Things Retained from India
1. At my first yoga class, way back in the early nineties, I was charmed to learn that namaste means “my spirit salutes yours.” Actually, it means “hi.” Probably it means “my spirit salutes you” like bye means “God be with you.” Which it does. Only no one saying bye knows that.
a. The formal way of greeting people in India is namaskar, which is hello.
b. Both terms work like aloha, for hello and goodbye.
2. On the way from the Kanpur train station to the university, we passed a guard using his lathi to beat a man lying on the ground, trying to get up. The guard’s arm went up and down, regular, like a metronome on its side. We were stopped for the train crossing, so I could see this very well. Several people watched. No one did anything at all. We continued on after the train had passed.
3. Rats in the grocery store do not make the food one buys there unpalatable.
4. Indian residences have two kinds of electrical outlets. The holes in these outlets are almost identical, so unless you’ve lived in India for a while and can tell by other clues what kind of outlet you’re looking at, there’s no knowing which is which until whatever you’ve plugged in explodes in sparks and melts.
5. Teaching The Hunger of Memory to Indian students was a whole-education experience. I was channeling everyone from my fifth grade social studies teacher, to my civics instructor in high school, to yesterday’s news. For instance: one day, I found myself talking about state’s rights, which lead to a discussion of the Civil War, the Constitutional Congress, and Thomas Jefferson; then to things like how Delaware has the best laws for businesses; how adoption law in Oregon is best for birth parents; stipends paid to people who take residence in Alaska and one of the Dakotas (I forgot which); why I lived in Georgia and not, say, New York City, and if I visited “the city” often; migrant workers in California; strawberry season in Florida; what a “trailer” is; what the term “trailer trash” means in the South; and how much clothes and food cost in different places. My favorite question from these students was: “So if states can make their own laws, which is the best state to live in?”
6. My creative writing class attracted over fifty students. Half of these left after the first day because their English skills were too poor, or they had other priorities for their spare time.
a. Of the seventeen regulars who met for consecutive six-hour classes during their intersession, several had some serious talent. The rest, however they struggled, had incredible stamina. I miss them all.
b. One student, in pursuit of a question about “good writing,” asked me what I was reading. When I told him, he looked blank. Then he asked me what I had read, and I started with the most recent stuff, worked backwards until he found something he knew. He had heard of none of it except Dickens.
c. We met in a room into which filtered innumerable bees. In the evening, they so carpeted the floor that you could not but step on them. They came from the massive hives attached to the I-pillars right outside the window. Sometimes their humming sounded like a fan on high speed. The room smelled dry and cold, and when a breeze blew, of honey.
7. On the train from Delhi to Kanpur, an exhausted woman laid her head in my lap to sleep. She told me (with her fingers, and through her son and my friend, who interpreted) that she was eighty years old. When she sat up again to eat her dinner, she handed out peppermints. For digestion she said, in Hindi.
8. On the night of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I went to my friend’s house where we ate egg curry, one of only three times I ate Indian food while in India.
a. Knorr makes special “Indian” dehydrated soups. I lived on these while I was sick. I wish we could get them here.
b. The way I say butter is confusing to Indians. I say, Buddher. They say, but-Ther. An Indian woman who spoke American English happened to be at the grocery store when I needed butter. She translated for me. I asked her to ask for two, not knowing if I would be lucky enough next time to make myself understood.
c. Indian ice cream is to die for. You can get it just by pointing and holding out coins.
9. The child carrying the dying infant. His ribcage. The way his head fell back. The way his eyes oozed and stayed half-closed. The two boys at the train station on rolling plywood palettes, one with a loose leg he hitched up behind his left ear. The other with no legs at all. Their hard, hoof-like knuckles. The woman and her child breaking sticks to sell, sitting at the Kanpur station; how she got up, went to corner, lifted her sari and defecated against the wall (there are no latrines for the poor anywhere). The child with the dying infant pulling my sleeve, the way she said babu, madam, sahiba. That I knew not to give her money. Or any of them.
a. The last time I was there, we passed out food. When I offered to use some of the travel food I’d taken with me, my friend said, “no one here would recognize that as food.” We gave them cucumber and butter sandwiches and tangerines instead.
b. I am not sure I did right to ignore them, the girl and her baby, the lame, the stick-seller. I wish I had had something recognizably food to give them.
10. I am on Skype with Chuck and Lucy Curzon and Barbara Brickman when I hear it: right outside my building they’re tuning up for a wedding procession. The horns and harmonium and drums are so loud, I have to put everyone on hold or hang up. Chuck tells me how to use my camera for video. I make it to my balcony just in time to see the groom walking to his car parked just below me.
It’s a white Tata four-door, about as big as a Mini-Cooper. It has crepe paper all over it. Also palmetto fronds or feathers, flowers, paper cutouts. The drummers, seeing the groom, huddle around the car beating their huge drums like heartbeats. Some make dashes at the groom, waving money near him for luck. The family, all seven, get into the car with the driver; the mother’s back is pressed flat into the closed window. The car moves out the gate, the drummers in front. On the street, the coolies mount their electric chandeliers, four feet or more tall, on their heads. The trailing cords that connect these make a kind of silk-rope barrier inside which the wedding guests dance to the wedding.
In front of all this is an elaborate speaker system, through which traditional songs are piped. A man sings them; they are incomprehensible, high and nasal and in a language foreign to me. The cart itself is both beautiful and a monstrosity. Bigger than the car that holds the groom and his family, and much taller, it has a peaked dome with an arabesque on top. From the dome dangle Christmas lights like ones I remember from the 1970s, in all colors, set on random blink. Across the side is an advertising banner draped right above the wheels, which are partially obscured by silver fringe that dangles from the bottom edges of the vehicle. The open part in the middle over which the dome is suspended is lit by at least six floodlights, in bright white. The dome casts shadows into the night sky above it; the whole cart is a megawatt light bulb, its light magnified by the millions of tiny mirrors mosaicked over every inch of the cart’s exterior. As it guides the procession slowly, loudly, brilliantly towards the wedding, a small boy pushes a generator in front of it; the cart itself moves because three men shove it along, like a disabled vehicle, all at the back. It disappears behind the trees and the apartment building next to me, dopplering into the distance.