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Waiting for Elephants
April 29, 2017
One of my lizards died the other day. I can’t say exactly when. I noticed one was looking a little paler than usual, and the next thing I knew there he was, without a tail, not moving in the corner of the room.
These are the little things that test our true character. And I learned today that I am a very bad adult.
I did not try to pick it up and return the lizard to the sweltering outdoors. I noticed it as I was falling asleep around 11:30pm, and guilty mother that I am, I left the (probably, but I wasn’t totally sure) dead Stickers on the floor. When I woke up I remembered the little body not far from the side of the bed. Perhaps I’d been hasty in my postmortem examination (a glance and a worried grimace), I thought, perhaps he’d just been spooked, dropped his tail, and was waiting for me to go to sleep. Alas, no. There was a tiny black mass of ants at the spot where I’d last seen him.
I knew I should have gone rummaging around my bag for something that would allow me to pick up what remained of him, but feeling sick and time pressured by the motorcycle waiting loudly for me out front, again I did nothing.
It is hard to come back to a house that does not feel like your house, after a very long day in a country that cannot be more unlike your country, and, exhausted, deal with the sight, smell, and guilt of death in your bedroom. It is hard to not be able to leave India behind at 10pm, dizzy, dehydrated, and alone. The scene that greeted me when I looked around the dimly lit room, however, was not so much disgusting as it was surreal: larger ants were scattered around the floor, congregated slightly in that corner, but on the floor there was no trace of a body. A small dark strip of something, maybe. It was hard to tell. By this morning, it, and the ants, were completely gone.
So life and death invade your world a little more obviously here. Disturbing, confusing, and at the same time, oddly peaceful and normal. Perhaps this is just the relief that my bad parenting and worse corpse-cleaning job didn’t get me into a truly regrettable predicament, but the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “surrender to it.”
Take time, for example. I cannot tell you how much melodramatic poetry there is sitting in my dropbox about how time is an unrelenting weight in my life: too little time, too much time, doing a bad job handling my time, no escape from this looming, demanding, aching time. After my short 18 years, I’m here, where time is an afterthought. Don’t get me wrong, people acknowledge time here, people give each other time estimates, rough schedules, arrival and departure times, but you quickly realize, it’s not as though anyone expects the day to actually adhere to these. Absurd, really, to expect that things will go according to the time schedule. Living like that would be like trying to drive on these roads as a Westerner, getting into crashes all the time because, stubbornly you believe that things like ‘right of way,’ lanes, stoplights, signs, and sidewalks should have some control over how the traffic moves.
I have another three and a half weeks here, and it doesn't work to wait out that time. It doesn’t work. Time morphs here. My first day was three weeks long, yesterday was about the size of an afternoon. Life here isn’t on a 12 hour schedule, it is the orange shadows under the bridge while you watch the faces of a hundred people go by, vaguely aware that you came to see elephants, but actually, you came to be stunned by the way five people fit onto one motorcycle, by the way women walk proudly with meters of fabric between them and 105 degrees. Life here is saambaar on your fingers, and crying “Appadi poddu!” across the table. It is tea after the hottest part of the day, pouring the drink between cups and trying to pronounce the anti-feminist folklore on Siva. It is not knowing when ‘awake’ happens, because sometimes everything is heat and four more weeks, and then it is flying down a poorly kept road on a motorcycle between wide open fields watching the upside-down crescent of the moon start off Puthandu, the Tamil New Year. Sometimes life is a dead lizard by your bed. Sometimes it is a crowd of small children practicing their English with you, scrunching up their faces to remember a word, or lighting up because they understood what you meant. Sometimes it is waking up to find an elephant wandering down the street, because here it doesn’t work to wait for elephants. It doesn’t work to wait at all.