When I look in the mirror and don’t like what I see

“Miss! Miss!” he calls after me as he crosses the street and jumps over a pothole to join me on the road. He runs a bit to keep up with my pace. “Please, miss.” Something in his voice- was it desperation?- causes me to pause.

“Yes?” I inquire, the impatience of an unwanted connection thickly accenting my voice.

“Why does no one want to talk to me?”

The question lingers for a moment in frozen time. His eyes implore an answer beyond what I have to give. He continues, “all of these people, they come to India, but they no want to talk to Indians. I drive the tuk tuk. And I want to talk to people, to learn culture, to hear about your place and tell you mine.”

As he talks, the street children I already declined crowd my feet. Their eyes seek mine as they motion with their hands and touch their mouths. “Give me money; feed me,” they silently cry.

I shift my weight and move my bag closer to my body, uncomfortable with the demands that surround. Or maybe it is my dismissal of them that causes discomfort? I turn my attention back to the man. Awaiting my response, he stares at me with eyes boring a longing even greater than the begging children who now engulf us both.

“Ummmm.” I stall, searching for a reply. He takes this as an invitation to elaborate, “I went to Thailand last year. And the people? Very friendly. All people. But here, no one wants friendly. They ride in my tuk tuk and they don’t talk.”

“Yes.” I affirm him, aware that even now, I don’t want to talk. “I, I think people can find India overwhelming.” I say weakly, asking myself if I dare share that his approach to offering a tuk tuk ride just before he chased me down is precisely what I mean by overwhelming.

I don’t elaborate, though. Instead, the insufficiency of my response hangs in the air between us.

Switching gears- still seeking the connection foreigners neglect to provide- he asks, “which hotel you stay?” I explain that I am not at a hotel, as I am living in Jaipur. I wonder to myself if this makes it all better or worse.

Finally conceding to my body language and clear lack of reciprocity, he concludes. “Well, you are hurrying to your home now. Maybe another time we will take chai. Me? I am Shiwa. You have Rajasthan number? Here is mine so we can have the chai.”

I extend my hand for the scrap of paper he is scribbling his number on and nod. My head is spinning with excuses of safety and colleagues waiting at home, my face flushed with the truth that I have nowhere to be. I turn on my heels and walk back down the road.

When I round the corner, I step out and raise my hand in search of a tuk tuk.

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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.