Tag Archives: india

Two days ago, we’d been standing barefoot in a temple after dark. The complex was vast – a city of marble. The temple walls blocked out the traffic and horns of Madurai, a city more ancient than Rome, the trading partner of Greeks. On the long  walk in towards the dual sanctums, vendors sold offerings, paintings of Shiva’s avatars, and marriage threads. Conversations faded into echoes of whispers, bouncing through pillared halls. 

Stand here! Our guide told us. So we stood, and we waited. “It begins in five minutes, but that’s Indian time” he told us. We waited.

From deep inside one of the sanctums – Shiva’s sanctum – past the sign that banned non-Hindus from proceeding further, we heard the drums. Then began a horn, one, then two, then three and four and five. The blasts were each a single, long tone, like six shofars played together. The beats grew closer, the horns deafening. The first man with a horn emerged in a white loin cloth, the marks of Shiva on his forehead in yellow. His long white beard reached down to his chest. Behind him came another dozen men with drums and horns, and four carrying a palanquin, only large enough for a baby, carved in marble. 

We followed the procession, our guide hurrying us place to place, crabbing my arm to hurry me along and stop me from stepping on a carpet that marked the path the palanquin would take. We stopped behind an urn with holders for a hundred tiny oil candles. The procession wound around and stopped in front of us, placing the palanquin on table outside the second sanctum, the temple dedicated to Parvarti, Shiva’s wife. Men came out and placed a footstool covered in pounded and worked silver beneath the door of the palanquin. A man sprinkled incense. Another laid three wreathes of jasmine on the stool. A minute passed. Two. Then the drums, the horns and the men recessed into the second sanctum. Shiva had gone to bed. 

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Now I was watching a perpetual wave in a box lit by a small strip of glowing blue. The box, inlaid in a white wall, shook rhythmically to create and recreate a tide. A white plaque on the wall told me that the artist was Dutch, the attempt was to capture the ocean in a box, and show the impossibility of such a project. I stepped back out into the blinding light of the sun-bleached courtyard, and walked a cement path past some parched shrubs to join Mom and Dad. They were in a room whose floor was covered in thousands upon thousands of photographs of Vietnamese families, all of them faded with time. Floating on the sea of images was a traditional canoe, behind it the image of a shipwrecked galleon flickered on the walls. The artist had fled Vietnam with his family as a child, one step in a long history of men and women taking to the sea to attack, and taking to the seas to seek freedom. An artist from just outside Madurai, near the spice hills of Kerala, created giant bronze structures of alternate earths.

We spend two hours and saw less than a tenth of the Kochi Bienalle.

We would have seen more on the previous Friday. But there were 15 elephants being decorated for a temple fair, and so we went there instead.

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The novelist Chimamande Adiche warns of a “single story.” In her TED talk she tells a story from her own childhood: her family, like many middle-class families in Legos, had a servant, a young boy from a family in a village outside Legos. All she knew about him, all she’d been told, was that he was poor – very poor. That’s why he had to come work. So when her family went to visit his, she was astonished when his mother gave her a beautiful basket she had weaved. Artisanal skill like this was not, for Adiche, what poverty had looked like in her head. 

Ten years later, she went to University in the States. Her roommate was so excited to have an African living with her. She asked her to play some of the traditional African music she listened to. Adiche pulled out a Mariah Carey tape. 

When we only hear one story about a culture, we come to believe it. This is the heart of Orientalism – the West defining itself as modern and dynamic in contrast to an unchanging, static East. This is what allows Westerners to think we know what’s best – the only modernity we know is a modernity that looks like ours, and look! just look at these poor people who don’t have access to our modernity!

We have very few stories about India. We have elephants, and chants, and mystical men with long beards. We have snake charmers, and the holy Ganges, and women in bright saris. And we have this too: poverty, Slum Dog Millionaire, and theft.

Our students were warned endlessly, lavishly, ostentatiously about how dangerous India would be. 

And when they came back, they were confused, disoriented, and many of them angry. The night after we reembarked the Explorer I had a craft night with my ship family. Four of my five kids came, and I asked them how their time was. All four said the same thing, “I don’t really feel like I went there.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. These are four bright kids, who had four very different experiences. One went on an eco-trek through the Spice Mountains (“it wasn’t camping,” Scott told me, “it was glamping. I didn’t even carry a tent. But it was beautiful?”), one went on the attempt-to-see-a-nation-of-over-a-billion-in-five-days SAS special: Delhi, Agra, Varinassi and Jaipur (no, I’m not kidding), another just went to the Taj (“just” went to a place 1000 miles from where we docked) and the last went to the beach. But what they all had in common was that they didn’t feel like they went to India.

They complained of being coddled, shut off, and not allowed to wander cities. They complained that they’d been made to be so scared about India that they felt like they HAD to sign up for a field program, thinking independent travel would be impossible. And one thing they all thought: India wasn’t what they’d been told it would be. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was a place – a place they desperately wanted to explore, but felt they weren’t allowed to. 

Their conclusion was that India was out there and they weren’t allowed in. But thinking back to the Bienalle, and to the temple ceremony, I can’t help but wonder if they feel like they didn’t go to India because the India they’ve been told about doesn’t exist.

Because India is so much more than that. 

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It’s Very Big

India was the first port in months we had some time to prepare for. After a series of ports two days apart, where ship time consisted of a whirlwind of “what did you do”s and laundry and plans for the next port, we were relieved to have some time to think. Five whole days: time for a study day and multiple lectures and a number of explorer seminars.

