Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Streets of India

The streets of India, I love and will remember for always. There is chaos there, and magic. There are realizations to be had. There are cows, and lost shoes. There are stories to be told, and some that never can be.




***


I walk out of the Kolkata airport and learn immediately that the sun in this country is particularly unforgiving. I understand this even more as we walk down the streets of the city in the fierce afternoon glare.

We stop by a Chai stall. The light renders everything in overwhelming brightness, as in an over-exposed photograph. The only thing I can really see is the steam rising from the Chai pot, which tells me that the drink we are about to consume will burn my tongue if I take a sip too soon.

A hot drink on a hot day. I find this strange, but I asked for strange. And now, strange is staring me right in the face, in a tiny teacup in a sidewalk in Kolkata. I take a sip.


I feel the tea crawl down my throat. The warmth of it blots through my heart, and settles in my gut. It is a different warmth than the one that envelops the city. Suddenly, I am awake as though from a very long, unfeeling slumber. The warmth has awakened me to everything.

I decide that I am in love with  India.

***

Night has fallen and it's quite unbelievable. The Indian sun is so fierce one never thinks it will ever disappear, and then it does, and one learns that the moon and stars are relentless as well. I watch them roll overhead as the bus I am on speeds through the long, seemingly endless road to Cooch Behar.

The darkness has reduced the landscape to shadows. My imagination makes out monsters and fairies in the boundless black beyond the window. Beside me, Krista and our new friend, Soumendra are absorbed in conversation. As I hear the wind whip their words to whispers and listen to my own silence, I feel utterly alone. And happy in a way I have never been before.

Inwardly I sing at the discovery that there are many different types of happy, and one kind is that which you feel upon realizing that you are not even a star in this big bright world.

***


It's a busy afternoon in Cooch Behar and there are so many cows on the street. Nobody owns them, but they own the tiny province roads. They walk around freely and unapologetically, just like the sharp-eyed cats do back home, though not as nimble.

One particular cow lumbers slowly down a teeming street, as if almost unable to carry the weight of its own body. It bobs its large head the same way people do when they're listening to music and I imagine it has a song on loop in its brain.

Moving objects maneuver expertly around the cow as it makes its way down the street, inching closer to where I am standing. Passersby notice it, of course, but only because it is in their way -- a mundane eventuality, a mere hurdle they have to jump before getting on with their own important lives. As soon as they steer clear of big awkward creature, it is forgotten, and they whizz away, unstoppable.

The cow slows to a stop, a few meters away from me. Suddenly, it is still as a tree on a breezeless day. No more head bobbing. It looks around with shiny black eyes, panic-free but filled with the incredible question of where am I headed again?

From where I stand I stare at the still, lost cow.

I am rather surprised to find only myself staring back.

***


This little girl is a sly one, I realize, as Krista and I sit next to her on a bus we are not supposed to be on, because it's a Saturday, and because we're teachers, and because we're foreigners, and because there are rules. 

But this little girl isn't afraid to bend the rules. 

On the bus, we talk like nothing is out of place, like a marvelous escape isn't happening, even if it really is.

The little girl motions that we are about to reach her stop, and we follow her lead. In this little operation, our eleven-year old student is the boss.

She runs us through the gameplan:

"Listen ma'am, I will say goodbye to you so they don't see you are going to our house, okay? Stay by that store, I will come by for you when the bus leaves."

Krista and I do as we're told, all the while thinking how awesome is this kid? as we bid her a fake goodbye.

Like clockwork, she comes by for us as soon as the yellow bus disappears from sight, and we walk to her house to begin our weekend adventure. When she does I can't help but think, how are we the teachers in this set-up when this little girl has taught us more than we can ever teach her?


***
The morning after is almost as blurry as the night before, though there are traces of what happened--and what didn't--all over the freezing room. Little by little I put the puzzle together, but some pieces are lost for good.

I give up trying to figure everything out, and instead delight in the thought that somewhere on Park Street, someone I don't know and am likely never to meet, will come across my party shoes and perhaps try, even for a split-second, to piece together the same story that I am unable to complete.

***

"I think we should turn here," I tell Krista, as we navigate a road we barely know to get to a place we had only a vague idea of to find friends who had been unreachable all night.

"You know Mands, I think we should keep walking," Krista says, and I follow her lead. For a second I note that this is why our friendship works: because I drift freely along the paths that she paves. For another second, I wonder what I bring to the table.

But there is no time to ponder on such things, I think. The night makes the alien roads even more difficult to navigate, and though Krista's voice is sprightly and hopeful, I could feel desperation beginning to weigh down her steps, and mine too. 

Desperation to spend our last remaining hours in Kolkata with the friends that we know we will miss sorely when we leave, desperation too, for a place to spend the night, because if we don't find our friends, it's the sidewalks of Kolkata for us.

As I follow Krista down the length of the road, I try to rouse what excitement I can for the possibility of sleeping on some street. It will be cool, I think. It will be a story to tell. I say it in my head like a mantra to keep the fear at bay.

Jim Morrison interrupts my thoughts as I see his image on a shirt, staring at me from a few meters away.

Proustian reflex brings me back to a conversation I had with Soumendra early on in the trip. We talked about Morrison, and Hendrix, and Cobain, and how they all died so young. I recall we landed on that conversation because he was wearing a Doors shirt. Then it hits me.

"Krista...I think that's Soumendra..." I say, not quite believing we had found who we were looking for. 

"Ano ka ba Mands--" Krista says, and I answer "no seriously," and Krista looks and sees Soumendra too, and Sharmistha, and Soham, and Aritra, and Basu, the friends who minutes earlier we were desperately seeking out. 

A barrage of words follow as they try to explain what had happened to their phones, and I hear in their voices that they had been worried for us too.

I listen to them express their disbelief and relief in words as I stay silent, rather dumbstruck at the thought that had we turned at the previous corner like I suggested, or walked a few paces slower or faster than we had been, or stopped to regroup or try to call or do anything more or less than exactly what we had done, things would have turned out very differently.

I feel the magic prickling my skin. In this moment, there is nothing else in the night air but magic.


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