Eastward, Ho!

So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his round. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked. Always, when you think you have come to the end of her tremendous specialties and have finished hanging tags upon her as the Land of the Thug, the Land of the Plague, the Land of Famine, the Land of Giant Illusions, the Land of Stupendous Mountains, and so forth, another specialty crops up and another tag is required. I have been overlooking the fact that India is by an unapproachable supremacy — the Land of Murderous Wild Creatures. Perhaps it will be simplest to throw away the tags and generalize her with one all-comprehensive name, as the Land of Wonders.

Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

You might not know this, but Mark Twain was really into India. Hell, you might not have even known Twain CAME to India. I didn’t. You know who never actually came to India? Queen Victoria. True story. Despite being crowded empress, despite having accepted the ko-hi-noor, and, horror of horrors, had it CUT, despite her fondness for tea AND black magic, both popular things in India, Victoria “had a thing”, I guess, and never got her dumpy if royal posterior over to India. Call that woman a mid-19th century tree because she was Throwing. Shade.

But let’s not get into that now, not so soon after the glorious trip of Kate Middleton and whatever-his-name-is-who-cares-let’s-just-look-at-Kate-some-more whose recent jaunt to India made up for all that nonsense in the past. Mostly because of Kate’s outfits. Obviously. Although, Kate, seriously, seven days for India and Bhutan and you don’t even call? Rude.

Let’s get back to Twain, shall we? It’s your classic “famous author runs out of money and has to travel the world giving lectures to avoid bankruptcy” story. We should all be so unlucky, am I right? So while he was circling the world, he found some time to pen an account of his journeys, half Travel Guide, half social commentary on racism the world over. The irony was, of course, that Twain purposely picked countries to tour that were part of the British Empire at the time, because he could lecture in English in said countries, but his book contains fairly damning criticism of Imperialism and Empire-building. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

I arrived back in India just over a week ago, after about a month in the United States. I would have thought that my culture shock would have been the strongest the first time, when I had just moved here in September. But I honestly think that I’ve had a harder time adjusting this second time. I don’t mind the rumble, the open construction site that is India, the proliferation of feces of both the canine and human variety. All that is oddly easy to adjust to. It’s the people who have been the hardest part this time around.

Walking around the streets of Philadelphia, and even New York, the sense of comfort I felt was astounding. The streets feel so empty after spending time in India, so well designed, so clean. There is nothing like spending time in India to make New York feel clean, by the way, I would recommend all fed-up New Yorkers try it. There is so much personal space in the West, so much anatomy and anonymity. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I went back, and I didn’t recognize how necessary it was until I returned to Mumbai.

Last night I went to my first live cricket match. Beyond the fact that cricket makes no sense whatsoever to me and the more I learn about it the less sense it makes (and seeing a live game only made it less clear, FYI, I’m convinced this game might in fact be an international ruse, I wonder if Twain picked up on this, dammnit, where is a time machine when you need one?), public events are a prime opportunity to be totally overwhelmed with people. And I don’t mean the crowds, because crowds are the same everywhere in the world, frankly, and despite the assurances by my companions that Indian fans are “crazy”, it’s one of the tamest spectator groups I’ve ever spent any kind of time with. Part of this probably comes down to the fact that I’m from Philadelphia, where we literally kill people during sporting events, and part of this seems to have to do with the weird reality that the crowd last night literally cheered for anything that happened. Points on either side? Cheers. Someone catching the ball? Cheers. Cheerleaders for no reason WHATSOEVER? CHEERS.

No, the crowds weren’t the problem for me. It was all of the people hired to do…I don’t know. I don’t know why there were three people scanning my ticket, or five women waiting to see my ticket, or ten people waiting to serve food, or any of the barefoot bathroom attendants waiting to clean the toilet after each use. But I do know that I found it completely and utterly overwhelming. I thought I was used to this kind of thing, to the constant press of humanity waiting to do things for you, to the unsettling presence of so many people watching you, trying to help you with things you don’t need help with, refusing to let you so much as open a damn door for your own damn self. But my time back home has removed that layer of numbness, I’ve exfoliated away those barriers of understanding and now I’m back to being sensitive to every moment, uncomfortable all the time.

I realized how unsettled I was when I refused to hand my ticket to a girl whose whole purpose seemed to be being the fifth person to look at your ticket and show you your seat, despite all the other people who had told me where to find my seat in the past thirty seconds. This woman was just trying to do her job, and all I could do was back away from her, suddenly furious at the implication that I can’t read my own ticket, that I can’t perform a basic human function. I snapped at her in English, hating myself for knowing that the faster I spoke and the crisper my pronunciation, the more intimidated she would be, the more likely that she would leave me alone.

I also had forgotten how English can be a weapon here. I bet Twain wrote about that, too.

I could see my companions waving at me to come sit with them, to watch the match, to lose myself in this sport I barely understand and don’t particularly enjoy, so far. But I couldn’t join them. Instead, I wandered around the stadium for a while, trying to regain a sense of calm, trying not to resent every person looking at me, ready to serve me in some way.

I don’t mind the crowds here, really. I can get used to the rubble, and the rice, the rum and the rhythms of life that operate so differently than those I’ve known before. But I think this may keep happening, this building up of calloused skin to stop being so aware, the way it falls off when I go back to the West, and the way I have to be ready to feel it more deeply every time I return to Mumbai.

I guess that’s better than the alternative, though. Better to see this as a Land of Wonders, and not a commonplace thing.

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