Mental models and musky mosaics

[Drafted November 12th]

Upon my arrival in Jaipur, I became aware of how many mental images I held of India. All of the messages I had been taught about how to think about this place surfaced as I stepped out into the city and raised my hand for a passing tuk tuk to escort me through her winding roads.

I felt the “supposed to’s” of India crowding in…

My Christian upbringing subtlety if not explicitly taught me to think of her with sadness. In fact, second maybe to Africa, India is the Church’s favorite place to love. Inspired by Mother Theresa and fueled by the atrocity and prevalence of human trafficking, they visit, they pray, they reach out.

My yogi friends spoke of her as a country with which to be enamored. This community says the name India with reverence, a site for pilgrimage, an inspiration for its spiritual richness. We celebrate the temples, the practice, the prayer.

At the same time, feminist friends prepared me to be enraged. I felt nearly programmed to count the ratio of men to women on the street. To be appalled at the limited number of bars which will serve women alcohol. To contest the stares and advances that seem unceasing.

These expectations crowd my vision, their many colors converge and create a cloudy haze through which I struggle to see out my window. I wonder if I can trust what I observe, or if I merely look to confirm the images I carry?

While I feel all of these things, mostly I feel none of them.

I feel surprise. Confusion. Humor. Ambivalence.

Overwhelmingly, I feel congestion from the smoggy city we call home.

I experience the love of friendship budding with a whiplash of hesitation and self-doubt as I wade through gendered dynamics with every man I come to know. What are his intentions? How will he perceive this relationship? Was that suggestive or am I searching for signs of objectification?

I navigate the tuk tuk system with light-heartedness, enjoying the jolting ride and silently laughing at the frequent stops to ask for directions. I watch all of this in an amused sort of way that matches my delight as I spot a decorated elephant waltz down the street.

As the ride drags on with a tuk tuk driver clearly lost, my frustration sets in when the same driver pauses to load up more chewing tobacco. I feel my impatience and desire to impose my Western schedule and values of efficiency, time, Reign of the Clock.

Negotiating for every ride or bottle of water, I watch myself become the rude American as I grapple with just a bit, yet not enough English. Amidst my unraveling, I am aware that the true target of this resentment is me, for my lack of sensitivity, patience, understanding.

I feel tired. Of the crowds. The cold water. The frequent requests to pose with strangers for a picture.

Nearing a tent city, my hostility dissolves as I meet eyes with its inhabitants. I see the poverty and dig to see the humanity below the layers of dirt and scarcity. How do I reconcile these realities with my own? What are the parallels between this community and the homeless populations at home?

The tuk tuk turns, and with it my attention to these questions of ethics and responsibility fades from the foreground of my thought.

It is through literature that I feel most connected to the culture. So, I read my books and with the turn of every page wonder if this is an acceptable way to understand a place when it is before me- beneath my feet, its air filling my lungs with my every breath.

So, I breathe deeply and try to take her in. I think of all of the people in my life who love India. And those who hate India…My experience does not feel consistent enough to land in either camp.

I close my eyes and try to see India. My vision blurs, providing only half-pictures that are conjured and colonized. The noise of the city crowds my mind, pushing clarity beyond my grasp. The chaos seeps into my veins like a poison, leaving my vitals too dull to be fully present.

From this place, drugged and beaten on the street, I look up to meet the eyes of an Indian woman. “Namaste (the light in me honors the light in you)” she offers, extending her heart to mine.

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