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A Different Sort of Darkness

November continues without a clear answer from any of the workshop leads. The ambivalence leaves us wondering and waiting, even from those who actively pursued us for our experiential, discussion-based approach to gender issues.

The first week of November is electric. I’m writing, filling in the blanks in both the project and my education, reading some relevant material procured via a professor back in the States. I’ve tried most restaurants in the neighborhood, and have established which dish at which spot are the best — finding the nuances of quality and flavor across similar menus of noodle soup and steamed dumplings. The local cafe has wi-fi, couches (!), real coffee and muffins; the staff recognizes me now.

But the ambiguity saps my focus, and I slowly slip into darkness.

Something feels “wrong”… an unsettled feeling, an inability to truly engage. I often take an auto (rickshaw) to Charnita’s to meet and discuss the workshop — the drivers are starting to recognize me and they don’t waste time doubling the price — but I am realizing that it isn’t the workshop anymore.

Anything is overstimulation. Taking the footbridge over the six-lane traffic to the Punjabi side of the neighborhood is a nightmare of human misery. The impoverished moan their agony, stretching out stumps and wasted limbs for ten rupees — not enough to solve their problems, not enough to change the system. The streets on the other side are packed with tiny specialized shops selling dishware, snacks, sweets, clothes…piles of vegetables and fruits wait to be weighed and bagged. The scale reminds me of Egyptian hearts being tested for quality, the seller holding it up and tossing metal blocks into one concave dish until it nears balanced. Back across the footbridge whose population has multiplied as we near dusk and the shoppers return home.

I hide from everything, even the quieter Tibetan spaces, and let myself slide into depression. Half the day is given to sleep, consistently not leaving bed until 2 p.m., and then only to roll downstairs for a single meal somewhere before retreating to my now-somber room and deeper into my shell. I fall into the old bad habits, developing an emotional dependency on a particular Indian brand of caramel candy.

Sitting on the top step of metal suitcase, near the water tanks which are responsible for the water damage in my room below, I exhale cigarette smoke into the hazy Delhi night sky, gaze out over the smog and lights into the quiet chaos below, and wonder at my own pollution.

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Delhi from the Rooftop

November.

I am living on the top floor (read: roof) of a Tibetan guest house in Majnu Ka Tilla, sharing a bathroom with the staff. The neighborhood is so expensive that without this spot, I would have to leave.

I take over both of the twin beds in my room, stringing the mosquito net over the one I’ve designated for sleeping, and piling books, papers, and random onto the second — my office.

The television is immediately banished to the corner, and its table commandeered for other purposes. I fill in the insufficient curtains with scarves and the travel sheet, because my window opens onto the open space of the rooftop. The second window has equally limited curtain coverage and faces the narrow alley; monks often occupy the rooms across the way, but I figure that the window which folks walk by is more important. A water stain stretches across two of the four walls, a draping cascade of peeling paint which floats down around my head in the night — it takes days of suspecting crawling creatures to realize that the crinkling crunching is only paint abandoning the wall.

Photos of my family and Chicago postcards scatter across the walls in strategic spots meant to catch my eye. A map of India with the penciled-in route lies flush with the floor-length mirror, and postcards with Dalai Lama quotes finish the decorations.

This is home, next door to the always-absent receptionist’s room, and the respectful young Indian men with whom I share the roof space do not distress me. They come on their lunch breaks in twos to sit and eat beneath the laundry lines, topped off with a nap. More than make sense come to wash their clothes, sharing several large buckets, pushing brushes into familiar scratching sounds. I add my clothes to theirs, draped on the strung ropes.

The same is quietly matched on other rooftops, clothes echoing prayer flags, a person appearing now and then to rest or arrange something — the water vats, potted plants, or sporadic furniture.

Our view includes a giant construction site, a marble gurdwara, and the green sweep along the river — our avenue of stars where the city would normally have drowned their weak light. People and dogs ebb and ease in the narrow streets below, and the vehicular chaos rumbles along the not-so-distant main drag. Life surging through the city, from top to bottom.

Diwali in Delhi

I was warned to be in a safe place during the intense Diwali celebrations. Delhi is not it, obviously, and normal people would have remained secluded in an ashram. But a local friend and I were developing a workshop for young women, to be held the weekend following the holiday. I had to be there.

Arriving a week in advance, and thinking it enough clearance, was foolish. I stepped off the train, fresh from quiet Brahma Vida, into monstrous New Delhi Railway Station at its highest capacity, bodies pouring through every available space in the holiday rush. With all senses overtaxed and being jostled along, my inner shock rejected all things Delhi in bitter lament.

The modern, air-conditioned metro (ladies compartment included) deposited me at her northern neighborhood, populated by universities.

It’s a good thing that I eventually leave the apartment, because Diwali feels like Christmas. The houses in my friend’s neighborhood are bedecked with lights; it’s a free-for-all of colors. Some people are unknowingly referencing Hanukkah or Easter with their color combinations.  I’ve never seen this much energy in the neighborhood. Stacks of honey-drenched or foil-crusted sweets take over the sidewalk, covered to keep away the determined flies that linger on the fabric folds. Chocolates, dried fruits, and nuts are packaged and on display. People move with anticipation and good humor. As the day of reckoning approaches, the energy builds.

A ball comes flying out of the alley around the corner (my shortcut to the shops on the other side of the apartment buildings), and two young men come running after it. I am using my first line of defense against harassment and overstimulation: headphones roaring over the  meaningless or insulting noise. I keep my eyes fixed on the dirt, turn the corner, and make my way through a small crowd. I’m in the middle of them when I glance up — the young man in front of me is holding a cricket bat. I look around and realize I am standing in the center of a game, children and all. I gasp and apologize and smile and dart through the waiting group. Expecting harassment and getting the equivalent of Thanksgiving football skirmishes.

I weave through the stalls and fret over gift giving. In the tiny bakery, I hold special tea biscuits and a large tin of cookies, wondering about appropriate Diwali gifts for my friend’s family. The shopkeeper hands me a bag with two carefully packed slices of cake (need to explain American food to my Keralan roommate), and I wish him a happy Diwali.

“You know about Diwali?” As if anyone could miss the chaos and preparations.

“I’m taking these home to Indians!”

The week’s sporadic fireworks have increased as we approached the day of insanity. Smoke wafts in through the front door window on the peak night. My roommate and I, laughing but spooked, shutter away the chaos of Delhi’s Diwali celebration. The ubiquitous family gatherings pitched against the general anarchy echoes India’s reputation as a land of both extremes. I repeatedly tell my calm Indian friends that it sounds like a war zone, the great booming mixed with the clustered spatters of sound. I find myself hoping that any veterans with PTSD have left the city; anyone who has witnessed combat would fall apart at the incessant rockets. My childhood fears seem to surge again as I adamantly declare that I do not like fireworks. I’ll set them off, but not in tiny crooked streets with overhanging buildings and wires.

In the morning, the haze remains, resting low in silent streets with closed shops, as everyone nurses their hangovers and wounds. I’m stunned that the city hasn’t burned down.

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