I haven’t written for quite some time so here’s a little of what’s been happening. My family visited for Christmas and my mother, again, for Easter. Other than that, communication and contact with England, with family and with home have been somewhat electronic, distant and intermittent. England comes occasionally in dreams, by memory and the Internet, which does little to reduce the illusion of there being no distance between my present situation and the one back (can I call it?) home.
In a bullet point kind of way, let’s address some more of what has happened:
I got bitten by a monkey; I’ve been in a vehicle charged at by an elephant; killed countless cockroaches and ants (so I know what I’ll be reincarnated as); taken part in a gay pride march (highlight); improved my grammar (though this entry may be no evidence of that); lived on only a hundred pounds a month; infrequently heard friends’ news and been made aware of time passing by friends who have given birth, bought a first house or a second house; met a life partner; started up their own business and so on. Meanwhile, I’ve undertaken on-line learning; written thousands of words in the hope of making a book of my own for others to read; undertaken projects that I have no idea how long will take to finish; been driven to the brink listening to students and their errors; extended my visa to stay in India; grown to appreciate the importance of the DVD boxset; understood the neuroses that permeate many peoples’ lives; watched my kitten grow into a cat; drunk opium tea; learned what it is to miss people; learned what it is to live in the moment; refined my ability to take pleasure in the small things; been sunburned; realized that many people in Angamaly know where I live; yearned for things that won’t come easily; and, all in all, I have lived and realized that there are degrees of living, from feeling truly alive to existing. Right now, I’d say I fall in the middle: a happy kind of consistency of happiness that has room for other things such as belly-aching laughs; disco dancing like I just don’t care; driving on English roads; and, pedaling towards horizons amongst other things that are subtle and not so subtle.
One year in, and the glaze has come off. Once you’ve lived in a place for long enough, the excitement wanes; the new becomes the regular; the towns you think about visiting become just another town full of crappy shops selling crappy things. India is rough. India is tough. It holds up a mirror and lets you see the best and worst of humanity: boundless generosity of spirit, and our ability for brutality.
Further, sympathy has left me and it has also visited bringing with it a heightened level of awareness; its effects are now felt in extremes since some days it’s lacking and on other days it’s too much. Things I’ve seen haven’t worn down my edges so much as made the edges more defined to the point they’ve become protectors, not a shell as much as resilience, a toughness, and a tucking away of sensibilities because the life I led before this experience rarely exposed me to some of what I’ve since seen and heard and learned; Of course, there are days when skin is raw and things seep in more easily. I understand why friends who work in the emergency services have turned from sweet individuals to cynics carrying bitterness and anger. I write this knowing full well that I’ve seen but a miniscule pinhole glimpse into the darkness and suffering humanity is capable of inducing.
I watch the rubbish on the streets discarded as though it were an installation designed to make the viewer consider the excesses of consumerism. In England, we tuck away our rubbish and send it to landfill because life is easier when you can hide the detritus of your life’s trail behind a wall or below ground. Here, however, it gathers in unsightly mounds that you eventually stop noticing until someone pours diesel upon it and turns the trash into fire and toxic smoke. Blackened remains of cans that won’t burn, and of charred glass bottles remain to remind you of the installation you once saw.
I’ve watched animals with bones propping through a veil of skin lacerated with open sores that they gnaw ever more raw. I’ve stopped a while with some of those animals and seen how they respond to affection. They don’t turn it away and turn into the pet dog you remember from the past: each animal clearly hankering for attention and kindness.
Meanwhile, I’ve turned away outstretched hands asking for money and watched elderly women sitting upon their haunches amidst mounds of rubbish to earn just a few rupees a day. I refused her outstretched hand because there are too many others just like her all asking something of you; some of them with newborn babies resting upon their hips, and some hands were those of children.
I’ve wanted to document this along with the dizzying heights of wonder and generosity that I’ve witnessed because let’s not forget charity and our ability to reach far beyond the limiting parameters of satiating only our own needs.
