(This story is a continuation of the post from last week, which can be read by scrolling down to the next entry entitled, “this is india – part I”.)
The Rail Official instructs me to wait until he has finished confirming the seats of the rest of the passengers in the car.
As he leaves my cabin, another man shuffles in backwards from behind him. His shirt is ripped and slung low across his back to reveal a place in the taut dark skin covering his back where a shoulder bone should be – but is not. He waves something to get the attention of all the people in the cabin in front of me, and from my seat I can see them all turn their heads; They clean their fingernails, tend to children, look for lost pens in their baggage, or just look out the window — turning their attention to anything but that which flags for it.
The man shuffles backwards into my cabin and turns around. As an obvious foreigner, I already know that I will be targeted as his ripest prospect. Indeed as I have predicted, he, ignoring the rest in the cabin, staggers straight to the white beacon of wealth.
In Bengali, he tells me the long sad story of his life. The only word I know, “Didi,” I learned a the Mother Teresa House of the Destitute where the inmates there also tugged on my clothing to ask for help, addressing me either as a sibling or mistaking me for the nun that I am not.
As he continues his story, he throws his remaining arm to my observation and mercy. I desperately want to clean my fingernails, tend to a child, look for a lost pen, or stare out the window — but I refuse my eyes this relief.
It is my chief complaint of “my” country that the people refuse to look at the ugly truths that stare at and ask recognition of them in the staggering headlines of today’s news. Instead, distance and ignorance are too conveniently allowed to pad the cushions of the couches of comfort and conformity.
And although I’ve known this couch well, I’ve sold it right back to the devil.
“No thank you. I’ll stand. And I’ll stick to my soul.”
And it hurts. It hurts to look.
But I make myself do it.
I look at the flesh on this man’s remaining arm, which like silly putty, seems to have been twisted, pulled and remolded to the bone. I follow its elongated length and observe how it abnormally narrows around the wrist and then protrudes as a lump in the pad of his fist. And when I am finished looking at the truth of his reality, I look directly into his eyes and bow my most humble respect to the divine within him.
He pauses for a second. Perhaps caught off guard by the unusual recognition.
And then he continues again…
In Spanish or English I can easily explain that I prefer to give time and not money, but my Bengali leaves my actions to speak. And I’ve forgotten the pile of fruit I usually bring to meet such occasions.
This time I give up. Although this situation has happened a hundred times, and I never become any more sure or unsure if it’s the right thing to do, I reach into my pocket and pull from it the change that he asks of me. He motions with his limb to his shirt pocket, into which I drop the coins.
“Thank you Sister.”
And he leaves.
And in three minutes, another brother with a different deformed limb will come. One shuffling. Another dragging. And then the next, crawling. There’s always another. For this is India.
The Rail Officer waves to me and I follow his people-parting path. The isles are slim and busy and after a modest game of Train Twister (right hand holding onto blue seat, left foot over yellow suitcase) we finally arrive at the third class A/C sleeper car. He pushes through the sealed glass door, and in wave of cool breathable air, we enter another world of India.
Newspapers written in English are shuffled as eyes peek from behind smart spectacles for only momentary and disinterested glimpses of the new visitor. Women with rings of gold around their wrists, ankles, toes and ears encourage prized sons in pressed slacks to eat another of the samosas that they’ve so diligently made and delicately packaged for the trip away from home. Uncles discuss politics together, fluently switching between Bengali and English to better express their opinions or utilize Western business lingo. A group of young boys dressed in designer jeans, each with his signature version of long and colored hair, pass around an MP3 player and start to sing, in unison, a song by an American boy band.
I take the seat indicated to me by the Rail Official and he tells me he’ll be back later to collect my “increase in fare.”
A man sitting at the window across from me leans over, “Did you move up to A/C too? You know they save these seats just for us, people like you and me. They save entire cars for us. This is how they really make their money. Hey. Where are you from? America? You’re so lucky you speak English. You know you can travel anywhere in India speaking English. I don’t speak Bengali. Or Hindi. Or Tamil. I only speak English and the local language of my state, of which I’m sure you’ve never heard. Did you know that India’s constitution recognizes 18 major languages and then, on top of that, we have over another 1000 minor languages and dialects?”
The jovial youths in the cabin adjacent have put down the MP3 player and are now laughing loudly, exaggerating the depth and volume of their voices and then emphasize their joking and jestering by cussing in English…
“SHIT Man! Fucking cool!”
I sit stunned in shock of the worlds of class and caste separated by a single, sealed A/C door.
