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Unblinking Eye
                                 A Journey to India
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by Julie A. Farias

I found that going to India is like having a child.  There is nothing anyone can do to prepare you to witness the beauty and poverty, the visceral experience that is India.  A friend of mine came closest when he told me that everywhere people would want something from me. Knowing that in advance freed me from the responsibility I might have felt and allowed me to enjoy the beauty that surrounded me.

I was afraid of being overwhelmed by the poverty in India, but found myself able to simply accept it. I have never before felt so apart, so voyeuristic. How could I be anything else in a Committing Nuisancecountry where I could never blend in and become part of the masses?   It is the difference between the empathic and the sympathetic, acceptance and the illusion of control. I hired drivers on different parts of the journey and met up with friends most evenings. As a blonde female, walking alone through the streets, carrying two cameras, I often became the center of attention.  I had to adjust the vision of my photography to reflect the intrusion of my presence that became a part of the tableau. Each time I walked alone there were men around me watching, waiting to see what I would do.  I was very aware of their attention, of them being too close, feeling they were intentionally intruding into my space, testing my limits.  Though I felt in no way threatened, it was a constant awareness.

I was awestruck on a daily basis by the beauty, the color, the joy in life, and the aesthetic. I saw pictures everywhere. There were themes to the days. Days of small disasters like my sunglasses falling from the neck of my T-shirt into the Turkish Toilet. Just before they hit the white porcelain, I wondered if I would dare to pick them up out of the urinal.  I looked down and in that instant I heard them hit the porcelain and saw them shoot down the hole.  End of options. One night, a cockroach as big as a mouse was scuttling noisily along the floorboards of my room.  The stone cutters that I photographed the day before asked if I had been there previously.  They didn't recognize me because I had changed clothes. There was the riptide of the Arabian Sea that I refused to believe. I am still emptying the sand from my pockets. 

Who would think that figuring out how to turn off a light in a hotel room could become a minor miracle?  One night I couldn’t find the switch and called the front office. They sent two men over to help me. One took off his shoes, climbed up on a shelf while the other man steadied him and pushed back some ceiling tiles.  He unscrewed the light bulb and carried it away.  As soon as they left, I began laughing until it hurt so much that I couldn’t stand up. Welcome to the third world.

The cautionary words of my friend helped me frame many replies:

    LaundryWhen Mani, my driver told me that his wife didn’t understand him and that he needed 50,000 rupees because his house was missing some walls I was able to tell him, “these things take time,” without missing a beat. 

    When Rajagopal took me to the Cauvery River and as we looked out at a mass of men and women bathing in the river he told me, “I don’t date Indian girls anymore because my girlfriend cheated on me.” I looked around, palms up in a gesture of supplication and told him, “I don’t know what to tell you.”  How subtle these men can be, I may never know.

I love the strangeness of the place, the Indian phraseology, the circular logic of Indian signs:

    Hindustani Lubricants
    Children's’ Trust Hospital   (Can trust ever be repaired or repaid?)
    King A Mong Cements
    Central Poultry Training Institute
    Provisional Air Flights
    Only stop shop for delicious desires
    Go slow, accident-prone zone
    Kingfisher - a thrilling chill
    Vigilance and anti corruption bureau
    Wheels aligned by Mamrare, Wheel Master
    Oceanic Shrimping Limited
    Life is too wonderful to be spent worrying (a billboard in Chennai)
    Dress shirts to stir the devil in you.

I often was perplexed by the wit and disdain of fellow travelers:

    “Dead men are not known for paddling snake boats.”

ViagraA woman dressed in virginal white, from pith helmet to sneakers, dewy with perspiration, told me, “Don’t talk to THEM if you can help it.” Us and them, the eternal struggle that is man’s alone.

Intolerance. I found myself intolerant of intolerance. Intolerant of fellow travelers who are disrespectful of a culture or people merely because they don't understand it.  Intolerant of people who travel to a country they seemingly hold in great disdain merely so they can say that they have been there.

I love to wander, to see what is around the next turn in the road. I often have a difficult time sleeping in new places because of the excitement and wonderment of the discoveries that lie ahead.  My first night in Mumbai (Bombay) was one of those typically sleepless nights.  The sensory stimulations that are India were chasing each other through my thoughts: the hot and humid haze of pollution that hangs about in the air like a broth that a cook has distilled to the very essence of its ingredients. The smell of hot asphalt and  the pockets of smell of human and animal excrement are a constant assault on the senses until you become reconciled to them.

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A Journey to India Cover

Copyright 1999 by Julie A. Farias

 

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