I am leaving India heavy hearted. I have fallen in love with this culture. Each day brought fresh new experiences of lush density, pushing crowds of light limbed and lean women gliding in saris, ankles and wrists jingling with gold, and men in lunghis or dotis, their heads wrapped in plaid scarves, always a sense of moving forward, the press of people, an inwardness. The children curious, waving, calling out, practicing their English, wanting to touch and know the outsider. The inside of people’s homes, the rituals of hospitality, tea mam? Please take some, please be seated, please have more. And gifts, pressed into my hands, at the temple where the twin girls danced, because I was with Bhagya and Ajai, we were given the first row of seats, the priests heaped us with scarves, flowers, gifts of sweets, pictures of the deity, more flower garlands, more scarves when asked to come up on the stage and be honored for Aagnika’s amazing 20 minute long classical dance, and Ajai for all he does in the community. So not only do I experience 2 hours of fantastic dancing, I am treated like a queen simply because I am their friend. My association with Bhagya and Ajai brought me an ocean of goodwill, doors opened, gifts offered, plenty was demonstrated over and over.
And each adventure without Bhagya and her family, my trip to see Agra, the days visiting temples with Vijaya Rao and with Anande and Naveen, moving through the streets of Bangalore with Madhan, getting to Sanskritti and spending a week there in the company of other artists who were also exploring Delhi, having the great good fortune to dine with Bani Abidi, to see Sumakshi Singh at the Art Fair and again at her opening, to meet Ruchin Soni and Nidhi Khurana and see their studio and to swim in the Sufi current at the Nazruddin’s Tomb with them, to be invited into people’s homes both in the rural villages and in the city, to be fully embraced.
And shopping too, to learn how to negotiate a price, understanding that the price is rarely the price and to feign reluctance or indifference and to shrug off flattery (hard for me!). Also the autorikshas, where I would be quoted double or triple the actual price than if the meter is used, and my pride and confidence when I was able to dismiss the overpriced offers until I found one willing to take me for the right price. Never knowing where I was, hurtling through the streets, blindly trusting the driver would get me there, which he always did. The deft and hair raising turns, squeezing through impossibly narrow spaces, throngs of motorcycles, huge busses, hundreds of other autorikshaws clogging the streets, honking, all driven by men.
My experience of Indian culture was largely through men. Men driving, men outside walking at night, the closeness of men, their arms draped around each others shoulders or holding hands. Their physical intimacy. The students always wrapped around each other, arms linked, a public tenderness. The smiles of men and boys when I looked at them, a gladness for the simple fact of my foreigness. The care, please mam, this way, being guided. A sense of safety and belonging even as an outsider, the everready willingness of Indians to help.
Everywhere food being cooked, fruits and vegetables displayed, sugar cane ground into juice, watermelons and many other fruits beautifully cut up and sold on the street, roasted peanuts in their shells, fresh chick peas on green leafy stalks, tender coconut sucked from a straw from a freshly hacked open fruit, the men’s wiry arms expertly wielding the hatchet-like knives, one, two, three, four wacks at the most. The neutral expression, the tiny amounts of rupees exchanged for such abundance. 20 rupees, mam. The stacks of white and saffron colored flowers sewn together on a string, 50 rupees for a meter, you show how much you want by extending your arm. 30 rupees, mam. No one ever has change, ever. Tiny begging children who run alongside, their thin dirty hands outstretched, they never speak English, they are tiny and weightless, with habitual expressions of need, mam! I wonder if they are beaten if they do not produce enough rupees for the adults who control them. I imagine their lives are not improved even slightly by my donations. My Indian friends scold me if I give to them, “it only encourages them!” But I watched the Swamiji give, he pulled the money out of his wallet calmly and blessed it on his forehead first before he handed over the 5 or 10 rupee note. He gave without judgment or fear.
And singing. Prayers were sung, the art students sang, old and young sang together, the Sufis sang, the Sikhs sang, the Muslims in their mosques sang at dawn and at each prayer time, and amplified it to the outside, the Hindu priests sang and chanted, horns were blown, tablas intensified or maintained the rhythm. Bhagya sang classical songs with her music teacher on Saturdays. Even I sang the Carole King song, You’ve got a friend, although I only remembered half.
Over and over people gave to me, flowers, snacks, meals, tea, advice, company, long patient explanations in broken English, a hand made wallet, a little carved box, a magazine, an invitation to their home, time, a delicious meal, smiling greetings, enthusiasm for my work. I loved merging with them, disappearing while remaining absolutely conspicuous as a white skinned westerner.
Contradictions abound, the piles of used tires next to a shiny new megacomplex, the ultrarich and new and a bullock pulled cart with long dried bamboo poles, the same irregular shaped poles used as scaffolding for the new cement construction mushrooming everywhere. The people on foot, carrying goods on their heads, as streams of traffic stream by inches away. Those living on impossibly small sums of money, and the popularity of the shiny new malls on weekend evenings. Strollers in western dress their arms laden with purchases.