I’ve met people who combine industry with charity to great effect. I’ve met those who were born into privilege yet live within an area where their immediate neighbours draw water from a well and have no comforts with which to fill their meager houses; people who live in a neighbourhood where the men folk head to distant cities to make a living, leaving the women to raise the children and manage the home. There is no other choice afforded to them. The privileged within this village saw fit to make the most of ethical tourism and formed some of my favourite days in Rajasthan.
I’ve never before glimpsed life within a desert environment neither have I ever been invited into the homes of strangers who simply wanted to connect because there’s little else to do but to communicate, share time and wonder. As my mother and I walked the dusty streets, dotted with buffalo and peacocks, we sensed a curious sisterhood, too: women look out for women and though you don’t speak the same language there’s something profound that extends beyond the limits of language. Gesture and action, similarity and a welcoming community unite strangers irrespective of difference.
I met a man who built his way up from nothing to owning and running one of the largest, I’m not sure how to describe it, factories for producing teeth and dentures. I visited it after a rather random invitation was extended. The owner chooses not to employ machines because there are people who need jobs and so the factory, for want of a better word, employs thousands of women who are involved in every stage of making and painting false teeth, crowns, and so on. I have never seen so many teeth in my entire life. He chooses people over profit yet still turns a tidy profit, too.
I could go on, I’ve seen and met more like this: industry with a social conscience.
On the other hand, I’ve learned what people will do for money; I’ve learned how (un)easy it is to turn a blind eye, to bring down the fence and say ‘that person’s problem isn’t my own.’ I imagine when you’re surrounded by such density of poverty and people (never a shortage of people) and poorly equipped resources that it’s only natural that the need for survival raises its head and draws a line in the sand. You understand the Darwinian theory of evolution is very much in play to this day and on into the future until everyone is afforded proper quality of life.
Kerala has taught me what people will do for money and how strong the desire for a “better” more affluent life is; they dream of discovering bounty in foreign lands. In return, I think I’ve managed not to teach anyone that money isn’t everything; that happiness and connection to your community is what counts – this comes from someone who is presently entirely disconnected from her own community.
Cast adrift in a foreign land, just the smallest nudge from that place called ‘home’, that place where people reside who know you inside out, comes to mean the hugest amount. It’s disproportionate how big and gratifying small gestures can feel, as if the distance between us multiplies the size of its meaning and impact. What has struck me further is how much I’ve heard from people I’d never of expected to hear from, and how little I have heard from those I would have expected to.
One year has taught me what it means to be part of a community and that culture can be an extraordinary subtle divider of people because no matter how hard you try to reach across its invisible walls there are things you cannot do, things you can’t take back or undo and beliefs that won’t settle comfortably with your host’s culture – and conversely, too, of this I’m sure.
Anyway, doesn’t time fly? And, doesn’t it drag? It does when you play the ‘what is everyone else doing right now?’ game. Cumbersome unwieldy thoughts have lumbered about my interior making themselves known from time to time for I’ve been living in a place where there is very little to do and thinking is necessary to help pass the time. Thoughts have gone somewhat like this, “you can’t be yourself here,” “you’re in danger of forgetting who you are” and “it’s time to move on,” and “hey, wouldn’t it be great to be amongst your own kind where no-one asks, “Why do you dress like that, talk like that, think like that, behave like that?” At the end of this year, there are positives and negatives.
The truth is: unless you are capable of entertaining yourself, of extracting joy from simple things, of burying your head in books, of exploring, and adapting fleeting gestures of kindness into a sense of friendship or of managing sublimation then don’t go to a place as different as this for longer than a vacation unless you come with an entourage, or a support network or you are secure in the knowledge that your open likes, dislikes, and proclivities will satisfy the culture into which you move. This is by no means to undo all who I have met, and the little community within which I’m presently living and working that has made me feel nothing but welcome (although occasionally as though I were a curiousity shop into which they could wander, pick up things, turn them over, examine and then leave without paying).
In the next bit I shall dwell on the negative aspects of my experience not because I wish to be the harbinger of doom but because there’s a lot to take from understanding matters such as what it’s like to be a minority and what it’s like to live within a developing country. These are things, I think, that the glancing visitor to this country doesn’t always get to behold.
