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On Chai and Perspectives

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.

A Slow Advance

November 26th.

I’ve been warned about train delays in India, but it had never happened to me, so I didn’t pay much attention. My departures and arrivals are carefully timed, avoiding suspect late night hours. This worked well, until my train from Delhi to Bodhgaya was delayed: instead of leaving at a completely manageable 10 PM, its departure time was pushed forward to 4:30 AM. Jyoti and I stood at Platform 1, staring at the screen. My hope that it was a mistake ached in my body as I wondered how to spend the night at the train station.

But the answer was simple, I needn’t have worried. We returned to Majnu Ka Tilla where I was able to rest for a few hours in Jyoti’s room, and arranged a lift to the station via the guest house staff. Three or four guys standing around the desk, chatting in Hindi to each other and Jyoti. Everyone gets involved, a classic experience. In the early hours of the morning, I woke the man sleeping in the lobby — a staple in any guest house — who called the driver again.

The train arrives in the fading darkness, as promised, but we will stop and start, inching our way towards Bihar. I suspect that we have been shuffled out of the way, an odd one out of sync with the rest who must wait for everyone else to pass by so as not to disrupt the others. Slowly slowly, we ease east.

I’m not well-stocked, and ration out what food I have if we have a train-apocalypse where our pace slows to walking. A good-natured man in our cabin space points it out, and I make a quick joke about perpetual train rides. And the train passes its original arrival time, then threatens to ignore its proposed one as well. Night settles in.

We’re moving, but not that much. Railroad tracks stretching into the black hole of Indian delays, always progressing never arriving. I am afraid to sleep, lest I miss my stop. I sit, awake, by the window, waiting blankly.

My ticket is for the middle bunk, which drops down to form the seat-back during the day. The men around me suggest that I rest, and I explain that I am afraid of oversleeping. I look up into their genuine smiles, their involvement in my well-being. They explain that I will be woken, that no one will let me miss the stop. So we convert our cabin area into bunks, and all stretch out to sleep.

When the conductor comes, he fusses over my ticket. “This ticket is for yesterday. You must buy a new one.” Appalled that he could blame me for his own train being delayed so long that we are into the next day, I splutter a protest, but it is drowned out by the chorus of voices around me, my cabin-mates charging in with Hindi in my defense. The conversation leaves my comprehension, but the conductor leaves me alone. I am told that he was confused. I suspect that he had been attempting a scam, but I keep the thought to myself.

As promised, someone wakes me when we are nearing Gaya, and I collect myself. It’s an awkward early hour, nearly 4 AM on the following day, but it is much better than arriving at midnight. I had been anxious over the anticipated intensity of the coming days. Now I was all patience, and fatigue.

Another white female foreigner had arrived sometime in the night, and is sleeping on the bunk below mine. Someone wakes her up as well, in case she is going to Gaya as well. Confused and in a daze, she explains that she is not. Those of us who are leaving wait in the aisle, quietly but warmly, another little community alive for a moment because of a train.

I want to keep the happy memory, as I make my way through the crowded (despite the hour) station, but I begin to wonder if I was treated so well because of my race. Would a young Indian woman traveling alone through the night receive such kindness? No one is simple, I would not deny them their humanity; but after this much time in India, I need to acknowledge that my skin color and foreign status opens doors and generates useful attention.

I’ll wait out the night, go to Bodhgaya by auto rickshaw at sunrise. Normally I would sit on the floor with everyone else, somewhere near a cluster of women. But the hour and the severe economic difference in Bihar, the poorest state in India, amps up the spotlight, and I slip into the first class waiting room, my face granting me instant permission.

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