doing here in India,” I said, pressing my hands over my chair. “And whether it would have been better for me, if I had pursued more traditional work back in the US.” I sat back in my chair. The city faced me like an interrogator in a sky-room with the single hanging lamp-of-the-moon: “Well, could you live in India?” The city asked. And, more importantly,

“What for?”

I had long sense progressed past that feeling of homesickness. I had gotten used to the daily, questioning stares. I had learned to shrug off a curiosity that was only natural. My ability to speak in Hindi and Urdu had improved considerably—and along with that, my ability to communicate with locals and answer questions about America and my reason for being here. For better or worse, I had started to become numb to the occasional sights of poverty, sickness, and deprivation—much as many of the Indians here had as well. Perhaps the only thing left, then, was learning how to communicate with my own elusive motive for being here, and channel it into my work.

Or perhaps I already knew it after all, and just didn’t want to say it aloud. Perhaps I wanted it to remain there, floating, formless and inarticulate, on the edge of my consciousness—like a ghost that never quite manages to possess a body—but ready to enter at any time, if I am willing to let it.

“I’m glad Fulbright’s given me the chance to live here for a year,” I said, draining the rest of my drink. I wiped my mouth and started toward the ladder that led to our apartments on the floor below. We had to be up at nine o’clock for school the next morning. It had gotten late..well past 2:00 o’clock in the morning.

“After living here for an entire year I’ll know whether I want to stay in India longer,” I said to my flat mate as he also climbed to his feet–as a drunken declaration, to him or myself–, “or whether I want to go home.”

We filed back into our new apartment. Closing the door and settling under the sheets of our beds, we turned off the moonlight like one turns off a bedside lamp.

For that night, at least, the interrogation stopped. There would only be hundreds of more nights like it before the end of my project in September.

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