Being white. What is it like to be a minority? Answers on a postcard to… For the minority is what I am in this place of societal rule, familial duty, tradition, church and levels of education that appear to reduce far too many folk to accepting things as they are told they are and to not finding out for themselves. To be a minority here is thankfully no test of endurance against hatred or violence. I’m white. Living with this skin that I can’t escape isn’t always a comfortable experience, though. Anonymity is forsaken. I walk everywhere: no sanctuary of a private vehicle and so I receive a lot of looks, a lot of fingers pointing, regular feelings of being a specimen within a museum, and a lot of comments. I imagine that not all of them are the friendliest. Let’s face it, the British occupied this continent until the late 1940’s and people remember, and people dislike this historical fact. I can’t say I’m a fan of it, either.
Did I come here for people’s gaze and entertainment? A fair few men openly stare at any body part they wish and only get embarrassed when I finally draw their roving eye to my own angry eye. Some remove their gaze, only to return it again when possible; meanwhile, others continue looking as though I were a waxwork unaware of their close, from the corner of their eye scrutiny. Such men say they wouldn’t do it, ask it or think it of an Indian woman because an Indian woman doesn’t behave like a Westerner (I beg to differ: people act as people want, desires aren’t to be suppressed but society here is a significant presence that many kowtow to because it’s better to be a part of society than an outsider or worse). It would seem that because of my white skin and the power of stereotype, I stand tarred with the same brush used to paint those images of Western slags they’ve seen or read or heard about through popular myth and idle hear-say. I carry all the associations other people have of my culture like an invisible backpack.
CONCERNED STUDENT: Anna, is it true that everyone in the West comes from a broken home?
ANNA: Why do you ask?
CONCERNED STUDENT: Because that’s what I’ve seen in the movies.
ANNA: Have you ever thought that films are stories constructed to make you empathise with the hero and it is in the very nature of a story to present a broken hero who is compelled to fix their world and him or herself? (Pause) And, no, of course not every family is broken. We do have different views and experiences of what families are, though, and we’re more explicit about our emotional needs. And, by the way, how is the divorce rate in India?
CONCERNED STUDENT: Oh, it’s getting worse and worse by the day.
Being a minority has its advantages but the disadvantages are wearing niggles that test your humour and your patience. The word ‘sype’ or ‘madama’ (written as pronounced; the first refers to white person/man, the latter to white female) makes my blood boil. I’m sick of being seen for the colour of my skin and my difference; in England, it’s easy to hide in plain sight. Here, being seen is inescapable and it rouses such feelings of frustration: being a novelty and a rare sighting to steal a photograph of robs you of something indefinable and undoes the thought I carry with me that ‘we are all equal’ because if we were all equal you’d hope that would mean we’d see no difference and require no photographs. But that’s the truth again: we are novelties unto one another, until the novelty wears off.
Now this is not to bang on, but being white seems to ensure the price will go up on products no matter what. Always check the MRP (although it’s not so bad in Kerala while in Rajasthan it was a joke). Being white ensures you’ll be ushered through to the A/C family room even if you prefer to sit in room temperature for your dining experience rather than glacial conditions. Being white ensures people draw conclusions about you without prior hypothesis or experiment.
As with the colour of your skin, you can’t escape your culture; it will follow you, whether you like it or not. Admittedly, there is wonder in beholding the naïve, baseless notions some people seem to have of the world exterior to Kerala/ India but these are somewhat disheartening to experience, too. There is a narrow field of vision that develops when you don’t dare lift your head above the parapet of your surroundings and enquire about what’s occurring at a distance. I suspect we’re all guilty of this in our own ways. Ignorance is bliss, after all and at least the apparently dim-witted questions are all in a bid to gain a better understanding.
Life in a developed country is complex in many ways, and easier in others. Here in Kerala, the simple purchase of wine, should you have the desire, is an arduous tortuous matter of timing unless you wish to go to a bar and pay three times the price. Rarely, and at any time of day, does the Bevco not have two long snaking lines of men in dotis, ugly patterned shirts and ballooning rice-swollen bellies so whilst my occasional want to enjoy a drink has not diminished, I’m yet to discover the art of doing so gracefully, without grit, and causing a scene (“see the madama in the line!” which invariably rouses various interactions, some of which I understand and some of which make me howl, I’ve no idea what you’re saying. Leave me be).
