As Vishnu and I retrace our steps back up the staircase, I internally curse the police for making me go up it again; all worthwhile once I meet Vishnu’s friend, Deepak (pronounced “dee-puck”) at the top. There’s a view from Deepak’s rooftop which makes up for being chased away.
To get there, we pass through over a worn threshold; the hallway darkens and then gives us to a bright courtyard, safety grates filtering the sun onto the pale gray stone floor. Several woven wooden cages hang to one side of the enclosure, hosting brilliantly plumed birds. I suppress a squeal and try not to fuss over them. His younger sister slips into the courtyard, slender with long braided tresses, apparent innocence shading her inner vitality — a bright wit smoldering beneath the quiet.
Doors reveal shadowy chambers lining the central opening, and this repeats as we take the narrow curling stairs up through layers of family. On every floor a new aunt smiles from the doorway of her kitchen, aided by a hired hand, a girl close to the floor washing the glinting metal dishes used everywhere in India. His family occupies the entire house. Each uncle took a wife and a level, a slice of stone matching his other brothers’.
On the rooftop, the Ganges languishes below us, her expanse immediately overpowering any chaos of Varanasi, her calm gray worshiped belly comforting fears, absorbing prayers, receiving our beloved. Bringing in the frenetic with the spiritual.
The guys joke together and tell me stories, but I am distracted by a little boy attempting to fly a kite on a rooftop below us. He runs, but it doesnt take to the air and I want to call out to him, cheer him on. But he looks too proud, too sure of himself, for me to ruin that. Like so many young people I meet.
We spiral back down through the family tree and set off for the tea shop, where Vishnu introduces me to his mother. She gracefully welcomes me (to my surprise, considering the reputation of white girls) although we don’t have a common language; and gives me the spiciest potatoes that I have ever consumed. In fact, I’ve been fed all day — not a surprising thing once I’m welcomed into a community.
There is a rhythm and ritual to life. For example, the scarf experience:
Varanasi is famous for its fabric, known by the city’s former name, Benares. Remembering a story from earlier in the day, I ask Vishnu to take me to a shop he mentioned, a small place a few doors down from his. A single, white cushion covers the entire floor; we slip off our shoes and pad into the space with introductions and greetings. I settle cross-legged in front of the primary salesperson, and Vishnu lounges back on the side, quiet as i take the lead. The shop seems primarily comprised of linens too heavy to mail, but the man pulls down a rectangular box and introduces a revelation of color. Scarves, smaller than the average Indian dupatta but perfect for a Western woman. They flow out of the box, vibrancy in woven form, two-toned glory flittering across color identities, the glossy fabric billows across the floor in front of my knees. The cushion is designed for this parade, the salesperson doesn’t slow down, pulling out scarf after scarf, fluttering and floating into a stunning mound. Attempting a poker face, I pull out my gift list and count the women — “I’ll take seven.” We choose them carefully, comparing patterns and colors under appreciative fingers until seven, gently folded, rest to the side. Then, the bargaining. Someone orders chai and Vishnu hands out the tiny classic cups of warm spicy tea. The salesman and I begin, sitting upright, drinking, waving our arms around at each price the other suggests. Performed shock. I already know the local price, and shoot lower; we circle and debate until we arrive at exactly the expected price. It would be four to five times that, at least, in the market (for a foreigner). But we’ve come here because they’re honest. The moment the price is settled, the performed tension disappears into cheer and chat. After all that posturing, Vishnu actually has to foot some of the cash, because the sum is more than I am carrying.
Clutching my paper-wrapped bundle, I repay him after an ATM visit, carried forward in the euphoria of the experience, of how comfortable it felt, of how well I was treated, and the simple pleasure of knowing you have brilliant Christmas gifts this year.
Deepak meets us as the tea shop to say goodbye, as I am leaving that night, and Vishnu invites me to return. Genuine friendship, with kindness and grace. And the two, excited and expressive, decorate me with earrings and a necklace chosen from the shop shelves. Every piece of jewelry I have with me on the trip is a gift.
Scrambling and risking being late for my train back to Delhi, I still hold out for the local price when looking for an auto. And walk determinedly in the wrong direction, animatedly bargaining with a particular auto driver who drives slowly alongside me until he gives up and accepts my price. Despite the blustering, once I am in the auto, we both relax into stories, music playing in the background. Somehow, the conversation turns into him teaching me how to count to ten in Hindi. Eck do bin…eck do bin cha…eck do bin cha panch. We shout numbers into the traffic, zooming towards the station. Learnt by sound alone, I am not quite right when quizzed by friends later, but still impressive. Sharing knowledge, breaking down conventional power dynamics, finding common ground.
He asked for money and sex when we arrived, but I laughed at him and walked away. I didn’t care, suspecting that my expressive cheer could have been confusing. The negative wasn’t enough to take away the overwhelmingly positive day.
Oct 18. Swarms of travelers surge through Chennai’s train station, threatening to swallow every brick, chair, and lost traveler in one thirsty gulp. I officially dub it the greatest number of people I have seen in one place. I’m looking for anything to eat that is not fried or has been sitting out, unrefrigerated.
Women are stuffed into the section in which I am supposed to sit. I am assigned to the lower berth, which means I get the window, but a large, determined woman has taken it. Upset about things back home and unwilling to be pushed around, I put up a fight. It’s a battle that takes place in simple words and gestures, and I lose.
But it doesn’t matter, because soon we are bonding, and the questions start to flow. The first is always about my country, the second is if I am married. A long process of categorization begins, covering family, employment, even salary. Alone? You travel alone? How far? I pull out my map of India, on which I have traced the line of my route, stretching from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari. We cluster around it as I slide my finger along the paper, explaining. By this time, I know I’ve been adopted for the night, glorious protection.
They are the wives of a set of brothers who are also on the train. In fact, they are part of a family of twenty that seem to be on a sort of pilgrimage or spiritual trip, because their guru squeezes in on the bench as well to preach for a little while. He rattles along in Hindi and I can only catch “samsara” and “karma” – the warmth of bodies pressed together and the wind whooshing through the open windows is so very different from the quiet philosophical discussions in a DePaul classroom where the same words were said.
“Time is gold.” The first and only thought getting another mumbling agreement throughout their gray-haired guru’s speech that I understand. The family’s sounds are not too different from the “amens” that can roll out in American churches. The preacher closes by leading them all in song, and I think about Tibetan prayer flags – mantras being sent out into the world with every brush of the wind – and imagine the singers leaving a stream of prayer along the train tracks.
Husbands arrive, curious and ask more complex questions with better English. But they quiet the wives, and I miss how we build connection in a more organic way – acting out our message, reaching out to touch, and through smiling. My previous opponent has taken the most interest in me, smiling and handing me more to eat. She insists that I take peanuts, teaching me the proper way to crack them and discard the shells out the open window I’m given a handful of spices before I know what it’s for; when the curd is passed out, I obviously have no place to put liquid (and a bit relieved at that) but sit, stuck with a handful of spices and nothing to put it in. I do think that “food-pushing” stereotype is true. Indians can be major food-pushers, handing over more of everything, insisting. I accidentally put an entire handful of spicy something into my mouth, and the women laugh, watching and waiting for my reaction. I can hear my story being repeated up and down the train, growing as more information is gleaned. When I take out my small photo album with pictures from home, it disappears for a while to be viewed by everyone, and slowly travels back to my hands.
The women demand a song, something happy, but when put on the spot like that I can only remember one: the sorrowful lullaby my step-dad sang to me when I was young. The rushing noise of the open windows nearly drowns out my high-pitched voice, and “Danny Boy” floats above the raucous train with its distracted inhabitants, a strange, almost other-worldly Irish tinge on a classic Indian scene.
In the morning, I stand on my platform outside our window, waving to a chorus of goodbyes, and an insistent hand forces me to accept a bag of cookies.
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.