The door to my friend’s bedroom swings open unannounced. I’m there alone — she’s away teaching a class — and her younger brother stares at me, silent and frozen in the doorway. I’m modestly dressed but flopped back against the pillows, typing. Scrambling to sit up properly, I explain my presence. He lingers for a second longer, unsure, and then leaves without having said a word, closing the door behind him.
Indian families don’t really knock before entering your room; there isn’t the same understanding of domestic space. Since it is customary to dress in the bathroom, there is little to prevent anyone opening the bedroom door at any time. And when a son gets married, his wife moves into his parent’s house — they will all live together, the in-laws, the sons, the wives, their children, in one apartment.
I broke the “dress in the bathroom” rule on the first day. After wearing the same clothes while at the ashrams, taking the night train from Maharashtra, and crossing dusty Diwali Delhi, I dropped my bags in my new (empty at the time) room in the ground floor apartment and went straight for the shower. I stripped off the over-ashramed clothes and washed away the travel grime. In my clean away the Diwali hubbub, I forgot to bring in something new to wear. Wrapped in a towel, I ducked into the bedroom — and met my new roommate, a neat and quiet young woman suddenly subjected to American immodesty bounding across the room.
For perspective: the last time I lived with my family, I had the third floor of a large one-hundred-year-old building to myself — the unheated redone attic which I painted dark purple, where I escaped from the world and the evils of high school. I’m not able to receive this level of proximity
Doing a gender and sexuality workshop, of course, produces all sorts of discussions which should not be interrupted by decent Indian mothers. A classic example: I’m saying, “women can return to the plateau stage of sexual arousal after orgasm, but men immediately go into the resolution stage and must be aroused again,” and the door seems to barely open at a rate that will accommodate the brusque arrival of Charnita’s mom who needs a response to some sort of question or would like to know if we’re ready for chai.
Her family knows the subject of the workshop, but not quite all the content.
The dog shoulders the door open, too, slobbering into my lap and trying to get onto the bed with us. “Chello! Chello!” is mostly ineffective, and Charnita needs to push him out with her knees. He is rarely dissuaded for long.
The chaos of upstairs sends me downstairs — where I am assumed to always be available, as well. My roommate is on Diwali holiday and always available to talk, sitting on the kitchen counter when I cook and following me between rooms. She’s lovely but I have to explicitly extract myself to write. Charnita’s mom sometimes walks into the downstairs apartment (landlady’s rights), so I sit at one of the classroom desks in such as way as to hide my screen and its potentially disruptive diagrams or delicate article titles.
And there’s no such thing as quiet walk through an excited neighborhood preparing for Diwali; I experience little harassment in this university neighborhood where I seem to be the sole Western population, but the frenetic pace is enough on its own without the stimulating presence of a foreigner.
Inner space is still public space, and after only a week of it, plus breathing workshop, being in constant dialogue and close contact, I need to get out. To clear my head and remember that there’s space beyond the apartment building, beyond the neighborhood. I was not ready for the immediacy, intimacy, honesty, and volume of Indian life. The assumed privacy of my middle class upbringing rebelled against the fluidity of personal space — and I was stressing out the brothers.
The chaotic old market (budget) neighborhood of Paharganj was unthinkable, so I went to the next reasonable area. Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan neighborhood.
I took a vacation from my journey, going at life sideways by setting aside the hectic train-by-train-bounce for a turn at being in one place, with a roommate or two, in a city that I would always think I was leaving. “Normal” life carries routines and permanence, spotted with brief, liberated excursions with an external existence, as the extraneous and surreal bits of life that float above the general (seemingly consistent) narrative.
My friendship and collaboration with a young woman teaching critical thinking (disguised as English classes) inspired my return to Delhi. Our extensive conversations on life and social dynamics produced a workshop on gender and sexuality for college-aged women.
I survived the smoke-choked week of Diwali by isolating myself from the city’s insanity, writing and researching. I left the university neighborhood for the peace and familiarity of the Tibetan community just to the east, and although over the following month I traveled at brief interludes, I would always return home, to Delhi.
We are a week into December and despite many failed attempts, I believe this is it: I am leaving.
Time to finish off the Indian piece of this journey, a.k.a. Kolkata (Calcutta), and move on. Although this place has challenged me beyond my expectations, I have moved through the distress and frustrations into a new acceptance and understanding. Here, having plans is silly and things often happen for no reason; but it is immediate, alive, and honest about what it is (not about the prices).
To India: I will see you again.
p.s. will slowly continue to add my stories