Daniel learned a lot from India. Yesterday on the bus ride to Pondicherry, he looked out at the lushness of South India and thought how much more easygoing it was than the arid north of mustaches and turbans, of cheating and motorcycles with gold pots hanging off the back, of simooms and Indian pride. He was glad he’d suffered and that now he could relax. He’d learned so many things, and now here he was on his penultimate day in India, having just eaten the best mango of his life.
Abdul, a Muslim carpet-dealer who had lived in New York and who had been Daniel’s favorite on the train ride, had a big bag of mangoes from Hyderabad. As a parting gift he gave Daniel one of the beautifully yellow mangoes, organic and natural, unlike Chennai mangoes, which are grown for the sole purpose of making money. The bus’ ignition was off, since it was stuck in traffic and carrying around the very ripe mango was beginning to be a burden: Daniel thought that if he accidentally applied any extra pressure to it, its thin skin would puncture and sticky juice would get everywhere and that would make for a disastrous cleanup. So, knowing it wasn’t the best idea, he decided to peel the mango and eat it. He did this. It was the best mango of his life. He accidentally ate the thin skin where the mango was beginning to over-ripen, and besides a difference in consistency, it was just as delicious as the rest of the yellow fruit. He didn’t care about his hands and face, and how he probably looked like a monkey to the people hawking cucumbers on the street watching him; he kept eating and dropped the pit and skin on the ground and shook the juice and pulp off his hands. He tried rubbing it off but that was no good; it only spread. He had to use his bottled water. He poured some into a cupped pulpy hand and rubbed both hands together. A brown dirty film spread into the wrinkles of his knuckles and into his cuticles. My hands are dirty, he realized. He cupped more water and washed most of it off his hands. His mouth was still sweet and sticky with mango juice. He took out some gum and when the child next to him saw it, he offered it to him. The father said, chewing gum, as if the child could understand. Then the child held out his little hand and Daniel put a piece in it.
He chewed it, barely containing his spittle. Daniel chomped loudly, trying to show him how to do it. He went back to reading. A minute or two passed, long enough for Daniel to be in the reading “zone.” Then the father said, “Give me water.” He said it with such authority that Daniel didn’t think, he just did as commanded. The father held the bottle to the baby’s mouth and poured some in. The baby wanted more. The father held Daniel’s water bottle to the baby’s mouth and the baby’s lips wrapped around it and Daniel hated the baby and the father and wished the baby serious pain and agony from swallowing the gum he’d given him. The father thanked Daniel, who was torn inside.
Is that water worthless?
It was just a baby’s mouth.
But his disgusting little lips were all over it.
But he’s a baby.
It was only gum; it’s not like it’s going to get stuck inside him for seven years.
Although that’s what Mom told you when you accidentally swallowed a piece at age three.
Well, he needs to learn the same lesson. And now I can’t drink from my water bottle with his slobber all over it.
You can. He’s just a baby.
This reasoning made Daniel feel only partially better. The father asked him, where are you from.
New York. There was a pause. Daniel asked, are you going to Pondicherry. The father said yes. “How much farther is it?” Daniel asked.
“Yes.” It felt like they had been driving for two hours already and Daniel hated this man, hated him for his stupid presumptuous child, his fat wife, for choosing next to sit next to Daniel, so that the two of them, some of the larger people on this bus, would share a seat and their bulk force against each other, cramping Daniel’s right knee; for trying to be friendly by asking where he’s from after stealing his water, as if that attempt at friendliness would justify his rudeness. And then the baby had the gall to put out his hand for another piece.
“No, you weren’t supposed to swallow it. You don’t get any more.”
The baby gave up and moved to his mother and fell asleep with his feet almost on Daniel’s lap. Daniel waited for the mother and the father to look the other way before he pinched the baby’s toe. A thin red line showed where the baby’s eyes didn’t fully close in his unconscious state. He didn’t want to wake the baby, just stir him into a state nearer to consciousness. He pinched once more and when the baby didn’t flinch, he gave up.
The man must have sensed Daniel’s hatred and at the first stop when half the bus disembarked, moved his family to the seat behind Daniel.
The 14-hour train plus 4 hour bus ride here was the (Pondi) cherry on his Indian cake. It was just another adventure in a reel, not nearly as bad as the 12-hour night bus from Khajuraho to Bhopal, spending the whole day in the airport in Bhopal, and upon getting to Hyderabad, sleeping outside because cabs to the city were too expensive and the bus service didn’t start for another six hours– waking up under those softly blowing palm trees in the warm Deccan sun and going to McDonald’s, that was great–no, this cramped four-hour bus ride wasn’t that bad at all. After this India trip, he was pretty sure he could go through anything short of a Siberian mining camp. He’d learned a lot.
