Weeks 3 and 4 of India were such a ride. I don’t even know where to begin, there seems no beginning or end just everything that is and isn’t and still is. Time has been such a funny thing here.. Okay. Less philosophy more words.
I arrived in Mumbai at a sensational time. The top of week 3 was the start of the magnificent Ganpathi festival. It is an annual ode to the God of Wisdom to give blessings for the year. India absolutely explodes at this time. Parades right outside your window all throughout the day and night for two weeks. You fall asleep to drums that literally feel like they are rattling your soul. Fireworks go off 24/7. I went to buy coffee and while stepping out of the shop had one go off a foot away from me and shoot into the sky. That night I fell asleep to the drums and the smoke and the smell of spilled coffee and burnt embers in my hair. And never have I seen so many people dance in the street. When cars bumble towards them, when it starts beating down rain, even when police officers tell them to move, they do not budge. They just do their their thing. How could they stop? They are dancing for their God.
Here when it rains you let it rain on you. When someone gives you rice and sweets you accept it. When goats and cows walk past you on the street, you greet them. There’s a transparency between the inside and the outside. The doors and windows are always open. There are probably mosquitoes and cockroaches nearby. You don’t get to be afraid of walking in the street barefoot, swimming in the ocean as it rains, sharing drinks and food and hookah. Everything is everything. I spent the top of my trip here resisting without realizing that’s what I was doing. I seemed to consequently live in a perpetual state of refusal. In the US we spend so much time preventing, editing, protecting. Which is huge and there is a lot to be said for it. We have incredibly clean standards and our health and quality of life definitely speaks for that. However, there’s something to be said for giving in. Letting yourself be muddy and frizzy and wet and sweaty and embracing it all and not trying to remedy it with antibacterial wipes and knowing it’s fine you’ll shower tonight and take your multivitamin and all is well in the world. That being said I’ll blog from the hospital if this revelatory idea ends up biting me in the ass. Which is very possible. But it’s fine I’m only here now.
Continuing work with the kids has been magical. They are so wild. It’s been a hilarious thing to have to implement in them that I’m not just the new American teacher, but that they have to study and work and respect their head teacher and yes I adore them but no we can’t talk about butter biscuits right now and why did they not do their homework and no I will not quiz them because they didn’t do their part. The pride and shame of these kids is astounding on both sides of the spectrum. But most astounding of all is their love. They literally swarm around and hug me in a massive 40 child to one me human ratio when I arrive, and hold my hands and arms until they are in their seats. When I leave, the same, and they chase the car and hold onto it until I’m at least 1/2 a mile away. 40 little humans hanging on to a moving car. I always think they’ll be run over. But they’ve been dodging these streets their whole lives and these sparky kidlets keep running and running. Week 3 was when the love notes began, week 4 when they asked when I would be coming over to meet their families. They were very hard pressed for an answer. Being around them is like having a balloon inserted into your chest cavity until you feel open and light and filled with so much joy. But the best part of all is their progress. I never thought I’d be able to actually affect them. I hoped I could make things make more sense, because education is truly the golden ticket out of poverty here. It’s been such a load knowing how important their progress is because of that. But after the first few days I had no idea of where to begin. I couldn’t even translate much less explain.
But then a funny thing happened. My drama degree came in handy (!) and I found they understood clearly if I acted out what the sentence meant. It’s ironic how much weight we put in words when teaching them. I began to act out “rice cooker” and “train”, and then bigger things like “I eat dinner because of my rice cooker” and “The train transports rice for me!” The weirdest one was “When I eat, the food forms a moist lump in my mouth”.. I was a bad teacher and skipped acting that out. And yes, incase you’re wondering, most of the sentences entail food. That’s the wonderful Indian culture for you. As these theatrical translations made way, the kids were finally able to remember how to read and write and spell because they knew what they were saying for the first time. Of course with the devastating comprehension gap some knew all along, but in their amazing way they went and took the others and taught them. And of course there were still the insane days where the second I turned around they were spitting on their classmate or copying another’s homework. So, it’s a process. But isn’t that life.
