The train to Nanjing leaves two minutes before its scheduled time. Apparently there is no such thing as being late for a train.
The high speed rail skis through countryside fog. Or is that pollution? No one seems to know the difference around here.
Nanjing is an old Capital, the southern capital to Beijing’s northern capital, but now it is mostly a college town. It is bordered by the oldest city wall in the world, a remnant of the 14th century Ming dynasty. The city has a spectacular mix of architecture, from the Ming-era walls, to the 2,500 year old Confucius temple, to the 1912 district where Sun Yat-Sen set up the Republic of China, to the contemporary shopping districts and artsy Nanjing library.
It pays to be a flaneur in Nanjing.
The artful look of the Nanjing massacre museum is enough to lay waste to Singapore’s urban “environs”.
The Nanjing Massacre Museum is part recovered history, part stacks and stacks of official documents that apparently prove that the Nanjing Massacre actually happened. Japan, typically, still denies the massacre, though on occasion the government admits that around 3,000 people may have been murdered. Chinese researchers estimate the total at around 300,000, about half in mass massacres, and about half in random slaughtering, looting and rape.
This is not the first massacre and war museum that I’ve been to that spends half its time speaking against Japanese official history. There seems to be one in almost every city that the Japanese occupied.
The student-heavy night life districts and night markets are merged with the ancient sites, creating areas that are sacred during the day, and then at night, are inhabited by Chinese electronic music, buzzing lights, and wasted students. For anyone wondering what Chinese electropop sounds like, consider SingerSen.
For their lack of any internationally famous tourist spots, Nanjing is more for students than travelers or tourists. Perhaps that is why the people here seem so playful, vibrant and helpful.
A kind avuncular Chinese professor living in America shows me around the city, announcing proudly that Nanjing is “my city!”
Thus I experience Chinese KTV (karaoke) for the first time, which is quite similar to KTV in Taiwan. Perhaps because the KTV companies are Taiwanese, and all the lyrics are in traditional Chinese script.
“We paid so much for that room, those KTV girls would have done anything we wanted.”
—Anything? As in, fix our cable?
Many of the foreign (white) students I meet are Sinophiles, who study Chinese history, culture and language, just for the hell of it. Their love for the culture and the scripts is shown in every polite gesture they make with the locals, every laugh and piece of barbecued kebab they share. It is a fascination that for many of them, began with films of Zhong Yimao, Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai.
Check this city among one of the places I wouldn’t mind spending a year in.
This blog has now begun. Initially created to log my reading for the English Literature Exams, “Plunging” is a blog dedicated to the Art of Plunge in three meanings, all of which are summoned in every reiteration of this term: (1) plunging, as in diving headlong into (2) a plunger, painfully sucking up thick, insalubrious detritus from a dark chasm unspoken of in our day to day existence (3) plunging a bet, as in, speculating highly upon, foregoing practical logic for extravagant intellectual breakdancing.
All of these forms of plunge will be tried at once, with bitter hostility and an increasing anticipation of my own resentment towards the faculty who will take me through this. My list is comprised of American Literatures of Race, Class and Immigration, 1882-1965, Literatures of Asian Diasporas, 1965-2009, and Theories of Political Economy/Globalization, Ideology/Subjectivity and Cultural Production.
An audience for this is meant to be none other than myself, though I leave this blog open for any curious minds who might seek summaries on the readings involved, other points of views, or an honest, reader-response account of what it us like to read these texts in accordance with one another. Since anyone reading these blogs will be uninvited, I take into account no “hurt feelings,” offensive language, fallible logic or my own tendency to misread texts. Any comments will be appreciated and responded to.
My personal goal is to write for about an hour at the end of every day, reflecting on the reading accomplished.
In the two months since I left Delhi, the city has already become unrecognizable. Perhaps this is due to the commonwealth games, which two months ago forced squatters from their tarpauline homes. Now those homes have become smooth concrete, shiny as glazed donuts. Even the backpacker district of Pahr Ganj smells a bit less like piss, and I am able to stroll through the main Bazaar without having to leap over puddles of mud.
In the Gem bar I spend a night drinking with a BBC director. He abuses the United States, calling us “a bunch of Imperial assholes.” He fancies himself a fan of Shakespeare, and when I continue to win bets over which character is which, and “what year did Shakespeare write Titus Andronicus?” his distress turns to ire and he returns to reprimanding the United States, expecting to get a rise out of me.
As if I have any emotional investment in a country that refuses to help pay for my medical bills or subsidize my medication. The pills I buy in India for $8 a pack are about $350 in the United States, for the same active ingredients.
As the BBC dickhead proceeds to offend any American in the room, I begin to wonder why there is no American in the room. Even in the backpacker’s mecca of India, I have yet to meet a single American, and the only familiar accents come from Canadians.
Afterwards I walk the Main Bazaar, the night market’s cunning aiming for me in all directions. Passing by other travelers, I see stereotypes so true and untrue, always laughable. Japanese girls wearing tight white masks to protect them from H1N1. Scottish blokes in ripped jeans and gigantic earrings. French families who stare apprehensively at their bottled water, clutching the pages of their guidebook as if it were a Bible. Australian boys always in large groups, perhaps intoxicated, pulling boyish pranks on any passerbys. Koreans giggling somewhere. Chinese men watching the Indians, noting down any foulplay. Israeli hippies looking for marijuana. British men in long dresses and smoking cigarettes, absorbing the shit around them. German men in extremely short shorts. Canadians in the corner, reading books.
And the Americans. The Americans are nowhere. Do you want to hear the confession of a traveling American? The most insulting part of belonging to this global Empire, one that not only believes that we know the world and what’s best for it, but that we somehow deserve to operate as its global police force–that our opinions should matter the most, that our IMFs and World Banks somehow “enlighten” the rest of the world? Are you ready? Here it is:
In nine weeks of traveling around India, I never met another traveling American. Not once. Not in the gigantic international festivals of Bangalore, not in the thrilling train rides packed with young backpackers, not even in the wondrous Taj Mahal, perhaps the most visited monument on the planet. I never even met a “Non-Resident Indian”-American.
The small amount of Americans in South-east Asia made me suspicious, but the complete absence of my countrymen in India seems totally unbelievable, considering the amount of western youths trying their luck in South Asia. For a country like the U.S. that insists on acting like a world leader, this is abominable. As I watch the other travelers in Pahr Ganj, I begin to realize that the vitriolic criticism that the BBC Director was spewing about the United States was by no means an uncommon diatribe. In bars all across the world, America is being denounced as an “Empire in denial,” and what’s worse, there is a deep nostalgia for the way the British Empire ran things.
As my Indian friend, Phillip, once told me: “at least the British built bridges and trains, what the hell is your Empire doing to help out? Trying to make us all Christian?”
When it comes to defending the United States, I am lonely and alone. I do what I can to break the stereotype, but there are far too many American soldiers in third world countries sprouting districts full of prostitution and drugs, and too few (if any) American travelers to showcase a more approachable kind of American. We travelers love to laugh at the Japanese for wearing those absurd masks, and the Australians for being obnoxious drunk assholes, but we forgive them because they are here, among the world, experiencing it and letting the world experience them. But there is no redemption for young Americans. We refuse to see the world eye-to-eye, and the world only sees us through our bureaucrats, our corrupt politicians, our soldiers depicted in their newspapers when, as in Afghanistan last week, our airstrikes end up killing the civilians we are meant to protect.
Americans as a people are in absence, but as a world power we are ever present. Is it fear that holds us back? Our fear of what–stomach aches? India, at least, is ready for us. The Obama charisma has yet to wear off on its people, and as an American, I am greeted and shown respect in every capacity (most Indians are simply bewildered to see an American traveling at all). I have never lied about my nationality, not in communist Laos, not in the long lines of Beijing, not in Ho Chi Minh’s Hanoi, not in the knife-happy bars of Phenom Penh, nor in any part of “second-world” India.
Last year, when the protests in Bangkok were at their most crucial, I followed the events with an astounding amount of care and dedication. This is perhaps what backpacking is, what makes it more than simple summer trips, brief outings into the limin, or inexpensive vacations. Because I had been to Bangkok, and knew the people, and had a cognitive map of the city, I could not help but empathize with the protesters, I could not help but care, and root always for the people trying to change their corrupt government. If, like the Europeans, every American spent their youth traveling to places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, India, would we still be where we are now? Would we have been so quick to ignore the number of Iraqi civilians we continue to call “collateral damage?” Would we have been fooled for a moment when they told us we were there for “liberation?” Would we have sat by watched our soldiers destroy those great monuments, those astounding mosques, those museums, those countless homes and so many lives, whose deaths we barely even keep track of?
