Surrendering to India
My first Indian experience was in the relatively modern city of Bangalore where high class night clubs, five-star restaurants, and top-end shopping centers juxtapose themselves seamlessly upon the trash filled, ox-cart lined streets of India's technological center. This initial experience had so altered my vision of what India would be that when I took this next step, traveling overnight on a crowded train to the remote village of Tiruchuli in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, I brought with me no expectations of what I would find. Scooped up at the train station by a jeep full of non-english speaking Indian men and carted off to a smallish rural village an hour and a half from the city, I tried to summon all of the strength and courage that had sent me on this trip in the first place. Upon arrival, I sought comfort in my new home - a concrete cell with a bed, a hole to pee in, a bucket to wash with and a friendly neighborhood of cockroaches living in the bathroom (I’ve since upgraded to a concrete cell with windows and a cockroach free hole!) As I lay my head down and close my eyes to rest that afternoon I attempted to conjure up some thoughts that would take the uneasy turning of my stomach away. I recalled the advice I was given by a Swedish woman I shared a cab with in Bangkok on my way to catch my flight to India. She told me reassuringly, "Don't worry about a thing, you will absolutely love it there, once you make up your mind to surrender, it will all be okay."
Every facet of life is different - I can not think of a single thing about my daily life that resembles any other life I've known, or a single scene in this village that recalls images from another I've lived in -- and yet being here feels strangely like home. The complete and utter lack of privacy is, in a way, like living in a crowded house filled with extended family. Every walk I take, every purchase I make, every meal I eat, every person I speak with is noted and discussed by the community that surrounds me. Like family, my new friends are as free and frank with their criticisms as they are lavish with their praise. In a given day my face is pinched by women in approval, my taste in sari material is repeatedly commended, my hand is shaken in excitement by dozens of school children. I am also, however, reminded time and again, of what is missing -- not enough bangles, my earrings are too small, my plait not long enough, where are my flowers, why haven't I a nose ring, and so on. Yesterday in fact, I was invited to a meeting as a guest speaker and told upon arrival that I ought to dye my hair black because I look like an elderly woman with such a strange hue (a comment which was confirmed by a room of 90 village women).
Photo: Posing with my Tamil mama, Manjula, and her mother and father in their home. This woman is my saving grace, an absolute magician in the kitchen, and starting this week, my culinary advisor as I begin as her apprentice/assistant to accommodate new volunteers.
To my great pleasure however, each day since that first difficult entrance has been truly joyful for me here, so much so that I decided early on to extend my stay as long as possible. When I lay in bed, awoken at 5am by the blood curdling sound of an out of tune Tamil call to prayer, accompanied by the ever so melodic backup of the entire village’s dog population, and find I am still happy to be here, I often asked myself how is it that adaptation comes so easily? Yes, I've had to say goodbye to luxuries like running water, toilet paper, timeliness, and the idea that I will ever be truly clean again. And sure, I've had to toughen my skin to face the attention of minor celebrity status. But really it has all been far less of a shock than I had imagined. What does it mean to "surrender" and why does it feel so natural? The other day walking through town I came to my answer - it's that glaringly obvious, yet somehow always shocking realization that we Westerners find ourselves making time and again whenever we visit countries less developed than our own -- that life simply goes on. Toilet paper or not.
With students at a child labor reintegration school sponsored by the org I work for: