Flashbacks: Chennai

I was 12 years old when I withdrew from St. John’s International Residential School. I’m 19 now. It’s been seven years since I set foot on that South Indian campus.

Mathematics says, “36.8% of your life has passed by since.”

My mother’s basement security locker says, “You have finished middle school, high school, and since enrolled in college.”

My mind says, “The changes you’ve undergone since outweigh any estimates, infinitely.”

I scribbled burritotumlet47@yahoo.com on a post-it note and passed it to Rajkumar.

“Raj, this has been fun. You really helped me get through this place, but my brother and I decided we’re going back to America. We can only put up with so much food poisoning.”

“This is sad, man. Who knows when we’re going to meet again?”

“I’m not sure bro, but we’re gonna have to. Email me in a couple days after I make that email account.”

We dapped up and gave another a short hug.

“Smuggle another Red Bull from the snack bar for me next time.”

“For sure, man. Have fun in America.”

I left as a young boy, half traumatized, half invigorated. I never made that e-mail account. I never re-connected with anyone I met there. I only thought – always thought – about what would’ve changed if I stayed there, if I learned to accept the difficulties, if I never came in the first place, if I stayed in America, if I stayed enrolled at St. Michael’s, continuing the Catholic education I never returned to.

These questions are inexplicable, incomprehensible, unfathomable.

I had to go back to campus. I had to see what reaction the familiar place would evoke. That was the single thing I promised myself before leaving this summer to India. It would be a suitable last destination for the cross-country journey Madi, Matt, and I planned to take together. Continue reading

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Flashbacks: Varanasi

At first glance, the mighty Ganga struck me as quite small. Having seen the Brahmaputra in Assam, I expected this river to span a seeming infinity. But, it was mid June and monsoon was coming late this year: maybe Al Gore was onto something. Riding from the airport, I sensed a distinct vibe that permeated the city’s outskirts. Although the the placeless aesthetic remained pervasive, the whole area exuded some intangible subtlety that I remain unable to put into words.

Down a few more intersections, my driver pulled up to an obscure alleyway. Outside, the host of my guest house greeted me. Pointing down the dimly lit crevice, Sonu instructed me to follow. We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, shuffling down one tight corridor after the next. These were streets, not alleys, I soon realized. Cars weren’t allowed – because they wouldn’t fit – and only the occasional motorbike made its way through the musty cobblestone breadth. I kept imagining a young Steve Jobs roaming down these streets, drawing influence, affirming good taste.

After unpacking at the guest house, I departed and found my way to the closest ghat. Down the staircase and across the concrete steps, I ambled between strangers coming from all directions. Before, behind, beside, between, every next local propounded a boat ride. Past another flight of stairs, there it stood before me: the river of legends, the key to Moksha, the Mother Ganga. Crouching down ten feet from the water, I looked across to the sandy banks exposed on the opposite side.

I didn’t know what to think.

Is this the medium of a holy goddess or is the semantic notion of holiness just an extension of economic importance, one, in this case, that bears on millions? When I was younger, my father would spout mythology to me, recounting the river’s sacred aura and divine importance. Yet, I now stared into its depths, and all my mind could do was go blank. I felt something, but no words could articulate clairvoyance.

To my right, a group of teenage boys jovially waded into the water, yelling and shoving another into the shallow depths, like boys at the neighborhood pool. To my left, an elderly man and two women alternated between bathing, prayer, and washing their clothes. The raggedy, aged fellow particularly caught my attention, him methodically scrubbing each centimeter of cotton dhoti. Every minute or so, he muttered to himself, sending an embittered glance to the boys playing off to my right.

From the distance, a boat veers off towards us. Painted red and white on its side: Airtel 3G & 4G. Even the Ganga has a weakness for the banknote, all the watercraft reflecting the familiar corporate landscape. While a shirtless local cranked the paddles in cyclical succession, one man laid stretched out on the canoe, sprawling in the sunshine. Yet, instead of looking out across the water or observing the masses along the banks, his eyes were glued to his phone, taking selfie after selfie, searching for the angle of his face that would generate the most traction on social media. It was disgusting. Yet, the more and more boats I looked out to, the more I saw of people trained on their phones instead of embracing the aquatic serenity. Continue reading

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Fragments

A little blue booklet sits tucked behind my passport. Cover reads: Certificate of Registration, Overseas Citizen of India. I look up. Matt and Madi: two familiar faces, one seasoned, one infantile. We are currently on the way to Jaipur, our fourth stop in this sub-continental journey.

Goats patrol the concrete. Cows meander the fields. The occasional monkey claws its way across the dusty terrain. This is my homeland.

How many times I’ve thought this since stepping foot to the soil. Often comforting, often sorrowful. I am a foreigner all the same. Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Ahomese: our bloodlines intersect in ancestry. Yet, I look out to all of them and feel so much difference, so much dissimilarity.

My first full day in Mumbai, I watched the local youth stroll through the endless courtyard of Phoenix Mall. I was eating at a restaurant; between us stood a huge pane of glass. I thought to myself: this divide will


I fell asleep on Madi’s lap on the way from Delhi to Agra. Drifting into unconsciousness, childhood memories of India flooded in: 6th grade. We were visiting Tamil Nadu to attend my oldest uncle’s-first daughter’s marriage, exploring the sights of our state after. In the back seat of an SUV, I was resting in my aunt’s lap. It was right before I had a major growth spurt. Air conditioner blowing in my face, I tried to sleep, but my mind raced with uncertainty. Each morning and each evening, I hopped in and out upon other’s whims.

Now over six feet, I was scrunched into a weird cousin of the fetal position – feet pressed against the window glass, knees brushing against the front passenger seat. