Sunday, August 12, 2007

There as many Indias as Indians. This is my version.

The Setting: Hyderabad, Sou'Central India, 2007. A metro area of nearly 6 million people, including its twin city of Secunderabad. A lake called the Hussein Sagar splits the two cities, and has the tallest Buddha statue in the world at its center.

The Scene: The University of Hyderabad, a graduate university 15 kilometers from the heart of the city. Crouched in a diet jungle, U.Hyd is in a lushly forested area complete with monkeys, 40 types of snakes (many poisonous, none aggressive), and 120 bird species. It is not as thick as a real jungle, and contains a few paved paths, campus buildings and miscellaneous small buildings where you can buy things. In the mornings, you can hear the gentle sounds of dogfights. On some afternoons, incense cuts through the smell of jungle and burning garbage like the trickle of sweat that is always running down my back. Because it is monsoon season, it rains a bit almost every day, making it nearly impossible to dry my clothes, which I wash by hand in a bucket. After rain, the jungle smells like crushed pea pods and my hair swells to twice its normal size.

The Characters: Bambi from Iceland, who has memories of his mother stirring a bathtub full of blood in preparation for a good Icelandic dinner; Jhaki from South Dakota, who, despite that, is actually very interesting; Adel and Ahmet from Yemen who like to take people on motorcycle rides; Jyotsna, Swati, Gogo, Manu, Bipin, Jasmeet, Deepthi, and Vaishnavi from India, who adopted me and showed me around the library, which, when it has any books at all, has none later than 1980 (they are much shorter than me, as are many Indians. I am a Yao Ming among.....famous short persons. Like Willow!) ; two long-winded English profs who are frankly not as good as the ones at Augsburg; one young woman from Wisconsin who misses you very much, and, of course, the bed bugs.

My legs itch.

The Events: I arrived in India at two in the morning and saw sacred cows on the road by 3:30. In India, they use horns instead of turn signals, and I spent a few hours thinking that all Indian drivers were incredibly angry. An international comparison: in Italy, you can drive however you want as long as you don't kill anyone. In India, you can drive however you want. Within a week of my arrival, I learned how to play bridge from a half-Indian, half Zimbabwe…an(?) woman, and got my keister handed to me in chess by an old Telugu man in a coffee shop who spoke no English but, with the help of a young man inexplicably named Sampson, told me I needed to practice. Within two weeks, I co-bought a crappy blue guitar that I now give lessons on to anyone who walks past my door, got stuck at the bottom of three hills when my rickshaw flooded, have been adopted as the token white girl by the English department kids, mostly based on my ability to climb trees very quickly, and made friends every time I wander around the English literature section of the library.

People stare at me wherever I go, unabashedly and constantly. The nice thing is that they are almost always willing to walk up to me and be my friend, but it does wear on the nerves of someone raised to think staring is rude. That I must get over quickly! Whenever I talk to someone, I can hear the rumblings of another language beneath their English, which never fails to make me happy. I recently had a bout of violent diarrhea and vomiting, which made me glad they keep buckets so handy here. I was literally sitting on the toilet with a bucket in my lap. At least it was a Western toilet—I've definitely had to ride the brown train on an Indian style toilet which is a hole in the ground with porcelain spots to put your feet. I climbed a water tower at midnight. There are places to dance here if you look hard enough, and the colors, smells and sounds never get old. Once you leave your room, there is no escaping India. Every loose dog you see, every sari that flutters, every smell of chai, dal, and hot people, every drop of perspiration, every person who sees a Westerner on the street and asks them for money...they all tie you to India. And there is never. Ever. Ever enough room, on paper or in the mind, to encompass everything.

The Thoughts: I made it three weeks before I cried because of the beggars and lepers. My friend Alex told me that I needed to remember that I can't solve poverty on a personal level. I told him that was quite true, what an excellent point, and the he needed to go smack himself because solving things on a personal level is how I do things. After a 6-hour visit at my host counselor Dr. Rao's house, Dr. Rao sent me home with his personal driver (umm..what?). Somewhere between Secuderabad and Hyderabad, with all the sudden surity and exuberance of Indian Conclusions, I gave up on the idea of being a professor or a writer and decided to become a high school teacher. I have always been a part of the written word like it's my skin, and this will let me talk about the things I love while helping people who need it.

And that's the hardest thing about India for me. I can handle the heat, even when it gives me rashes on my legs. I can overcome explosive diarrhea with the help of whining and the knowledge that the food is so good it's worth any gastrointestinal discomfort. I can even steel my mind against the corruption and rankest poverty (most of the time). But what is truly trying my soul is that I am of no help to anyone. And frankly, it's as annoying as hell.