“You seem like an India person.”
We’re standing at the sink around the corner from my room. One of my hands is immersed in a soapy bowl of water; I decided that it would be rude to keep splashing my underwear around while having a conversation, so my frozen hand pretends it is not doing laundry. My next-door neighbor is telling me why I will miss India when I am in Thailand.
Our Kolkata guest house is multilayered, with miniature rooms opening up onto two concrete terraces populated by plastic furniture. Every night, chairs shift between the levels as groups of chatting travelers steal seats from the rival terrace. The hospital-green paint peels off the cement walls, the doors are made of plywood, and I know it has been for years because some people date their graffiti. Where the concrete railing stops, a metal fence topped with barbed wire ensures our encapsulation, and I wonder who would climb three stories to steal from such cheap backpackers as us. I know I love India, but I try not to stare at her warm, open face telling me how disappointing the clean, quiet spaces of Thailand will be.
For the last week or so, the refreshed harassment and hassle forced a new goal: survive until Saturday, and Bangkok. After one particularly horrible day of staring, I caught myself gazing into the spotted mirror hanging over our outdoor sink, wondering what was wrong with my face. I am being tested and pushed up until the last moment, as if the country is saying, “Does she really love us? Is she really going to come back?.” *India repeatedly kicks me in the stomach* “Are you sure? Eh?”
As she’s talking, I can see the crooked metal fence climbing out of the concrete wall behind her, the cords (both rope and electric) used for drying laundry, the crumbling apartments cutting a dull sky, the tarp strung over the alley… and the memory of a tidy, bright Thai train station I saw in a photograph that morning flashes across my mind.
But she’s right. India means streets bursting with life, the raw potential for deep experiences, and a flutter of colors in fabric, spices, and adornments. Religion weaves through space and cities, shrines and altars are squeezed between shops, tucked onto shelves, and plopped at the center of neighborhoods. You are allowed – demanded – to feel here, to face human misery and potential.
With such a dense population, you must learn to share. There is always more space on the bus, bench, or train. Everyone squeezes together to accommodate more people. Where Americans would put four, Indians put ten. It is a mentality of adjustment: we’ll make it work. A parking lot attendant will make space somehow, the clerk will make an exception, the ticket collector knows that you can get there if you get off the bus in the middle of the countryside and grab a rickshaw the rest of the way. There’s space here – it’s just not between the people squished into the car.
As awful as constantly being stared at has been, there is often humor and genuine curiosity. And with women, I know connection by touch: taps on the knee that mean a thousand different things, grandmotherly hands resting on my head as if I was a child, girls grasping for my fingers. I’ve seen women slide down to rest on the floor of a stuffed train car, legs neatly tucked together as if they were one person. Their softness folds in around me, some nestled together at my feet, an arm resting on mine, others in various states of embrace as we accommodate each other. In those moments, I am accepted into their communal world.
There is so much more to say, all the stories to tell from when daily life prevented my writing anything. Sitting at the airport in Kolkata, excited about a new stage of the adventure, but still harboring a quiet sadness at the thought of leaving India.
12:30 a.m. and time to leave a crowd’s perceived security. Second class (general ticketing) cars are at the extreme ends of a train. Money buys convenience as well as comfort and safety. Guidebooks and websites warn that foreigners should avoid this class unless taking the curious or adventurous brief slumdip.
Pushing through the void occupying my heart and mind, I strategize, study patterns, and aim for the last cars to buy reaction time when the train chugs by. With every step down a dark, less and less populated platform, I abandon a known world for where I imagine the final cars will fall.
My tense face relaxes when I see her: an older woman seated next to several sleeping bodies. I ignore open space and strategically position myself beside her.
An anomaly everywhere, I know how unusual a foreigner, a woman, a foreign woman alone, is in general ticketing. But the grandmother smiles, and in a moment the sleeping bodies transform into more women, and a ten-year-old pops up with Christmas-morning delight.
The four of them encircle me, all smiles and gentle curiosity, and the classic exchange begins: we orient each other on our origin, family, hometown. A collection across three generations, they are a daughter, mother, and two grandmothers. The girl has a smattering of English, and they do not speak Hindi. The irrelevant efforts of two English-speaking young men quickly fade in comparison to the energy and communication in our circle.
