My travel experiences do not capture typical life in India for the average person, as far as I can tell. I can touch on commonalities and strive for understanding, but I am always coming from a particular history and culture (this is the case for all of us). My race, gender, and nationality can never be ignored or overcome, to bring me into any sort of “authentic” experience. Every story is translated through foreign eyes, and potentially only exists because of my unusual status: technically in the “indecent” category, yet also privileged, slipping past normal boundaries, liberated and isolated by my difference.
The outsider, privileged status allows me to move through many layers of Indian society, the novelty factor giving me a buffer space in which I can meet the economically disadvantaged — a strange enough presence to slip into people’s lives for a moment.
Of course, correct me where I am wrong.
My brain adapts to my environment, and over time I began to be more comfortable in grittier environments. With an extraordinary ability to tunnel-vision, I can forget that the United States exists, forget the shiny, tailored world of mainstream America, the manicured public space and extensive (and expensive) grocery stores. If I am away from middle-class India for long enough, I slip into a reality bound by train compartments and chai stalls, hand-washed clothes and cold bucket showers.
For some reason, the lowest economic class accepted me with less fuss than its more privileged brethren. I was less an anomaly…or, rather, equally out-of-place but less likely to made to feel the distance.
Every day in Bodhgaya, walking down the dirt road from the Bhutanese temple, I received a smattering of female voices calling out, smiles across generations — a mother and her daughter at least, if not more women gathered in their multipurpose tent. The front acts as a restaurant of sorts, a homemade bench-like table supporting pots, utensils, and a kerosene stove; two or three mismatched plastic chairs set out for the customers, all open to the air. A bed occupies the back of the tent, a wooden platform draped in mosquito netting. Every time I hear them calling out, inviting me to come in and eat, I smile but do not stop.
The last morning, I build in time to have a chai.
The young-looking girl turns out to be fourteen; she takes my order. Her mother rolls up into a sitting position on the bed, bursts into a smile, and points to one of the chairs, inviting me to sit. Her daughter prepares the chai with confident, practiced movements: pouring water and milk, measuring out the rolled black tea (it’s alright that it’s part artificial, the cup will only cost five rupees), taking out a beaten tin canister of masala spices, pumping the ancient stove and setting the pot on to boil. The mother and I can only gesture and smile without a common language, but her daughter and I are able to chat: encouraging education, discouraging early marriage. Not a lecture, just attempting to use my celebrity status to celebrate her dreams and ideas rather than standard social roles. I applaud her English skills and focus on discussing her studies. Her mother is all warmth and welcome, the daughter performance and maturity.
The chai is delicious.