This is not the India I remember. This is an India that I had heard whispers about, but had no conception of in reality — what does a democratically elected communist state, with large and intersecting populations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Indians alongside their Hindu brethren, situated in lush environs, boasting “near 100%” literacy rates *feel* like? This is what I am still trying to sort out after nearly a week in Kerala, land of my ancestry. To wit, I see my grandmother’s face everywhere — she is the woman sitting in the corner of the tea cafe wearing a grey, short sleeved button down shirt overtop of her orange and green sari; she is the almost completely white-haired, barefoot woman on the side of the road dressed in bright, canary-yellow sari adorned with gold embroidery and complemented with an indigo blouse, carrying a tight bundle of firewood kindling on her head (she smiles in response to my smile as we cross each other’s paths); and she’s any of the number of little girls with their coconut-oiled hair in braids, short and long, sometimes accented with vibrant ribbons, walking in twos and threes on a mountain road, in a village, through the center of town, fully engaged and laughing with her girlfriends.
As I walk into and out of markets, ride the local bus, and engage in brief to slightly longer exchanges with locals and travelers, alike, I’m immediately taken by my own sense of discomfort in the ways in which locals cater to foreigners. It’s an automatic deference peppered with a glint of possible opportunity; I don’t begrudge the Keralites who live here their natural inclination to offer us the “best boat ride” or “must see nature preserve” — we are tourists in a land where tourism ranks high as a source of income. No, the discomfort is rooted in the deference that is manifested in a culture where servants, drivers, gardeners, and other personal service workers are the norm. As “foreigners from the States” we are expected to do little, and certainly not expected to carry our bags to our rooms! But as seasoned travelers who pack light for the very purpose of easy transport, this comes as a bit of a surprise each time.
I’ll continue to ponder this abundance of deference… in the meantime, a few observations:
— There is hardly an occasion when someone will respond with “no.” There is always a way to accomplish something/anything you desire, even if you’ve barely made mention of it. Everyone aims to please — it’s win-win, you see.
— Boys and men routinely walk with their arms around each other, even more so than girls. It’s a charming sight — affection amongst friends in a land where until quite recently affection between romantic partners was considered taboo (and still is in many places).
— No one is in a rush. In a road no more than 12 feet wide, there will not only be three lanes of traffic, but also ample margins of pedestrians making their way here and there. Kids walking home from school, men and women walking to and from work/errands/chats with neighbors.
— Oprah was right. That is, I was watching her being interviewed as part of the Jaipur Literature Festival that was going on earlier this week, and she described her experience being driven through Bombay like being in a video game. It is, and as a passenger your job is to completely surrender and hope you don’t get too seasick on land.
More to come, in the form of text and pics… A few days of this strange, magical, and unpredictable journey remain. My challenge will be deciding where to look and navigating this extreme over-stimulation into effective memory making.