Where, I wonder, is India?
A cleanly pressed and richly dressed couple move into my cabin and sit modestly next to each other. May is the month of marriages and even louder than the dark henna tattooed up and down the new bride’s arms are the fresh, careful and delicate mannerisms that the couple use to address each other.
“Arranged Marriage,” has for me lost all its (discovered ignorantly founded) stigma and what remains left is only pure fascination and intrigue. For the first time, I am stoked to be in a culture where it is not inappropriate to stare; Because I cannot keep me eyes off the pair.
The bride rests her eyes on the ground as she gracefully asks question after question of her new husband. His responses are reserved, well thought out, and gentle. They do not look each other in the eye when they speak to each other, but they laugh or smile sweetly in unison at the end of each of his conclusions. In between each of her questions and his answers, she looks up at him with wide, interested eyes and bats her lashes like I’ve only seen in Disney movies.
For hours I silently watch them, wondering if perhaps this might actually be the first time, after all the years, months, weeks and days of family chaperoned wedding preliminaries and festivities, that they’ve had the chance to be alone together?
And who trained this woman, I wonder? An army of aunts, mothers and grandmas of a former era? For she is such a model of courtesy, respect, modesty, and controlled femininity!
She looks up, bats her eyelashes, looks down, and asks another question.
He makes the motion of scrubbing his hands (to remove the henna tattooed on the tips of his fingers) and I can tell simply by the tone of her voice that she gives him some kind of advice on the art (and removal of) of which she (and all In
dian women) is very experienced.
But he dismisses her advice.
She cocks her head for a brief moment and then tries to re-word and deliver her wisdom again with even greater grace.
But again, he, without looking at her and with a motion of his hand, waves the suggestion away.
And then I see it!
She does not look down. She does not laugh.
She turns her face the other direction, looks up to the right corner of the room…
And rolls her eyes.
And of this single glimpse I smile with the certainty, that this marriage of man and woman, will ultimately be, the same as any.
(and 30 hours later…)
I have new friendships with every person in my cabin.
They have asked me every question of my family, work, schooling, income and country, and now have quite taken it upon themselves to be my personal guardians.
Our train is due to arrive five hours late and so I have already missed my connecting train ride and having no reservation at any of the booked-up hotels would be at a loss, were it not for my new friends who assure me that they’ve got a plan.
When the train finally arrives, those in my cabin politely instruct me when to sit and where to stand, and when they finally give me permission to get off the train, like elephants, they form a protective circle around me as they shuffle me off the train, across the platform, and into a special room guarded by security.
The room, full of fans set to their highest speed, has two bathrooms with showers and about 40 waiting chairs of which about a dozen are occupied with women and children. It’s 1:00am and I have six hours to wait before my next train departs. A Bollywood (India’s version of Hollywood) movie is on, which from a single glance, I make out to be a version of Beauty and the Beast (except, lacking a proper Beast costume, a man dressed like King Kong has proved adequate enough). This place is perfect for my lounge between destinations.
My new entourage smiles their approval of my approval and because it’s how they’ve been taught to salute westerners, they each proudly stick out an awkward hand to receive the novel Western custom of handshaking. Although I infinitely prefer the polite bow of Eastern salutations, I oblige and humbly stretch out, along with my hand, my most sincere gratitude.
As I settle into a seat to watch the movie, the children turn around and settle into seats to watch me. Most Bollywood movies last about six hours (slight exaggeration) and have an average of 11 different plotlines and themes (no exaggeration). This one turns out to be a mixture of Beauty and the Beast, The Nutcracker, Babes in Toyland, The Tortoise and the Hare, Ghost and Anaconda. After the finale, where all the characters (except for the Tortoise, of course) bust out in synchronized dancing, the security guard turns off the television.
Following the example of the rest of the women in the room, I lay out my shawl on the floor and roll up a sweater into a pillow.
As I lay there on the tile floor, thanking whatever deities may be for my ability to sleep on hard floors both comfortably and soundly, I feel something inside of me lift again right out of my body, and rise up to the ceiling.
Looking down at the patchwork of vibrant saris and shades of deep and beautiful skin tones spread out across the floor, there again, is that silly pale patch with the tan-clad girl on it. But as I relax my perspective and take one more step back, I see that, from a distance, her spot isn’t really so odd at all. How she managed to, I’m not sure, but she has indeed found even for herself, a place in this Quilt called India.
I squint to see more closely and note that the satisfaction of her success is marked by the slight but sure smirk of a smile across her lips.
And I smile down upon her.