The first grandmother, the lady I sat next to, is warm, wiry, and strong, smiles easily and refuses help. The second grandmother was cool, assured, silent; and the mother emanated kindness, and a quiet energy that bursts in her daughter.
Suddenly we are interrupted by the appearance of a tall Indian woman in a long flowing white glittery sari, several platforms in the distance. I have no idea where she came from or what she is doing alone, but we all stop and stare in awe. For once, I am in the staring group, although we must be too far away for her to notice.
My quarters exhausted by children, I produce my only dollar bill when the girl asks about an American coin: clean and uncreased, I have been saving it for something, and I know this energetic, expressive, optomistic girl is it. Emphasizing her intelligence and future, I offer it to her. One of the grandmothers attempts to pay for it, and I have to convince her and the child that it is really, truly, a simple gift.
I feel a bug crawling down my back, under my shirt, and three pairs of hands reach out to shake and pat it away — I know I’ve been adopted. The girl pulls out a bottle of maroon nail polish and begins painting my fingernails.
The intimidating train aggressively clacks into the station, and the ten-year-old pauses her work. She takes my unpainted hand and explains that we are going to now get on the train.
There’s a ladies’ compartment, a blessed concept of women-only space to spare us the harassment. But there is still a crowd of skirts squeezing through the door, denying physics and convention to compress that many bodies through one passage. The girl leads me to the door, but I, in a rare unaggressive moment, am lagging in the back, and throw a hand through the women and find her. I am hanging off the train, with a single foot on. Someone instructs me to try the other side, but instead I lift my pack over my head and pass it to the women inside, launch myself into the compartment, and manage to close the door behind us.
I look up, and my temporary family is standing there, smiling as I count us one-two-three-four-five-here!wow. I settle into one of the corners at the door, arranging my backpack as a seat, and the girl finishes painting my nails.
There are perhaps eight women sitting in the small hallway, face to face and knee to knee; more occupy the wider area that leads to the regular compartment. Later, we will sit and stare at the door when the train pulls into a station, all hoping that no one knocks, demanding us to open it. As the train rumbles forward again, the absence of new passengers will spark a small cheer, a feeling of great success.
The night-long train journey mixes dozing sleep and curious chatter, nighttime India sliding by the door’s window, illuminated factories and expanses of water pulling attention. The girl and I share the window space; her questions pepper an otherwise quiet car. We pull out my small map of India, I try to explain my work and why I am here, what life is like in America; she is bright, mature, confident, with a beautiful small face and an intense lack of self-awareness. I catch her staring while I sleep, but this time it doesn’t bother me. At her request, I unbind my hair, and let brown curly waves into a train’s whipping wind for the first time. Her slender fingers reach out for the foreign texture and color. A grandmother takes a deeper look at my freckled arm. So frequently an object of stares and examination, the honesty and common humanity meant that I could be studied in a natural, shared space. I allowed myself to be decorated (I have not painted my fingernails since the one or two times in high school), bangled, bindi’ed.
A crowd unloaded at a station, and, with no additional passengers, we stretched out in the hallway, feeling rich with a space shorter than my height and the width too narrow for me to sit with my legs outstretched. Cups of chai were passed through the door, distributed among the family and sent down to women deeper in the car. The chai man jogged along the moving train, tossing full cups through the open door and clutching ten rupee bills.
We settle in to sleep, and I wiggle into a spot, daughter stretched out over my legs, curling in so that a grandmother has space to my right, and sleep with my head on the mother’s knee.
Woken up in early morning light by a small cluster of women preparing to exit the train, we scramble to move, and, dazed, I hear a young English-speaking woman telling me in a startled voice that I can now move into the main compartment.
“I’m with them, actually.”
“You speak Telugu?”
“It’s a long story.”
But I see that the family has gathered their things. This is their stop, Chirala, and although the daughter has asked me repeatedly to go home with them, I turn her down. My plan is out of control, and I don’t know where Chirala is or what their names even are. How could I send my “Location Update” email to my family so that they don’t call the State Department?
The mother embraces me, touches her forehead to mine, and calls me “sister”; the grandmothers reach out goodbyes, and I hug the daughter. I wave goodbye and the mother and daughter jog with the train, waving and shouting “goodbye, sister!”
