Sunday, February 06, 2011

Adjust-panni, ippo enna?

After visiting a teeny village in rural Andhra Pradesh,
the school children were waving goodbye as I left (Sep 2010).

So I've adjusted. Now what?

I'm back in the swing of normal daily life in America, my calorie intake is up, with chocolate, cheese, and american junk food, and I've stopped seeing things around me as especially strange or foreign. Everything is normal. Almost. Mostly.

There are times now, in the normal-est circumstances, when I feel completely out of place. Only, it seems, in the moments of utter and absolute normalcy, when everyone else around me is so deeply and completely caught up in that unaware normalness, then I feel somehow transported to another world.

One night not too long ago I was riding the bus home late from the university, observing the other passengers. I couldn't help but see the way in which they organize themselves in the space of the bus so differently from the alternative reality of Indian buses. I experienced a strange double vision of an ordinary, late night, Indian bus, filled with passengers, superimposed on this bus of Americans. Though they are going about the same essential activity, riding a bus to go home, or to visit someone, or go to work, I can't help but marvel at the difference in the ways in which they, those physically present Americans, and imagined Indians, accomplish that task.

No one else around me was aware of the ghostly Indian bus, taking the same route, with ethereal other-worldly passengers, saris and shawls wrapped over heads, bending forwards in their seats, instead of leaning back, babies sleeping on laps, instead of in strollers, young children stretched across a row of three or four people. The small zippered duffle bags containing clothing and other essentials for entire families, jostling quietly on the floor. Women sitting only with other women, and men with men, unless they happen to be husband and wife, and even then, still sometimes separated. The chilly night wind blows through the Indian bus, even if chilly means its 70 degrees fahrenheit, everyone feels cold. It is only the body heat of the number of people packed closely together, 3 or 4 or 5 to a bench seat, that keeps the bus warm.

On the American bus, men in women, girls and boys sit together, and perhaps because there are so many fewer people, they all seem to spread out, legs spread wide, slumped down and leaning back, there are several people dozing or sleeping, or listening to music on headphones. Backpacks and purses and bags spread out over the adjacent seats, creating the buffer of ever-so-important personal space. Hot air blasts out of vents, and some people are talking loudly, trying to talk over the sound of the roaring heat.

I don't know why I sometimes experience double vision. Perhaps it's a trick of my tired, near-dreaming state, when I imagine what it would be like if I were still in India now. Sometimes I feel like I live simultaneously in a double-world.

India from the air, a flight between Chennai and Delhi, 2010.

Now that I'm home, and adjusted, more or less. I find myself missing India more and more. Certainly I don't miss everything. But I sometimes dream about the food, the dosas, idlis and chutneys of Thevar's Cafe near my old apartment. I miss how friendly everyone was, in a way that sometimes seemed more genuine than even the classic midwestern friendliness. Here the woman checking out my groceries at the store might smile, or make polite small talk, but she doesn't know me at all. Though there were things I hated about the small town life of Thanjavur, I miss the shopkeepers of the shop across the street from my house, who knew me, and always greeted me with genuine care. I miss the potter and his family who I used to visit, just to watch them work. I miss lots of things, maybe too many to name each person, place or thing.

It occurred to me once again though, (I've come full circle), I miss the challenge of daily life. I miss the lack of convenience, the effort it took to accomplish so many ordinary daily tasks, and I miss the joy and sense of great satisfaction at having succeeded in such basic things.

America, as I have felt for a long time now, is too easy. Everything is too convenient. I manage to make it somewhat less convenient through my own choices - for instance, currently not owning a car. Sometimes it's hard to put a finger on exactly what it is, or why too much convenience bothers me. I suspect it's that I'm not getting the same sense of accomplishment and satisfaction out the basic tasks of daily life.

So, I've adjusted. Now what? இப்பொழுது என்ன? I suppose I will go on as I have before, always missing one or more of the places that I have called home. Happy to be where I am, happy to be alive, but with twinges of longing for my alternative realities.

Saying goodbye to my friend Ramu, in Kadebakele village last March (2010).

As an aside, I wanted to post a link to this wonderful column reflecting on India, "Modern India's Dance of Creation and Destruction", by Akash Kapur for the International Herald Tribune (and NY Times). It has not much to do with the above post, except in that it also points to the constancy of change, the fact that since I can't live in two places at once, the next time I go back to India, it will no longer be the same place it was when I left. There is a kind of bitter-sweetness in that, one that I savor and let linger in my heart.

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