“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.
Delhi is hot, with crowded streets, sellers hawking clothes, jewelry, fruit, anything, shouting after you wherever you go. Half-starved dogs flop beneath cars, twitching at flies. Tiny rooms stuffed with wares open onto the street, and sizzling pots turn out piles of fried mystery. Tiny rusted cars honk their way through bicycles and rickshaws, all careening around people and street carts with no logical sense. People squeeze through tiny spaces to escape being crushed. Trash gathers in heaps everywhere, there are no garbage cans. All painted surfaces are peeling, buildings patched together somewhere short of completion. There are few foreigners, and women are always a minority.
Everything in India seems broken. When I was in Agra with new friends, to see the Taj Mahal, I had to go to six ATMs to find one that was working. A bicycle rickshaw driver took me to one after the other through the rain, finding one where the electricity was off, another that was closed yet labeled as 24 hours. We covered six kilometers with stories about his family and Agra; at every stop I handed him my umbrella for him to use while I was inside, useless in the face of his already-soaked clothes. Six.
Gritty and dirty, the cities can drain your energy. I have learned to double the time I think I need to do anything. Trains come in late, this or that line might take forever, or you might need to go to four more places to find what you need.
Now, in Shimla, a town perched in the Himalayan mountains, 7000 feet above sea level, the frenetic pace has eased. Pine-covered mountains and cool, misty air indicate a space of peace. I now know what it is like to be inside a cloud that is raining on you, and see blue sky above it. This is still India: cars zip around corners, crowds mill around favorite shops, and men still dominate every space. But there is space to breathe.