Life in a developing country reveals to you how sugar-coated life in developed countries can be, unless you fall foul of not making enough money or work in professions that bring you into a rich mix of England’s diversity. How many times in England can you look death in the eyes, or observe the poverty and mutilations that befall people? Whilst here, you can see it everywhere you go. True enough, in Kerala the caste system is not so obvious; it’s been tucked away from sight, by degrees, but travel to the North and there you’ll find it.
In Jaipur, the array of animals wandering the streets intensifies and broadens. Add pigs to the mix of cattle grazing the rubbish dumps then listen to a guide tell you how pigs are only eaten by the untouchables. Yes, even now the untouchables are considered just that and are condemned to the sidelines of society. I can’t sit in judgment, not me from my culture, because this is India’s culture; you’re born into your caste and remain there either ossifying your family bloodlines amongst the squalor or, if born to an elite caste, languishing and propagating your seed to far beyond India’s limits. As I said previously, India wakes you up to the brutalities that civilization imposes.
And so, it has been a year since I left the UK and all that I know. The sense of boredom, of repetition and isolation have set in, left a mark, the mark has faded, and the feelings of ennui have dissipated, become replaced by a sense of now and a sense of things coming, of tides changing and, in part, a final sense that England isn’t a magnet drawing me back but that there are a myriad other horizons, languages, cultures and people to experience. However, England remains within my consciousness not least because it’s been a place where I have been fully myself and imagine that I shall be again.
It has been a year and I’m looking to the future and thinking about where I’ll go to next. I’ve learned what I want, and what I need: if I count on the notion that you don’t always get what you want but you often get what you need then I’m hopeful that my destination will give me more of what I need and some of what I want.
When will it be time to move on? Soon, I’m certain of it; and I’ll be certain to make sure that I can be in a place where society has ideas on how men and women should live that I’m more comfortable with. I look forward very much to living in a place where there’s a diversity of cultures, persuasions, perspectives and ideals that I can identify with because I don’t identify with amounts of what permeates this the little corner of a very big country.
This is the culmination of a year of change – personal, mostly – and of learning, and of growing, and of coming to understand my place in this world and how I interact (and often fail to interact) with it. I look forward to the rest, to meeting like-minded folk with whom I can share things because, while I’ve met some truly wonderful people who I hope to stay in touch with, to meet people who live in proximity and who are inclined to do some of the things I like doing would be uplifting and nourishing. All of this said and done, uncharacteristically, I’m staying put in order to see some projects through to the end. And when this is done, I’ll move on.
Until then, one’s life is where one is, but it doesn’t mean that which is out of sight is any less important; in many ways, this is very far from the truth as being departed makes you appreciate precisely what you had/ have/ hope one day to return to. In all my toying with the ideas of “if I were in England now, what would I do?” I’ve imagined other people’s lives are better or fuller than my own. We imagine other people feel more connected, happier, more satiated, wealthier, less frustrated, less forgotten, more accepted, more belonging, better off than us. We look at our own situation perhaps because of a sense of alienation, an exhausting sense of running against a perennial incoming tide that will not relent for a moment; however, it is too easy to look at other people and think, ‘you know exactly where your life is going and for that I’m jealous.’ These are not reasons why I haven’t stayed in touch more effectively but I sometimes wonder are these one or two of the reasons why we don’t stay in touch as frequently as we promised or is it because that old adage, “out of sight, out of mind” is true? In ways, I won’t believe it for a second because I can feel the cluster of my friends about me even though we are upon different continents.
Time passes and we don’t always see what we’re missing because we’re so very attuned to observing only what is before our eyes. How many of us are forgotten? How many of us are remembered? The more time that passes, the more I understand the impossibility of sharing our experiences with one another; and that’s precisely it, isn’t it? We can only ever share with our friends what we have shared in actuality and everything else, your reading of this, is a fairytale. You know the story. You’ve tasted my experiences and perhaps lived vicariously (please, do) through what I’ve written but you can’t know. I hope, though, that you can understand somewhat so that when we do see one another again the fissures brought on by not seeing one another are not irreparable. Until then.