Should I have followed them? What journey is this, exactly, if I am held back by convention, refuse to step into the unknown, into true intuitive freedom? The girl gave me directions to her house, turn right at the chaat stall, etc. but I shake my head at the mental image of that failed search. I am left to wonder and regret.
Oh, India, land of extremes, where intense harassment is tempered by the communities women can build.
This time at the Sikh temple, the baby was awake and crawling.
I was welcomed back, offered chai, and ushered to sit down. It’s still October 14th and I’ve only been away from Delhi for a week, but it feels like much, much longer between the newness stretching out days, and the harassment piling heavily on my skin.
I wave and smile at the baby, who is slowly encouraged to sit in my foreign lap. Something in the kitchen pulls the women away, and I am left to prove myself with the child. What if she hates me, and I am the failed woman from a foreign country? Who cares if I reject normative definitions and roles, right now I am here and I want to communicate. And I so desperately need to belong somewhere, even if just for a few hours.
Seeing my chunky brown stone bracelet, I pull it off and hand it over. She stares at it and sticks it in her mouth.
Now I must prevent the child from choking on my ingenious plan. “Nahi, nahi, nahi” remembering Hindi and gently prying it away from her slippery fingers, I keep it close enough to entertain but not enough to threaten.
They return and laugh at the strangeness of an Indian baby in a white girl’s arms; sitting again, stories flutter up as well as they can with differing languages. Giving status, defining our relationships and place in the world, are the easiest points to communicate. I try to bend my story into simpler terms, sacrificing accuracy for connection, queerness in its many forms for cross-cultural commonality. I wonder at the ethics of this, the compromising for acceptance, the self-performance modifications to offer a cohesive, acceptable, and comprehensible narrative.
The baby pulls at my prayer beads around my neck, working to get them closer to her mouth, and I gently unwrap her fingers. She calmly explores my face, tugs my scarf a little, grabs my nose piercing with tiny fingers, and puts her fingers in my mouth — none of this bothers me. Except the nose, that hurts. I think children should be affirmed as much as possible, and I make a silent sacrifice of my health as the baby’s fingers pull my bottom lip way out to see what shape I make. Just another moment of “if I get sick, this was it.”
My companions gently laugh, and I can tell that they enjoy how comfortable the child is. My crossed legs take turns propping her up, depending on which way she is wiggling, and my ability to have a split focus means her curious tugging at various bits of my face does not disrupt our conversation.
Trading the child for vegetables and an awkwardly long knife, I slowly and carefully slice onions with my disproportionate blade to the others’ amusement. Sitting on the floor, navigating a basket and my knees, I think about how startled my family would be if I prepared vegetables like this back in the States. Soon we are up, the main lady and I, pulling pots and spices out for the evening meal. I am taught the rice to water ratio — four hand scoops to two scoops of water — and I remember my father carefully aligning his eyes with the measuring cup for an accurate read. I would be scolded if I lifted up the lid before it was done, as once was sufficient and more would destroy it. And she is estimating with a scoop.
Our freshly-cut vegetables sizzle in oil, and I take over the stirring, because I know how to do that. The construction of the spicy curry is basically a standard approach: onions and whatnot first, adding spices, building up the vegetables, soaked lentils, water…I try to communicate how similar an approach it is, but I think that fails to transfer.
Back sitting on the floor, waiting for the curry to cook, the baby reaches for me and crawls across the small space between us and up into my lap — I am delighted. Seeing her first smile and laugh of the afternoon (a very serious girl) filled me with a simple joy, and when she first clutched me in a hug, resting her head against my shoulder, I felt accepted in a fundamental way, with a simplicity that only children can offer. Racial and cultural divides faded away for her, and I was just another one in the family.
But it was when she fell asleep on my shoulder that the acceptance truly settled into my heart.
Her grandmother, my co-cook and main conversation partner, slips a silver bangle onto my right wrist and communicates that I should not remove it. It was one of hers, a Sikh-identifying symbol (there are six). I wave and fold my hands into namaste and attempt to thank her.
I take my turn eating and serving our spicy meal, and then she invites me to rest as the others disperse. We stretch out on thin blankets where we have been sitting, the baby nestled into one fold, then the grandmother, and a freshly-bangled me, grateful for a new normal in space that is supposed to be radically different.