I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!
May 18, 2017
It is blowing my mind that I’m done with my time here.
Yes, it has felt like forever, especially when the first day felt like a month. And Yes, of course I can remember my first moments with this city: stepping onto the dusty “tarmac” out of a tiny, wildly loud, tin can of an airplane in the middle of the night praying that somebody would be waiting to pick me up in the airport.
I remember getting onto this tiny bright blue little bus, crammed with people, funny music playing and being surprised that they didn’t close the doors or bother holding onto stuff, sure one of the small children was going to fall out. Aw, I was clueless.
I remember the first taxi ride, only a half hour later in the dark, feeling mesmerized, and like my whole body was suspended just watching the chaos in the street. I saw it like it was some sort of exotic, beautiful animal—irresistibly in awe and afraid by the sheer foreign-ness of the stimulus attacking all of my senses.
I can still feel the stomach-flipping panic that tied me up until landing in Delhi. Actually, it still grips me sometimes and I cannot believe that I willingly got on all four airplanes just to show up in here without knowing anybody, for five weeks, mentally letting go of all security and familiarity (suddenly not trusting anything resembling a man, suddenly abandoning the expectation of any law enforcement to protect me). I prepared myself for being attacked, for getting wildly sick, for not being able to eat much of anything, for living amidst disease and poverty— I accepted what might become my life here, I was willing to take it all, alone. Why? That night I lay on the hard “bed” counting locks between the street and me trying to remember why I had signed up for this.
Yes, all of the “firsts” are crystal clear, so of course it’s mind-boggling that I can easily relive my first days here—which mostly included incredulity at the prospect of five weeks. It’s hard not to go back and forth between that feeling, and the thought, “I’m flying out today.”
I asked myself “why” again last night, but I wasn’t counting locks and I wasn’t on the “bed” that has now become the most comfortable and welcome thing in my day. I was on the warm tiles on the roof of our building, with my roommate Olivia, just looking up at the stars which were finally clear and visible in abundance. We were there for about four hours, talking and watching. Trying to grapple with where we were, both visiting this country as a detour from the straight shot between big life events. I realized that after this, it’s just college. Finally nothing else in my way but those next four years, and the years after that. I’ve loved being on this detour, where the objectives for the day are as simple as taking advantage of the weird and untried circumstances that come pouring in with the hours. Ridiculous objective, mind you, totally impossible, but it's a great feeling to know that just trying is good enough.
I thought I would be relieved, to be done. Now I get the easy part; I get to be that prissy kid who comes back with henna on her arms like, “Yaa, Vanakkam, I’ve been in India for five weeks, no big deal…and by the way it’s called mehndi.” You know that girl. I get to grab some tourist items and some peanut brittle for the road, print out my photographs and tell stories and make all of this into postcard memories for family and friends and clap myself on the back for a Senior Project well done.
But I’m not relieved. It sounds pleasant, sure, but this is a real place, with real people I’ve gotten to know…and I don’t want to make them into part of the exotic scenery from a cool Senior Project. So let me list them, at least, the people and places I’ve started referring to as “home.”
The Centre: red brick, build from the ground up by Vidya and her husband, downstairs we have the library, the rows of big black boxes they call computers which I now look at a little fondly; the series of tables where we sit for meetings, for conversations, and for English class; the green boards with my handwriting and Vidya’s handwriting in pink and yellow chalk. Outside, there is the long green plastic fence that glows brightly against the sun, and the stone area where we play improv games, where all the staff and I get to drink tea or curd milk after lunch.
Vidya, the mom of this organization, and the chief—all information must go through Vidya.
Sujatha, the older sister in my mind, scheduling queen with a little legal pad and phone, who is calm and collected and graceful.
Rama, grandma, who picked me up in Madurai and has continued to be the most reliable, patient, most knowledgeable person, and conversationalist…I always feel happier and calmer out in the city if I am with Rama.
Jasmine, with her zebra patterned pants, biggest smile, and apparently the resident tech geek whom I’ve almost never seen working with technology.
Pichimani, who sat through far too many hours of Tamil class with me.
Niranjana, younger sister, the kindest, youthful presence in her pink scarves, who introduced me to her whole family and who got pregnant a couple weeks ago— somehow I was the first to realize so she swore me to secrecy before making absolutely sure.
And the maintenance crew, of course: Katya and Muthu, soft voices always offering me food or a chair or some new sweet; Marie who carries cement in a bowl on her head carefully across the property all day long and who smiles hugely when she sees me; Shila, with a different bright flower in her hair, offering to put eyeliner on me, or give me mehndi and or to tuck in my clothes.
I'll miss them. Pause. Breathe. Yeah, I will.
And I’m going to miss these students, who all call me Akka, “big sister” or “Ma’am” no matter how many times I tell them just “Nimaya” is fine. The girls who are first to raise their hands, Guyatri, Samita, and Kiitani, and the youngest ones, Diipati and Ponpria who follow suit and hold onto my skirt to sit right next to me. The boys who come less regularly but who participate just as willingly, Soleman who will roar and chase the younger boys but who also spends his free time hunched over a copy of his copy of “Merchant of Venice” mouthing Shylock’s lines.
And of course, there is Olivia—and Harvard upstairs, who actually, as Olivia pointed out, is “a very cool lady” and I’m so glad we got to meet and spend some time with her. The three of us took to the city and bought trinkets last night: we crammed into a very small rickshaw with some other passengers so a couple of us weren’t on the seat and my ankles were showing…it was a scandalous ride. We had the famous, “Murugan Idlis” and explored the Meenakshi Amman Temple from the outside, as well as in. Turns out it’s almost more beautiful in the quiet, walking barefoot on the hot stones late at night.
My girl Olivia Newton John...It doesn’t make any sense to write about Olivia here—my emotional savior, but I’ll just make a small thank you, for watching India from the roof with me and being my mango compatriot to process everything from our little makeshift fort home in this crazy, confusing, unfamiliar place.
It just doesn’t feel right to package them all up into “my trip to India.” So. Well. There’s that. My internet farewell.
And just before I head out for sixty more hours of travel— four airplanes, three airlines, two hotels, six packages of peanut brittle—a tiny request. Instead of asking, “How was India?” I’d really rather be asked for just “one thing:” one story, one image, one thing I miss, one thing I haven’t told anyone else about. It’ll help me to remember, and I won’t start to glaze everything over with, “Amazing trip, whew, so long and yet so short, golly me, really incredible, yeah, thanks for asking.’
So lastly, thank you, to whatever got me onto that airplane despite a storm and a terrorist threat and no sense of sureness. Thank you, Tamil Nadu, for being always on that edge of too much, for the beauty and thrill and awe that came with thousands of photographs, for the people and the motorcycle rides and the Tamil pronunciation and everything else I get to pack with me. And biggest of all—thank you, lord, for five weeks in a country where restaurants have to stipulate when they are “non vegetarian” because that is an outlier in the glorious bounty of freshly made, spicy, all-vegetarian-all-the-blessed-time dishes.
OK. Officially off to discover the last fifty hours.
Until the next time I lug out my blue backpack and its little wooden pendant with my oh so fabulous trail name, “Lil’ Rumi..."