During week 3 I also got to start work teaching music to mentally handicapped adults. They. Are. Amazing. Their enthusiasm, willingness to listen, and desire to learn is incredible. I wish I could have even a tenth of the passion they exude. The best part is how specific they are. It’s not like they just clap their hands and applaud to anything I sing. They have particular requests and well if I don’t know the song I had better start playing along because they have decided to sing it for me and they need accompaniment. They tell me if I need to speed up or slow down to their taste, and always make sure to congratulate me afterwards if I pass. They are spectacular. And what a dynamic group oh my goodness. Their personalities are so varied it’s incredible that we can all even come together over music. But isn’t that the amazing thing about music. While the school and the kids are wild and joyful, this school and the adults are intense and hit you in the heart. The combination of the two is a wonderful yet overwhelming one, but god does the heart leak with the redolence of gratitude more and more every day because of this dynamic.
It’s weird, like you want to do big, amazing things. And then you take part in big, amazing things, and they don’t feel that way. They just feel like a part of your life. You know you tackled a monster, you feel yourself changing in the process. The awe of the tasks at hand become tangible and real and hard and you’re filled with so much gratitude for the opportunities yet marveling at your current life seems so silly, because it’s just you. It’s weird. Maybe I’m doing it all wrong. Maybe I’m too into it and need to take a step back. Or maybe I’m not immersing myself in it enough. But regardless it’s bizarre how quickly other worldly experiences can be absorbed into your mental psyche with ease and practicality.
Something else that continues to always seize my attention here is how different the mechanics of India are. In the US we buy a carton of milk for a week or so. In India, it comes in a pouch every morning and you boil it twice over until you pour it into a tin basin as the day’s milk. Then the family has their coffee, milk rice, etc.This process is repeated every day. (Fun fact: My aunt taught me how to make almond milk from scratch! So I get to peel and grind almonds while my family double boils and prepares their milk.) In US stores we find fruit and merchandise on shelves inside. Yet here it’s mostly all outdoor vendors, with most goods hanging by string from the uppermost plank. There are no dryers here, everything is hung on the clothes line to dry. For any fan, lamp, charger etc plugged into an outlet, there is a separate switch to first turn on the outlet to work. Big purses or bags are uncommon here, if someone has a large load to hold they will simply wrap it in a cloth and balance it on their head (I always think it will teeter over. I have held my breath watching many a people and have been disappointed every time).
The idea of identity is funny while in a new place too. While traveling, you don’t get to say “that’s not me” or “that’s so me”. It’s all so different, nothing is you. It’s a starkly alien world. You wouldn’t have worn any of these clothes. Or eaten this food. Or heard these sounds. What “is” and “isn’t” me is such a luxury concept. Here, it all is. And all of it isn’t. You just accept everything and keep going. It’s wild. Yet on the counter, this is my identity, my blood, half of my family’s origin. I’ve been really surprised at how culture shocked I have felt. This is the family and culture that I was raised with. I had the coconut curry, the sugar cane sweets, the hindu ceremonies in my living room. I had to take my shoes off at the front of the house and had all my aunts remind me of Indian values my whole life. But there is just nothing like being in the country. It’s shocking and glorious and challenging and makes my family make so much sense.
The last couple weeks have been spectacular, but so intense. It’s like neon red and orange and yellow is blasted at you in every sense in every moment. You never feel the cool down, the blues and aquas and lavenders. Everything feels like day. The poverty doesn’t get at all easier to live around. You’d think you would get used to it but you just don’t. It’s equally appalling every single day. With so much coming at you, and so much left behind, it is a daily mental discipline to stay present. It is far too easy to get lost in the thick fog of my mind. There is no clarity of heart and mind here, but the grace left is to engage with the present. All impulses must be accepted and at the same time rewired. In a few months I’ll probably say this was a really necessary time. It doesn’t often feel amazing and happy, but that’s okay it doesn’t have to. I feel myself cracking open more and more every day, and that’s okay because that is how the light gets in.
“The sun loved the moon so much, he died every night to let her breathe.”