Friday, February 15, 2008

Still Reeling

I sit here in Miller library at Colby and try, try really hard, to understand the fact that only two weeks ago I was on the other side of the globe. I sometimes can't grasp it. All the people I met and all of the places I visited, many of which I may never see again, are memories that seem more closely related to fantastical day dreams. Yet when I force myself to dredge something out of my head that feels more solid then the rest, I come up with a few events that were defining elements of my experience in India. The first of these is from our weekend excursion to Gangtok, a grand adventure composed of many smaller escapades. Subash, an ex-boarder from the Ashram who was attending college in Darjeeling, wanted to take myself and Jack to meet his roommate, who was from Gangtok. While the rest of the group took off to visit some temple somewhere, the three of us caught a cab into the center of the city, where we hung around outside of a movie theater waiting for a phone call. After a few minutes, a group of kids passed by, stopped and turned around, talked to Subash and then told us to follow them. So we did, wandering down some back streets and up some old paths in a hillside to an old and apparently abandoned government building. Outside were a number of kids of high school or college age, crouching or sitting around in a vague circle. One of them stood up with a shout and grabbed Subash, hugging him and speaking rapid-fire Nepali. Jack and I were introduced to him as Johnny, Subash's roommate. He was small and thin, but seemed bulky in the American-style "gangsta" clothing he was wearing, and had a number of tattoos and piercings, most notably the tattoo in the space between the thumb and forefinger that most of the kids there seemed to have. He sat us down, offered us cigarettes, and asked us, in broken English, where Jack and I were from. "America," we said, and all of the bystanders exchanged smiles and nods with each other, and Johnny began serving as interpreter for a question and answer session about American life and style. Most of these kids had elements of American style about them, particularly what would be considered "gansta" style, and yet seemed to have no idea about where these things came from, or how they factored into an American existence. Johnny took out his cellphone, which could play MP3 files, and played American songs that would be scoffed at as throw-away pop by most people in the States. They seemed to like it, and even thought it was popular music in America. They asked us about school, race relations within the States, American sexuality, drug use, our friends and family, what we did for fun, what music we listened to, and, what seemed most important, how we liked India and what we thought about the people and the culture. Not only were they very interested in learning about American culture firsthand, it seemed they also wanted our affirmation or approval of the elements of American culture that they had adopted. It was hard to tell them at times that the things they thought of as characteristic of America, and admired a lot, were in fact just the heavily commercialized things that industry decided to export and sell on the international market, and were actually minor cultural aspects in the States. Another thing that comes to my mind when I search for events central to my Indian experience is the evening I and several other Colby students spent talking with Jerome, the history and geography teacher at the Ashram. He invited us to his house for drinks and food, and we sat around discussing aspects of our trip and the experiences we had Ashram. Through his ability to see clearly through many of the veils of Indian society, particularly the ones that affected the Ashram, Jerome helped us to reach a more grounded view of the culture we were grappling with. He talked about the mixed feelings people have for Gandhi (was he really a uniter, if the India he helped construct is now so divided?), about the rumblings of the Gorkhas, about the poverty of his people, about the corruption of ideals at the Ashram, about the effect that our visit has on the students and the community, and about how his own dreams reflect the dreams of other Indians and the community as a whole. After listening to him, trying to understand this culture by way of academic papers and and analyses suddenly seemed less than useless - it was detrimental to the experience. You cannot generalize about a country and people so diverse, with so many different backgrounds and motivations and outlooks. This had been a thought that I had been brewing for a while, and thanks to Jerome it reached fruition. I appreciate the ideas of During and Chakrabarty, and it was good to know more about the life, thoughts, and contributions of Gandhi, but I learned much more about the daunting and magnificent country of India by listening to its people and following them through their world.

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