I was anxious to leave Mumbai but to my relief, there’s Indian food in the north as well. I claimed I could be happy eating nothing but pizza on odd days and curry on even days. With classes held at the Italian Cultural Center in New Delhi, my dream has come true. Our Dallas professor reappears in India. It seems improbable that I ever lived in Texas. Montreal, just three weeks ago, is a distant memory. My sister’s engagement party in February, a childhood dream.
The story of India’s heritage sites is an epic poem. The quoted number of gods, rupees spent, or years toiled expand and contract for maximum effect. We set off on a night bus to Agra. The red, red orb of the sun rises through the mists of the flat, flat pale green fields. The oxen are already plowing. The Taj Mahal is already glowing. Even as I walk under it, through it, around it, it remains inaccessible. A tomb to a woman dead from too many childbirths.
The Ashkardham Temple, on the other hand, is alive with prayer, evangelism, ongoing story, Pirates of the Caribbean-style boat rides retelling the story of India, and Disney-engineered light & water shows. The crowd loves it. Kids go wild. If you want to get people hooked on culture, start them young. And for that, it has to be entertaining. This week’s key lesson.
The Sanskriti artist residency is a dusty, tranquil collective of mud huts and lotus ponds. It reminds me of my time at Ox-Bow in Michigan. The earth exudes the same sigh on a hot midafternoon, pierced by the shrilling cicadas. Artists sigh to find themselves in their art. I half expect to run into a blissed-out Robert Plant.
I haven’t gone shopping because I stink at negotiating with vendors. 150 rupees off the price is sport for me, but food for a day for their family. Helen taught me this. Also, it’s 2 dollar 15 cents. I’ve coveted a robin’s egg blue silk rug that’s priced so high that it should fly, but where would I fly it to? I am without abode. Our people in Rome have moved to Milan. The city has adopted Patatina Nera. She huffs at stray cats and ambles around off-leash like she owns the place. She provides relief for homesick Aussie and American tourists who pay to pet her.
Besides Helen, the years have also taught me a bunch of stuff. Stick around long enough, and you will have eaten most things, dated most people, tried most art forms, made most mistakes. With age, I correct my mistakes faster. And then I go on to make bigger ones. I can’t wait to see the next doozy.
No problem means everything: “I need more time”, “We don’t understand one another at all”, “This isn’t going to work out”. The apartment’s caretaker would like us to get out of his no-problem zone so he can do his work. But we’re just not leaving the apartment. We take turns refalling asleep, waiting for our group of 13 to wake up from last night and get its collectivity in gear. After tons of “You Guys!” between ten women and three men, we’re finally underway.
First, I eat. Constantly. Everything vegetarian goes in my mouth. After feasting ten days in Bombay, I’m relieved to see when we get to New Delhi that there’s Indian food here too. Except that there is no such thing as Indian food, or Indian fabric, or the Indian language. This place is big, and more varied than anywhere I’ve ever been. I’m learning about a whole new cuisine, for which Devon Ave in Chicago and Jackson Hts in Queens have barely prepared me. Milk tea is a revelation--not that scented water I used to drink, but chai with condensed milk served espresso-sized.
The art museums we visit assure us that funding is not an issue. They have transcended this and are able to focus on their programs. We ask them the same trite managerial questions we’ve asked in South and North America, and we are surprised, then contemptuous, when we don’t get the answer we were taught. We know the jargon well by now, belying the fact that we’ve never actually used the concepts. And I realize that the concepts won’t help me here. I can’t merely carry my ideas over. I have to learn the place, and that’s not going to happen inside of three weeks.
Walking down the street, I nervously overtake a slow cow. She bleats some sound that blends with that of the honking scooters. A constant river of bleeps rises from the streets from sun-up until midnight. Not the passive-aggressive honking of Manhattan that expresses frustration. A happy short bleat of the tuktuks to say “I’m here”, “Move over”, “Traffic jam ahead like you wouldn’t believe”, or “Remove your veg stand from the middle of the highway”.
Lessons that cabbies the world over could learn from tuktuk drivers: 1. Why wouldn’t you split a single lane so that three vehicles can fit abreast; 2. If u-turns are not permitted because of construction, drive through the construction site to get to the opposite lane; 3. Honk fervently and everything should come out no problem.