I’ve been here for three months and I think India is at its best at night when the rain has fallen and streaked the windows of the vehicle I’m inside so that electric light speckles and is dappled. At night the roads are awash with the generous monsoon downpour and electric red blue yellow white lights sparkle against the black. The neon shapes of the Malayalam alphabet, the rip roar of the lorries crashing in upon our vehicle so close on both sides, the rickshaws, the layers, the colours, the textures, the bodies, everything is heightened at night and I can see what a foreign land I am in.
Caught out in a downpour, I took cover under an awning and figured I’d make the most of the hundred rupees credit I had left on my phone. Observing the muddy grit crossroads and the line of rickshaws parked up in the sodden rain, I called a friend in Brighton. I woke her up. Sorry about that.
‘You’re in India. You’re not in the next room. You’re so far away.’
‘Yeah, man. I’m in India.’
It has become my familiar and yet it remains strange and surprising and there is cruelty within its beauty; it has got muscle, muscle that flexes and is see-able under taut brown skin. The women here exemplify it; coiled readiness loosely concealed under saris and gold. India is business. India is shrewd. It deals its citizens cut rate products in favour of profit. It seems that it’s no fool. “Come into our shop, you want a churidhar? You want two. You want a shawl for it, too, and leggings to wear with it.”
“No, I really actually don’t want any of that at all.”
“How about you buy it anyway?”
“How about I don’t?”
Shrewd. Cut throat. Oh those warm smiles and welcoming nods may seek to lull you but don’t budge an inch because as welcoming and as curious and as friendly as they are, no matter how they gently guide you through their store, there’s a strength and a ‘don’t f*ck with me, for I am mighty’ understated almost prescience that becomes obvious only as I learn what to watch for.
And, I am reminded of this thing I learned which is that whilst one Indian may have a problem with another each man will smile as if the problem never happened whereas the British shall ably act as though the slight never happened; yet, they will remember to never smile at the polite adversary. Smile like you mean it, even if you don’t. So that smile that you see…
But, truly, effervescent gregarious warmth is all I have essentially witnessed and been privy to – although one experience of this friendly curiousity almost provoked me to want to clump the man who I was speaking with. As I have said, I have adjusted by increments to the culture of here. I am familiar now with one of the most curious and jarring cultural differences, which is a small, small thing that speaks volumes. If I met a stranger in England and we were to fall into conversation it wouldn’t take long until one of us asks ‘what do you do (for a living)?’ Here it’s a different matter. Thus, here comes a warning: you will be asked if you are married, how old you are, and what size is your family within first meeting.
When such questions are posed, the British person within me recoils, puts up her defenses, crosses her arms and says “Ahem what?” whilst, inwardly I laugh and also slightly shudder since I know my own personal politics and habits and wish, by no small degree, to launch into, “must I be married in order to define myself or in order to go out into the world? Can a single woman not venture forth independent and apparently alone into foreign lands? It sounds to me as if you’re assuming I would want or even need a man in my life to define and support my adventures? And, how dare you assume that I would want to be married and have children, you dope?” Still, even weeks into my stay here, this silent tirade is the response that I wish to utter. But, these questions are the norm. Enquiring about age, marital status, religion or caste are super typical questions to ask in the first meeting.
“Ummm. Come to England,” I say. You’ll be even more confused by it as you are by me, standing here before you with my short hair, unmarried, no gold, over thirty, wearing trousers, riding a bicycle in spite of the monsoons and traffic etc. etc.
However, the reason for this ramble is because I had perhaps the very best ‘first conversation’ with a gent the other day. It went a little like this:
“So, ma’am, are you married?”
Bites tongue as silent tirade resonates within then responds, “No. I’m not married. I’ve no interest.”
“Ah,” he pauses to think of the word. I see him almost literally scratching his head to recall and finally this man whom I suspect dyes his grey hairs black says with a curled pained expression, “so you are a sinister.”
“I beg your pardon, a what?”
Right… I didn’t know where to begin. And so, after slight debate about which course to take, I gently assisted him with his pronunciation of ‘spinster’ and suggested that if he ever meets another single lady that he should not reach so immediately for such a word. Sinister, my ass.
As I look back over the past 12 weeks or so I can see there have been phases of adjustment. Leaving a life behind (resting as it is back there) creates opportunities and invites new habits. I’ve noticed increments of transition.
First there was the happy welcoming of this foreign land – I gorge myself upon it and see it, soak it up with broad brushstrokes. I work out methods of survival: where to buy my food, what is too much to pay, what is a satisfactory price, I learn to enquire a rickshaw driver’s price before getting into the rick. I attempt to say thank you and hello in the native speak. I learn how to travel around – to recognize how Angamaly is written in Malayalam script so that I know I’m heading in the right direction. I learn how to shop for necessities (though I shall never be comfortable with the multitude of sales assistants standing by to help lift clothes from hangars, point out possible selections and to be amused by assisting a white girl with minimal language). I learn how to dress for the heat. I learn how to dispose of cockroaches. I learn that the big cans of red Hit! Kill Cockroach Dead is a wonder at annihilating the creatures. I learn to have a torch standing by in always the same place ready for the blackouts.
