Monday, July 21, 2008

Remembering India after my Birthday

Lingampally had gone to sleep, like most of the Hyderabad metro. We were all a little drunk; a little less drunk by then, but still a little drunk. It was India drunk mind you, which, with few moments of exception never approached the excess of American drunk, or more specifically, Wisconsin drunk.

Vikram was riding with me, talking to me from the behind me on the motorbike as we ride through the now empty, always dusty streets of Lingampally. We have just finished eating at a late night biryani house. The guys always seemed to come up with these places, and they never lasted long enough for us to visit the same one twice. After the 12 midnight standard closing time for everything and these places, hidden in some side street, filled with guys, eating rice and talking and bustling.

Vikram had been the drunkest earlier. He poured his chicken and curry over the steel plate of rice in one shot and mixed it thoroughly with his hand, talking and mixing while we did the same, only in more of a controlled way. It was good food though, as is most food at that hour, in that state. I still haven't found anything quite as appetizing though now that I am home. We soon were quiet as we focused on rice and chicken. It quickly became obvious though that Vikram wasn't doing as well as the rest of us.

"Daniel!" he nearly shouted, "Isn't this hot for you?"

He's visibly sweating already.

"No, Vikram. Are you ok?"

Vikram is drinking everyone's water as he continues to eat, red eyed, sweating, eating and eating, punctuated by refilling our water cups and downing them again.

"Christ Vikram, what kind of Indian are you, " I jibe, smiling.

"Isn't it hot?" He looks puzzled.

"I've been trying to tell you guys that all of this 'too hot for my American friends' is a fucking stereotype. I eat hotter food than this in my own kitchen. Of course, none of us poured our whole dish into the rice at once, except you...".

Vikram has some curd now and fills the water cups. Of course, we are laughing now at his distress. The food is delicious. We finish, and Vikram leads the way by lighting a cigarette beneath the stenciled "no smoking" sign right over his sweating forehead on the wall.

Riding close to me on the motorbike, Murly behind us on the same seat, Vikram throws his arms out wide.

"How are you liking India, Daniel?" he shouts.

"I'm having a great time!" I smile. I am. My motorbike screams beneath us, like a mad lawn mower with glass paks, I'm with my friends, who, by skin, caste, education and gender are nearly a free pass for me, the night is lovely and the road belongs to us and our motocycles.

"Don't you love the freedom here, Daniel?!"

"Of course I do, I wonder though about my classmates, and yours for that matter, the women-"

"Don't worry about the women, Daniel!" Shouts Vikram.

It may be that it was a selfish worry: one of feeling sad that I could never share with my young classmates this intense free roaming. These are just young men, having fun, so terribly innocently inexperienced in so many ways. None of them have worked, or fucked or fought. Surely their greatest crimes were loitering and drinking. Getting "very drunk," was two pints of rum for 5 guys. This evening's had been one pint and a beer for the four of us. It was just the joy of your twenties, and being free. There is not for them, even some abstract threat of the Devil roaming around in their collective psyches. In this moment, without helmets or fear, riding through the dusty streets, holding hands between bikes, we were free for certain, and through their respect and inclusion so was I. This was all something I wished I could share with my class mates, regardless of gender. So, as the haze of this moment's joy settled, that Devil that I brought with me of guilt, and the knowledge that this only further isolated me from my group, stole the moment, the now, back from me.

Isolating the truth of Vikram's joy, the truth of joy itself, during my stay in India is the positive notion that I found to keep with me. If I saw anything magical on my journey, it was this broad and deep capacity for spontaneous, pure joy that permeated everything. From the naked children begging in the train station, to the ecstatic festivals of countless deities, to the campus DJ nights, there never failed to be a sudden outburst of joy in the moment. At rare times, it was patriotic, or sarcastic, or alcoholic, but most times it had nothing to do with anything other than having an outburst of happiness. There was little complaining, few grudges. It was both more intense and more fleeting than the similar experience here. We learn to complain so much more in the States.

Vikram's joy, regardless of its accompanying traditional sexism, has a value to hold tight to. Especially considering the conditions it comes from. India, for all of its richness and development, is a chaotic, lawless and cruel place ruled by name, caste and gender; corrupt in its bureaucracy, and thuggish in its local politics. It exploited by the West even as its own people strive to exploit their fellow citizens, Western style. Its cities are so polluted during the day that one's own sweat mixes with the air and becomes corrosive. It is an environment that sent me home believing that any American businessman who believed that the understood suffering on the terms of eastern philosophy was a spoiled child.

I suppose, in the end, I wish for both to be true: that this spontaneous joyous life remain possible and that the lawlessness of caste-ism, nepotism and ecological destruction be impossible. That the joy of the "Wild West," of the "50's," of "the way things used to be and you know it was better," be recognized for what it is- a lie. The wild west wiped out whole species of creatures and most nearly an entire race of people; the 50's gave us the foundation for our current ecological crisis, and our continued lust for a glorified past only paves the way for more mistakes.

"Don't you love the freedom, Daniel?!"

Of course, I love the freedom that India has. India retains the freedom to change its course, to focus on the things it still has, while building a future that its people deserve. The freedom of 1.2 billion people who, through this access to knowledge can reject oil now, preserve their family structures now, reject corruption now, and preserve its love of life and country now.

In the meantime, returning to the U.S., I had the privilege of riding a borrowed scooter to lunch today, with a passenger. The scooter was small, and it was made for two riders as surely as any two wheeler in Hyderabad is made for four (as in not really). We fit just a little better than three men fit on my Yamaha in India. The scooter's motor screamed its hardest to push the two of us along the road, and I remembered that freedom. My passenger was a woman, but she rode like an Indian man, laughing and talking, like Vikram. In the now, joyous, in broad daylight, innocently, soberly - on the way to lunch anyway- and free.

1 comment:

Carolyn said...

this cost me a tear.