Now we are on the verge of more violence, more occupations, more bad intelligence, and most of us have never even been to the regions under our country’s vast influence. But we are still young. Our backs are still ready to sleep on park benches, our lungs, still willing to inhale the toxic fumes that await us, our hands, still ready to reach out to the unknown, to be grasped by whatever lurks there. Our spirit and enthusiasm, our openness, our efflux of our soul, our willingness to accept the world, this will not last forever. Let us go! As Americans, let us be rid of our fake certainty, of querulous libraries and our ivory, panopticon towers. Let us go! Into the world to break this stereotype so ingrained in the eyes of the world, which puts us always in an antagonized position of dominance and power, as the exploiters of the third world. Let us go! Let us see and be seen, let us act and be acted upon. Let us plunge! Let us plunge!
The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh.
After a week of running to the embassy, the regional foreign officers, the police, and so-called “cultural centers,” my stubborn performance of the wandering back-packer begins to collapse. Whether or not there is an authentic “India” to find, when one goes looking for it, they don the guise of the backpacker, one who struggles to find an authentic travel experience, who fluctuates between a constant fear of the unknown and a constant fear of the same old known. Backpackers are the natural enemy of the tourist. We gaff at the “fat white old men” like punk rock kids at a football game claiming that the jocks all look the same, while we, in our ripped black T-shirts and converse, high-five against conformity.
In backpacking, a similar game is being played. We all wear photogenic props: backpacks larger than our bodies, unkempt flock-of-seagulls hair, stubbled beards. We are known to “toke up” when the time is right, we are promiscuous, adolescent milkers of our youth; with adulthood just over the horizon, we are not-yet ready to hand over the world for the cage we must one day crawl into. When we get diarrhea on the road, we are grateful for it. When we get Dengue fever, we obtain bragging rights. When we get a cut or shiv, we stand-by for infection. We don’t mind used needles, we like things being shit and the shittier things are the better. We seek to hide within the grime, the seediness; we straddle between the whatever, and the why not? We get our passports and credit cards stolen. We get bit by rabies-infested monkeys. Our narrative grows and grows.
That is why, on my first package tour, riding through the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, I feel something of a coward. How has it come to this? How have I so easily exhausted my resourcefulness, letting the whim of the tour guide shepherd me from one ugly religious monument to another? It is clear I have betrayed my people, my self, my dignity and the overly romantic self-image in my head, where I appear as a brown Brad Pitt. My only redemption is when the air-conditioning on the bus leaks freezing water onto me all night and we have to sleep with the windows open, inviting all types of disease-ridden mosquitos. See, my backpacker companions, this is still travel, right?
Besides being famous for the Beatles and their drug-induced Enlightenment, Rishikesh is mostly just a beautiful city and not much else. Adjusting already to my role as a package tourist, I sneer past the low-life British backpackers with their dreadlocks and smell of piss and pot.
Dharamshala is by far the most interesting place along the Himachal Pradesh route. The home of the Dali Lama and the Tibetian exiles, this is perhaps the one place in India that does not bargain for prices. At least, this is my first impression, until I run into all the Hindus who had moved into Dharamshala just to sell “authentic Tibetan” knick-knacks at extremely high prices. I do my good deed for the year by dealing only with the Tibetans–it is their cultural heritage isn’t it?
After three days in Dharamshala, the bus back to Delhi breaks down, one day before my flight back to the States. The toxic fumes of a nearby factory and the swarm of mosquitos make this especially unbearable. After hours of watching the Indians weld together parts underneath the hood of the bus, I am in need of a restroom, and two minutes later I am accidentally mooning a family of shop-owners who speak no English and perhaps have never seen an American, let alone an American returning to nature in their fields. When the bus starts running again, the Israeli traveler next to me shoves his legs in front of my seat, and the entire night becomes a battle for more personal space, of which there is no clear victor.
Package tourism. I don’t see much of a difference.
A man with a flaccid penis drifts by me in the train station of Varanasi. Except for a beard covering half his torso he is completely nude, and just as I see his swaying comportment beginning to cross my path, it then plummets into the railroad tracks, falling towards the heavy iron rails the way one might fall onto a softly pillowed couch after a long day at the office.