His first impressions had been very accurate. He had bought a little red notebook, since he didn’t have his computer (long story) and while walking through Mumbai on his first full day he wrote a:
Under pinnace-leafed trees on yellow flowers fallen to the
Dusty brown foot path, I arrive at steps that carry me
To the other side of the train tracks.
The crows are like car horns– vocal– and the people,
Very many, pick up trash that can be of use.
“Hello” can be a warning, or a way to say “Come in.”
Thousands of rupees are mere dollars
And I have “Baby You’re a Rich Man Now” stuck in my head.
For Northerners alcohol causes dissipation
As for Southerners heat causes laziness.
They bob their heads side to side
To ease social interaction and make you feel at home.
Other things Daniel learned in his two Indian months:
Some people are neither good nor bad.
To really understand yourself you must be alone.
Cows can eat paper and humans can eat silver.
Indians can be aggressive but never dangerous.
India‘s neither as bad nor as good as they say.
The USA is just as extreme (minus the 27 languages).
He can already imagine meeting an attractive Indian girl in Murray Hill at a sports bar where he really shouldn’t be.
“I was just in India!” he’ll say.
“Oh, did you like it?” with a barely perceptible side-bob of her head. He’ll smile knowingly and say yeah, of course.
What foreign country can’t you like! For their differences and customs and discomforts and difficulties– all these things make you more aware of the problems in your own country and how everywhere in the world is so similar as to have their own context-particular problems built out of history and routine.
“My family is from Hyderabad.”
“Hyderabad– beautiful city!”
“You’ve been?” Her eyebrows rise.
“Yea-uh,” he says, as though it should be obvious. “Great roads, rich Muslim traditions.” She smiles.
“My family lives in Secunderabad, actually.”
“Ah-ha.” He didn’t go there, but he doesn’t need to say that. Yes, one of the secondary advantages to being well-traveled is impressing foreign women with knowledge of their country.
One of the primary advantages is being able to break down the borders of your own little world you’ve constructed. Let us illustrate this with a moment in time Daniel experienced in his post-prandial morning coffee rush, when he sat on his deck and enjoyed everything around him.
It is a bright day in Pondicherry. The trees shush and wave and the crows caw. The light dappling of clouds in the sky augurs summer in its full heady rush, the peak of the year, the hottest time. Everywhere is the languorous decay of a former French colony, the cracked yellow buildings, the high white columns, the chirp of accented voices, all remote from the motherland and all content in their tropical remoteness. Because this is a former colony, it has the dissipations of the north for sale, which are taken advantage of, or desired, as soon as possible. The heat is not enough to induce laziness and Europeans used to ruling over a subordinate people in that people’s home, will take precautions to further counter their own productivity, and enhance their enjoyment of exploitation.
Although this is not an island it may as well be. The Romans came here thousands of years ago because of how the waters flow in an almost complete circle around the little area, securing it, and making it easy to canalize. So that this little circle, built like a cherry, is an island within India, making it perhaps more remote from the rest of the subcontinental strain and overpopulation and pollution. The only reminder that we are still here on the main land is the multitude of crows.
It is fitting, I think, to spend my last day in India here, in this made up world that exists in itself, in India. It is symbolic of how people travel and how they can be content to live within worlds they create, avoiding the rougher edges of town to stay in comfortable decaying White Town (which is what the French colonial area is called). This world is safe and pleasant, but not as much as it used to be. Now there are too many motorbikes and the fringes are giving way to the outside neighborhoods, the Muslim and Indian areas. White Town has only aged, while the world around it has changed.
This is how most travelers travel and how most people live. So that when travelers return home they can say how it was, and they remember their brushes with the other world with disgust and fear, since they don’t understand, and they feel happy to have come back from Hades with their stories of death. That they returned intact is good enough; they survived. And they age in their White Town while the rest of the world changes and grows around them, so that when they are old they are afraid of what they see outside. The barriers have withered and fallen and what used to be safe is very, very different. They are old now, and ready to die, to escape from the rapid changes.
That is life for many people. During their golden years they are able to relax in their comforts and they refuse to change or explore. Meanwhile the rest of the world changes before them, and when they realize this they are already old, and resigned to death.
That’s fine. That’s how the world works. How people work. Even though Pondicherry has aged, people still come here because it is so comfortable and confident in being in its own world. It may not be as good as they expected, but that’s attributable to how things have changed (although it was never as good as they expected; the golden age is always ormulu anyway).
Daniel learned so many other things in so many experiences that you would have to read all of his blog posts straight through from the past two months in order to get a sense of how he feels on his last day in India: like he’s graduating.