On the official side, SAS made the interesting choice to use this time to terrify students. For five days they shouted a message that went something like this “THEFT! RAPE! POVERTY! TOUTS!”

They didn’t really, of course. In reality they attempted something that looked like a cultural introduction. But everything was colored by this fundamental idea: “You think that India will be the most overwhelming experience of your life and boy are you right.”  A resident director spoke about the difficulty of being stared at all the time. The doctor talked, again, about traveller’s diarrhea.* They warned endlessly about getting on to busses and into cars you weren’t absolutely sure of. There are reasons for this – SAS has endured wave after wave of lawsuits after students have been injured – some fatally – when, on land, they have signed up for trips with unlicensed providers. But it didn’t exactly lead to a lack of racism. 

There was another side, though. The unofficial side. The inter-port lecturer got up to give a lecture about how exciting India is. Two inter-port students sang for us, sat at tables at lunch, and set up a table in the center of the ship for information. (I went to them once and asked a young woman, “what’s the most common language in Kerala?” “Malayalam” “Great! How do you say thank you, sorry and please in Malayalam?” I asked. “You say, ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry.’” she told me.) And then we have our own Indian students – four of them. They are from all over a huge, diverse, country, and I feel terrible for the questions they must have fielded.

The students were thrown. Who were they to believe? And what on earth was India going to actually be like? Somehow, I had let slip that I spent six weeks in India once. They swarmed me: what could they expect? I felt a grave responsibility here to be honest, unbiased and fair. The official SAS line seemed to be to prepare every student for the sole experience of standing outside a tuk-tuk rank with their passports hanging limply from their hands and cash coming out their back pockets in the middle of Agra, and I didn’t want to support it. I thought hard, nodded gravely and told them this, “it’s really big.” I perfected a smile that seemed to say “there! I’ve answered all your questions, haven’t I!” At least, I concluded, they walked away from me annoyed, rather than scared, which I considered a step up.

I didn’t know how to prepare them. India was an incredible experience for me. My six weeks with Kate in India, from the first night in Vijay’s apartment, eating mango and drinking beer in a house in Mumbai, through bouts of heat wave in Rajasthan, tea in palaces in Udaipur, monkeys stealing my water bottles on climbs to temples, through Rishikesh and Haridwar and all the way through the rather humbling experience of breaking down completely in the back of a truck an hour outside McCleod Ganj, had become a myth I told myself. They were stories: fragments of color and sound and smell and memory that I had wrestled down into neat narratives. I couldn’t remember how it felt so much as how I had talked about how it felt. And above all this I knew that I had only seen a tiny bit. I’d be like someone who’s only seen New England telling another what Santa Fe looks like. 

On the night before we pulled into Kerala, our Indian students decided to teach us to dance to Bollywood music. “Just do anything,” Anish said, “but then do it bigger.” We blasted Bollywood music across the back deck, and students gathered in the humid night to dance very badly. In the middle of the circle, Shweda, a student who grew up in the red light districts of Mumbia, was teaching the Executive Dean’s wife “screw the lightbulb, pat the dog,” the hand movements famous from the Slumdog Millionaire dance scene. We cheered. A chant went up, and with a sudden, enormous wave of clapping, Vijay, the head waiter, burst into the middle of the circle. The three of them danced and we watched, standing on tables and railings, clapping and screaming along. The last of the sunset faded just as Kerala came into view.

The next morning, we woke up in India. We were sailing past giant Chinese fishing nets (I have been told that my ability to describe the various fishing strategies of the world is limited, at best. Perhaps my mother has a picture of the Chinese fishing nets. If not, I’ll just tell you this: they’re big, and super cool) and on either side of the Explorer, ferries full of trucks and vans and motorcycles and bicycles idled impatiently as we blocked their paths. After an endless immigration process I stepped out into a place I remembered loving, a place I hadn’t seen for six years, and, I quickly learned, a place I’d never been before.

Because Kerala isn’t Agra. And Kerala isn’t Mumbai. Not to mention that Mumbai is not Agra.

We talked endlessly before port about how diverse India is. One of the inter-port students said that “India is so diverse that being diverse has come to be what it means to be Indian.” Which is a nice thought, but one I didn’t really get. Because, honestly, I thought it would be like New York and Santa Fe – one’s quieter, hotter, less populated. But they’re both American, right?

And Kerala is still India, of course. But it’s an India that’s 20% Christian, an India with ancient Synagogues and the first resting place of Vasco di Gama in a sleepy church. It’s an India where streets move slowly, and where the town of Kochi itself is fairly sleepy and laid back. It is a place where when someone tried to sell me postcards and I said no, he said “so no chance?” and I said, “no chance,” and he said “oh.” And then he just walked away. 

In five days, Mom and Dad and I travelled from tranquil backwaters, where we spent my 30th birthday on a houseboat with rattan furniture, puttering through little towns, past villages and fancy summer homes to high, green mountains growing cardamom and pepper and tea and tigers (we took an hour cruise in a tiger reserve, and I was pretty set on seeing one. I later found out that in a several thousand square mile forest there are 43 tigers. We did, however, see some deer.), and back down to the agricultural heart of India and into a bustling metropolis, over three thousand years old.

The more we travelled, the more I saw, the less I felt like I’d failed to answer those students. What could they expect from India? Well, after the second of what I hope will be many trips, I can only offer this: it’s big.

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