When I am on the train I can think of little else but the fall. It seems he was…I’m not sure what to insert into this slot. Drunk? Poor? Desperate? Really really old? Perhaps religious? My imagination takes off, pondering the man’s fall the way Sherlock Holmes might ponder a crushed hat lying in the street (though with far less finesse): During a routine parachuting, this elderly adventurer’s loosely worn dhoti was yanked from him by the elements, and due to the pre-jump elevation sickness, found himself in a nude daze, his head bopping to Purple Haze, resulting in what seems to be..what certainly was, it seems…it seems…
I am so benumbed in my memory of this event that I barely kick my feet off the side of the train, or bother to look out the window, so that when my traveling companion’s bag is stolen in the middle of the night and I am charging through each compartment of sleeping saris searching for the stolen passport and credit cards, when the police with Rajastani mustaches and thick eyebrows finally arrive holding uzis and AK-47s, when we are sitting in the station in Kolkata wondering if we are ever getting home, and even when, nearly a day after the fall, hotel owners start throwing our luggage into the floods of the monsoon, refusing to let us in without a valid passport and we have to trudge for hours through a street flood that has risen to my waistline, waiting for pity, our tears never showing through the pouring rain, I am still in that Varanasi station on an otherwise normal day, watching a nude man plummet into the train tracks. The police did nothing, everyone else was paralyzed in a state of shock. I am now beginning to remember someone does leap in, kicking away the giant rats who had come to explore a new piece of roadkill, pleading with the guards to find a pair of trousers, ordering a clerk to bring some chai, sitting the old man near my luggage.
How does an entirely nude Indian man get all the way from the platform staircases, the corridors of the station and the hired guards, to my end of the train? Had he been nude the entire time? Had he really walked through the entire train station without anyone giving a damn? That is, until it happened?
As we are walked off the plank of our fifth hotel, back into the waters of the monsoon with my laptop already permanently damaged from the floods, I begin to count the things we still have. The clothes on our backs. We have toothbrushes and bones. Defeated eyes. Variegated silk from Benares. Contemplation of the vacant railway. We have words that have hibernated for so long in our mouths, finally beaming in, we just have to keep our heads in the right place, I repeat, and repeat. I even have an adage: The greatness of a man is not in their achievements, but in the way they react to tragedy. No longer with the privilege of cynicism, deprived of our sense of distance, we are comforted by every cliche’ and overdone song lyric that comes to mind.
Hours into our plight we are sick with exhaustion and wet to our chests, so we wetten the floors of an internet cafe. As my traveling companion calls her loved ones, reliving the moments again and again, I cannot forget that we are still in a place of abandon. No proof of identity whatsoever. The hotel managers and landlords still refuse to let us in, assuming perhaps that she is a prostitute from Nepal or Myanmar, that I am trafficking her across the border after promising to marry her. We are already on our way to Sonagochi, where I will sell her to the highest bidding brothel. When I show them her police report they snicker at the stamp.
I amin Kolkata.
We have mother-of-pearl bangles. A new bedcover three sizes too large. An ineffable urge to fly away from wherever we are. Songs that strangle.
I have left her in the internet cafe. I am back in the river in the street, heading towards that intersection where the current is pushing against me. A black bull has somehow retreated to a rooftop. Children in school uniforms laugh gayly in the rushing flood, surrendering themselves to the rush of waves. I take slow, careful steps; I cannot see where my feet are in the brown river. With every step I hear the crunch of an enervated body, the exhausted succumbing of a man onto thick iron rails, a man who, it seems, must have, it seems…
In the water I begin to lose it, and as my body gives out, all those things on the tip of my tongue shoot into my brain. There was a time, years ago, in a bar somewhere, someone asks me what the title of my research paper is on, and I cannot think of a quick and humorous response. He is short and has a smug smile, I’m not sure if he’s serious. Meanwhile I am watching my body in some berserker, screaming at the flood, thrashing its arms about in redundant paroxysms. The title of my paper? I say, returning that smug smile.Isomorphic Agrarianism and the Half-life of the Hyphen. That’s what I should have said!
At perhaps the eighth hotel, I meet Phillip, an Indian man with a small mustache and wearing tucked in plaid. As I tell him what perhaps has happened to us, his fists clench in a rage that I am far past, but I accept him as my avatar, he can feel my anger and rage and I can sit placid in numbness. He offers us a room, tells us everything is going to be all right, is already waking up the old cliche’s in his mouth. Just do not worry now, you must keep your head. He has relieved me of so many duties.
An hour later I bring my companion to the hotel. Phillip assesses the situation. You have no copies of your passport. No identification at all. No money. No credit cards. No cell phone. You have nothing. Nothing. Do you know what it means to have nothing? In this country?
