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Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
April 12th, 2004

Indian Summer

A young mid-westerner reflects on his summer in India

 
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Ok. I have entered into the last phase of my journey. I am still enjoying my experience, but well…my good-natured cultural sensitivity is starting to wane.

I am tired from all of the travel.

Yesterday, about six hours into the seventeen hour journey from Pengree to Guwahati (it was supposed to be twelve, but flooding made passing difficult and the concept of orderly direction eludes most Indians when it comes to transportation), I found myself fantasizing about pizza. I mean fantasizing. There was a moment that I sort of “came to” and noticed I was staring dumbly out the window, moving my jaw and smacking my lips in an imagined state of cheesy bliss.

Remembering this makes me think of all the things I miss. Then I have to start thinking about all the things I like about being here because if I don’t I will get mean.

With this introduction, I submit to you my list of likes and dislikes.

Likes


  • Fruit. Leechies are a little fruit. They are the size of ping-pong balls and come in a red, spiked shell/peel you have to remove. Mangoes can be found everywhere and when you eat them, if you are not careful, they will be everywhere. Plantains and pineapples are also in abundance and rather tasty. When in a situation where nothing looks good, fruit always satisfies.

  • Motor”Sikh”lists (I am sorry, but I had to write that). A couple of times I have scene Sikhs riding Vespas. Picture big turbans, enormous beards and absolutely gargantuan torsos zipping along, with or without an equally ample lady sitting side-saddle behind the driver. Glorious.

  • Saris. Quite possibly the most functional and beautiful bits of clothing I have ever seen.

  • Jesuits. Great guys doing some seriously excellent work.

  • Things I can do with my hands. Chopping bamboo and building piggeries is just the beginning. I have done two things my mother told me never to do. The first is eat with my fingers. The second involves the digestive process, but is a “little further down the line.” Remember, they do not use toilet paper here. Let’s hear it for inculturation!

  • Our driver, John. He is a thin, muscular, little seventy-year-old who blackens his “mustaffa” mustache with, what looks like, shoe polish. John worked for the military, then for the department of forestry. Now he works for the Jesuits. He does not have to work. He has two pensions from government agencies. He likes to work. John slept in the room next to me which means I could hear everything he said (the rooms were separated by a tall bamboo screen). When alone he would make strange noises “EEETCHANUBAH” or “koenah-HA-tay” and occasionally says things, in English, Assamese, Naganese, Dimassa, Hindi or one of the other languages he knows. My favorite: “Oooh, you cannot have the honey if you don’t have the money! You got to have money to get the honey! EE-cha.” I think he is half crazy. If I were to choose an old man that I think I will resemble when the day comes, it would be John.

  • Langting. I want to come back and work here someday. It is a school and farm all in one. It has a great staff that made my stay a lot of fun. I got to do a lot of good work, from teaching to building. The villagers were fantastic.

  • Motor-Rickshaws. These are little fiberglass deathtraps that dot the streets, zipping in and out of traffic. They are basically mopeds with a gondola attached and have the appearance of a photo booth. These drivers are the gutsiest people on Earth.

  • Kids. They never smile at first, they just stare in a state of shock. I am under the impression that they do not think I am real until they see me smile and make a funny face at them.

  • Indian singing. Nobody can bend a pitch like the people here can. It is excellent to hear men and women sing together. It is like hearing two trees grow together. The music is so deceptively simple, but when trying to imitate it, the complexity emerges. It makes me think that if there is a Song of the Universe it is in Hindi.

Dislikes


  • Rain. It rained for the last two weeks. The entire state is flooded. Five million people are homeless and have taken to sleeping on the highway. On a more personal note, everything I own is limp and all my clothing smells like a dirty, wet dog. Of course, the fact that I wore the same clothes for three days because none of my laundry could dry might have something to do with the strange odor. The rash on my arms, from spending a day lying on a damp bed while waiting for my intestines to function regularly, has started to dissipate. Like I said, though, it is kind of hard to get to worked up about my little problems when eight million people (a fourth of the population) are watching their crops get ruined. To understand this, you have to understand that unless their land was paid off, they will lose the money that they were going to use to make payments. If you have read Grapes of Wrath, you know the drill. If they were not already working in bonded servitude, they will be now. I was not watching free people by a road-side, I was watching a camp for new prisoners.

  • Pengree. The region was bad news. Can you say “institutionalized evil?” Exploited tea-garden workers (I learned that it is OK for a tea-garden guard to hit a woman in the face), ULFA (the underground that likes to bomb trains, buses, and other public modes of transportation while extorting money from the very people it claims to help), and the feeling of general hopelessness are all factors that make this place difficult to live in. People are trapped in generations of debt. Education is a joke. Alcoholism is common. My interaction with the people who live there was limited to the occasional “meet and greet” mediated by one of the fathers. It drove me nuts not to be able to communicate with anyone except through one of four people. It drove me even more nuts trying to rectify the way I see us living with the way I see them living. There is something about the “haves” and their sense of entitlement that is really starting to piss me off. Regardless, I loved talking with people as much as I could.

  • Shanties. These little villages of tin are the hallmark of desolation. It astounds me, though, that the common humanity of people living so closely with one another can create a semblance of unity in these places.

  • Rice. It’s the every-time snack. It’s as if the “Rice Council” set up a public relations booth in every home and made sure that everyone got a free supply. There are mountains of rice…white, pasty, starchy, sticky, constipating rice. For variety there is brown rice. After dinner you can always wash it down with some rice beer (It’s good for digestion)! I know it is the staple of this region and about two and a half billion people eat it all the time. I was told that, unless there is rice at a meal, people will not feel as though they have eaten. It is their comfort food! Still…

  • Inequality. People have the right to smack other people who are lower than they are. I watched one guy thwack another across the face, but when he spoke to me it was as though I were his mother. I was almost moved to poke him in the eye. Child labor exists here because if it didn’t then people would not have their domestic help or field laborers. The country is trying to address this issue (among other issues), but it is so much a part of the culture it is almost impossible to know where to begin.

  • Unstructured time. I spent the last two weeks in a place where I could not do physical work, there were no classes to teach, I could not wander into the villages alone (fear of abduction, if you can believe it), and the rain hardly ever stopped. I read and plotted. Too much free time is not a healthy thing.

  • Rats and Chickens. There were rats living above the tarp on my ceiling. I could see the canvas change when they entered my part of the longhouse. I would swat them when I saw their little feet leave ghostlike impressions above my head. They retaliated by chewing up the superior’s pillow (I shared his room) and my mosquito netting. I awoke one night, sweating from the heat and humidity, convinced I was being surrounded. I had been having a dream that I was a soldier in Viet Nam. I thenceforth referred to the rats as “Charlie.” I could hear Charlie moving all around me at night. He got so close as to squeak in my ear. Charlie was toying with me! As you can see, this device has a brilliant effect! Chickens on the other hand. Well, the Cocks would wake up at 3:30. (Yes, I said Cock. Any other word will not register in this place. It is Cock, just like a cat is “Pussy.”) The chicks would then start and would not be quiet until after dark. They never stop.

  • Lack of sleep. I am going to bed now. I have to get up in five hours to go to yet another location. It is not the malaria that will kill me, it is the driving in jeeps across crappy roads every other day.

Eh…whatever.

My spirits are mostly good. My eyes cannot get enough of this place! The amazement is constant.

Good night.

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The Author : Paul Lickteig, SJ
Paul Lickteig, SJ currently lives in the Bronx.
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