I realized, too, that in my first week I missed putting on my socks of a morning. There’s no need for them here but they were such a staple part of my clothing diet that to no longer have them as part of my dressing habit felt like missing a step each time. I have recovered from this brief phase and what socks I packed remain packed.
Then there was the week and a half of dreaming that I was in England. I’d spend the whole dream figuring out how to get back to India. Those dreams have subsided now and England remains the landscape where my dreams unfold, for now. Although perhaps I lie and such dreams shall continue to raise their heads since only the other day I dreamed that I was back at Eastenders being offered a long old contract to work there again there whilst in the corridors old familiar faces rattled about. I cannot tell you the horror I was struck with as I explained gratefully “I’ve got a job in India, ta.”
Then there was the confusing stage when I kept forgetting where I was. I’d look out of the window and think ‘oh yes, India,’ having somehow fallen into a lull of thinking ‘ahh, I’m in England.’ That, too, has gone. This was around the time of having creeping sensations of memory: thinking of Walthamstow market, picturing walking into The Chequers, flashes of recalling wheeling about London on my bike, ducking about the grey tarmac roads, the cool air, and the light, even. Now summer’s unfolding over there whilst the monsoons tip down inconsistently yet dramatically over here but England seems, in ways, a lifetime ago.
Now I’ve entered into the phase of returning to Angamaly after a day-trip away and getting that ‘home now’ sensation – the sense of a weight lifting that happens when one returns. This isn’t home but home is where the heart is and I guess my heart, as with my body and myself, is here now.
The strangenesses of India are beginning to feel less so. I found myself in a park the other day. The sun was shining. Behind me there stood elephants, on the road there rattled rickshaws, buffalo meandered freely around the perimeter of the enormous temple and the hibiscus flowers were luminous, the people surrounding me all pointed to the fact that I could be nowhere else but India yet I felt as if I was in a park almost anywhere in the world as the bright sun shone crisp through the thick green trees and the heat made me sweat a bucket. I had the same feeling when I was in California or when I was in Hyde Park. That content sensation of being at one with the moment and my surroundings.
The strange is becoming my familiar.
I’m slowly and unsteadily, like a toddler trembling at the knees whilst walking, learning pieces of the Malayalam alphabet. Sure it’s all squiggles and loops but I guess the ABC was once precisely that, too. I’ve developed my speaking, too. I’ve learned that the words I said in thanks and greeting are old fashioned and ‘too polite’ so I’ve returned to ‘hello’ and ‘thanks’ although pinne kanaam always raises a smile as does being able to say ‘that’s all’ to shopkeepers. Besides, I have time; time to learn, to work it out and working out can only bring benefits. It’s just another case of making sense of the strange. Why not? I suppose in this manner I might address a whole new universe; adapt and survive. Figure it out and integrate with unapologetic gusto.
Leaving the perimeters of my new territory is another reflection of my evolution; yet, this said, I can’t help but think that, in fact, it’s in my nature to cast aside fear and jump aboard a bus or a train to somewhere irrespective of where in the world I am. Some people have called me brave and bold for doing so, for riding trains to cities I’ve never been to before but I can’t think of a reason not to do this. Why wouldn’t I? When in India, do as the Indians do.
And, finally for now, the latest stage of the transition is realizing that I am happy. Gone is the abject frustration and stress of working and attempting to sustain an unfulfilling life and “career”. There’s a sort of white noise of reformation as my mind and body adjust to this… this newness. I don’t believe that teaching shall be forever. I’ve other ambitions I want to fulfill but this ambition of happiness; of achieving that strange almost intangible contentment has appeared and my senses have stilled, have become… it’s hard to say. Perhaps they have become silenced by the newness and shall awaken again. Perhaps it is because there is no-one fully of my culture here to engage with that there feels to be a quietness; a peace, even. Interaction is straightforward. No ulterior motives, no agendas, no complex relationships to manage; no demands made. There is quietness too for there are things I do not say since my life experience is so very different to those I mingle with. There are backgrounds and beliefs and such that I think perhaps are such leagues away from how we live in the UK that I have grown more silent upon such matters for simplicity’s sake.
Being away from your culture is curious. I think the silence is because all of my brain-cells are dedicated to working out these next stages of my life; they are super busy figuring out who I am in this place so far from home; so far from the place that nurtured and made me as I am. Who knows? I don’t.
That is why the title of this entry is phases. I’m sure the next one shall be a revelation.