It seems we just appeared, waiting to be picked up.
You want coolie? asks a man in a red vest, his teeth stained yellow with paan and his eyes in some uncontrollable blitzkrieg. Before I can answer he lifts my bags onto his head, straining his neck, marching up flights of stairs, his aged body nearly giving out under the weight of marble nick-nacks stockpiled among my belongings.
It’s difficult to spend a moment in India without immediately thinking of A Passage to India, and the intense guilt that comes along with Forster’s parable.
Varanasi (also called Benares) is India encapsulated; the diversity and multitudinous lifestyles that make the sub-continent more-or-less absent of ideology is well represented in the stunningly multicultural holy city. Here Muslims make statues of Ganesha for Hindus, while Hindus build mosques for Mulsims. Every Ghat bordering the sacred river Ganges is devoted to a different religious sect or region of India, so that any type of identity one chooses to align with is represented upon this sacred river.
The owner of my hotel is a bald Indian whose Japanese wife teaches yoga, while their children, a fat-Buddha looking boy and eight year old girl, are raised mostly by the hotel staff, who speaks to them in simple Japanese. Along the road I am met by East Asians, Nepalese, Indians from Bangalore and Madras.
Whatever you can say about India, says Amartya Sen, the opposite is also true. After two months of traveling in India, one must succumb to the absence of understanding. For Whitman, to travel is to rid yourself of certainty, to know nothing and take pleasure in not knowing. In trying to conceive of India, no mental picture appears, no one city, no style of dress nor even a ubiquitous pop-song (the Tamils still refuse Bollywood). As Arundhati Roy puts it, in one category or another, every Indian belongs to a minority. One must learn to conceive of a people without the golden thread of normalcy.
As soon as I arrive at Gai Ghat, a mustached Indian man commandeers our boat and gives me a fulsome explanation of the purposes of the Ghats. He says that old people come here to die, that they need very special wood to burn their bodies with, that this kind of wood is extremely expensive for them—around a thousand rupees a kilo—and that if they do not have a proper burial they would not go to enlightenment (as he calls it).
Then, almost comically: If you give, you go to Enlightenment too. So how much do you want to help those in need? One, two, three kilos?
My eyes meet his with stern execration—an immediate sense of loathing for such a man, any man, who twists the goodwill of others to their own purposes. The smoke from the burning bodies pinches our noses, the requiems of lamenting families reach out to us in a choral yearn, the garlands of brightly colored flowers upon the dead bodies still submerged in the Ganges set our eyes into sudden still. I know the man is a scammer, with the audacity to scam so shamelessly in front of the mourners–such a capacity I can not believe! And though I shake my head and tell him no, there is still that rattling of a guilty conscience, that suffering of imprecation, the fear that after refusing the chance for redemption, one might never breath an anxiousless breathe.
His riposte: You will remember what you have done here today. You are a very very bad person, with very bad karma. You will remember what you did.
All the families of India come to the Ganges, that river too toxic for most wildlife, where there is a spot for each region, a place for each religion, a time for each prayer, a chant for each caste. They are all, equally, offered the chance to reach Enlightenment (depending on the kilos of wood they purchase).
The streets in HITECH City (Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City), Hyderabad, where the IT revolution has perhaps hit hardest, is not filled with young Indians in collared shirts jabbering on headset headphones, has few long streams of electric wire weaving about from iron statue to statue, and the glossy, posh buildings, are almost entirely absent. Instead, High Tech City is a surreal desert of nascent buildings, still undergoing erection, and the only movements of the streets is of the migrant workers, living in gigantic tent cities, on every roadside. Here multinationals aggregate in Industrial parks, the foreboding shadows of their incomplete buildings stretch from the rocky hills of High Tech City, onto the city of Hyderabad.
Hyderabad is a great deal like Bangalore, only not yet.
I enter in the Islamic holy month of Ramadon (Ramza here), a time when rickshaw drivers sway their bikes, enervated by lack of water and over-exposure to the sun, when every night becomes a festival of cheap chicken and lamb kebabs, only to end abruptly so the participants can wake up in time to eat before sunrise, and when the women are stylishly dressed in the latest foot fashions, limited by the burkas enshrouding their entire bodies.
In Bangalore, the guidebook suggests, be aware of the rickshaw drivers.
Ok, be aware, be aware. I repeat this at the train station, with no clue where the district of cheap hotels and delectable juicy drinks is. I have no choice but the autorickshaw. I take steps to increase my awareness in the back of the rickshaw. Remember: be aware. I begin to tremble under the ambiguity of this statement. Do I open my eyes wider? Do I stare intensely at the driver’s back, hugging my passport and wallet into my body like I’m holding organs into my torso?
Despite my increased awareness, the advice of the guidebook, the suspicious grin the driver makes at every glance at his rearview mirror, and the honking of horns outside that sounds like a calf being torn away from its mother, I begin to phase out in the backseat, dreaming of some fantastical faraway land. Suddenly I realize that no other cars on are around us on the road. He stops in front of a small building—most of it descending deeper underground—that reads: GOVERNMENT SILK EMPORIUM.
“Just go in, have a look.” he tells me.
Allow me a moment to explain these emporiums. One day the government thought it would be a swell idea to replace dynamic local markets with gigantic emporiums of extremely expensive but authenticated stock-piles of India’s treasures. These emporiums are usually in the middle of nowhere, and any rickshaw driver who brings foreigners to these places gets a commission, plus small governmental benefits like tax write-offs (not having to pay any taxes at all), waived requisites (a blind-eye to their lack of a driver’s license] or some other type of governmental protection.
To placate the man, hoping that I would one day get to a hotel, I walk into the emporium, spend ten minutes grumbling to myself, then leave. Minutes later he has taken me to another one. I complain but he keeps saying “just look, just look.” Too enervated to argue, I walk in with the stench of the train still following me, walk around in a haggard daze, and then fall into the back of the rickshaw again.
“Now we go hotel.” I tell him.
“One more shop sir.”
“No!” I plead to him, while in my mind, I am cursing the guidebook for its total lack of specificities. “I give you one hundred rupees, you no take me to another one.” It was three times the fare.
“No, no want money.”
“Two hundred rupees!”
“No, just look, just look.”
No amount of money can compare to the benefits of collaborating with a corrupt government. Instead of giving him the money, I spend it on a sandalwood Ganesh, knowing that the driver will get extra “benefits” if I actually buy something. When I get back in the rickshaw he has a smile on his face as mocking as a crescent moon. But he takes me to the hotel.
In recent times, the name Bangalore has become synonymous with the word outsourcing, and neologisms are spurred in attempts to understand the city—ITocracy and calltopia to name just a few. One out of every three office buildings in India spring up in Bangalore; obesity and diabetes are growing concerns here, where most everywhere else in the country, food and the fear of draught from this year’s disappointing monsoon (about %75 of its average) is of growing concern.
There is no better way to understand this indefinable city than to stay up late, at least until 3am, when the American workday ends, and all those Indians you hear over the phone when calling the Dell computers customer service line are emancipated into the jam-packed pubs, the chaotic night markets and the large strip halls, where, in rooms that look remarkably similar to Korean karaoke rooms, Indian women striptease bellydance on top of men’s laps.
Staying in the Majestic district, I become all too familiar with this nightlife as I realize that the extreme discount I receive on my hotel room has less to do with my own cunning, and much more to due with the fact that the hotel is hardly a hotel at all, but an in-and-out “love hotel.” Harrowing screams from adjacent rooms drown out the lectures of my ipod.
Unable to sleep among the orgasmic cacophony, I take to Mysore, a far more laidback city with a long royal history, rickshaw drivers that do not take you to government emporiums, a nightlife that doesn’t burst through your hotel window in fragmented colors and screams, and a hotel that’s actually a hotel…with a very inviting pillow.
In the unadorned train compartment where I have my assigned upper berth, I immediately begin brain storming new ways to evade the overwhelming stench coming from the four squatting restrooms nearby, where mixtures of day old piss with excrement from over-spiced samosas happen to drift just to my sleeping spot, and no one else’s.
The obvious way out is to hold my dirty plaid collared shirt upon my nostrils to mollify the smell, but this proves ineffective. I spread deodorant beneath my nose, then mosquito repellent, then a jaw of pure flower extract that I bought for four dollars at a local market. Apparently, four drops of it in a 100ml bottle of alcohol will give you the exact ingredients for Calvin Klein’s Eternity.
But Eternity stands no chance against the toxicity coursing from those four bathrooms. I would rather inhale burning plastic, sniff it into my brain and possibly suffer some permanent loss of memory, than continue to bare that stench. Once the train really picks up speed, the smell weakens a bit, but only to taunt me with an ever more overpowering, odoriferous smell, re-energized by another relieved passenger’s contribution.
As my vision blurs I begin to see men like women, and women like men. Oh wait, it’s just a Hijra! She pats me on the knee in a gainly fashion. I know the drill, they tap you, you’re supposed to hand them at least five rupees, then they kiss the coin and say a namaste.
Just as I pull out a five rupee coin from my pocket, she pounds me on the shoulder, then smacks me on the face.
Am I bleeding? Was I just beat up by a woman or a man? I’ve heard some are eunuchs, that might make a difference.
Still in shock from this utter loss of manhood, I pull out even more change. She must have heard the other coins rattling inside my pocket. She moves to the next sucker and comely holds her hand in a kind namaste. When he refuses to pay her, we all laugh as she kicks him in the stomach.
When we arrive at the station early in the morning, and the other passengers begin infecting each other with their yawns, I squeeze on my dirty contacts and make out the name of the station: Egmore. The hell? I double-check my guidebook, but the station name isn’t there.
–This is the train to Bangalore? I ask a lean dark Indian with a small girl clutched in his left arm. Chennai, he tells me.
The one place every traveler I have met has told me not to go to. Chennai, says the guidebook, boring, skippable, do not waste your time in this shithole.
On the beach I run into a kind Christian Tamil, a young isolated student who attends Madras University, which faces us from across Marine drive. As the other boys throw his sandals into the breaking waves and then toss sticks into his backside, he responds with a meek smile and continues to talk to me as if he’s not in incredible pain. Why not hit back? I ask. He tells me that Christ would not hit back.
We meet two Gujuratis in the construction business.
–Don’t the women swim? I ask them all, referring to the estrogen-absent waters.
–Women can swim too! Look! They point to an old woman with her feet in the water, her arms holding her pink sari just above her knees, the undertoe dragging sand against her shins.
–That’s not swimming.
As with Mumbai, the draw of the slums here isn’t so much in the squalid quarters of its inhabitants, but the close proximity of the slums with symbols of major affluence. Mumbai’s Dharvati slums lie directly across posh apartment complexes thirty stories in the air; Delhi’s slums encroach upon government buildings and great monuments. In Chennai, I visit slums of extreme dearth, located literally across the street from gigantic golf courses.
Of Chennai, the guidebook says “the city still has many slums but is also developing dynamic new-town suburbs, a rash of air-conditioned shopping malls and some of the best restaurants in India.”
Let’s think about this word “but.” Why not because of, due to the fact, or with shocking indifference to these slums, or, at least, giving up any notion of responsibility over its inhabitants, the government of Chennai…etc.
On the bus out of Chennai, a frump in a sari puts her finger on the ipod I’m playing with, touches the side of my cheek with her right hand and rapaciously grabs my thigh with her left, then shoves my face into her cleavage. Though I’m not one to complain about this type of public indecency or promiscuity, I still struggle in her eerily strong arms, as the glass seashell on her necklace is digging into my forehead and it’s difficult to breath under her soppy breasts. She lets me go, laughs, and continues to grab my limbs, shoving my face into different folds of her body until I realize what’s happening and pay her twenty rupees to stop.
The first democratically elected Communist state is, as writers like Arundhati Roy continue to remind us, one of constant religious strife, one of hidden enmity against both the lower class and the lower caste, and, perhaps most surprising, the home of the largest pornographic industry in the world.
Kerala has become the richest state in India thanks to a viable tourism industry, remittances from the Gulf, a high literacy rate, and being the source of many of the world’s raw materials. The straw of a coconut tree is taken through a machine that twists the sparse pieces around each other to form taut lines of rope. The shells collected along the backwaters are crushed into calcium and heated in large stone furnaces. All alongside the road rubber trees are being tapped for Goodyear, Coconut and banana farms extend for miles along the roads, plantations for tea and marijuana settle in the hills and plains.
The most beautiful part about these farms is that few of them are owned through foreign direct investment. Most are local farms, exporting on their own terms, engaging in the free market through direct ownership of their commodities.
And yet many are still bewildered as to how Kerala became such a success story. Could the Land Reform act, which redistributed all private land in the 1950s, have anything to do with it? But that’s too close to socialism, so we bang our heads looking for another explanation (see Keralan model of development )
Kerala is a fine addition to my list of places to go when I retire, or, when I just get really get sick of the world.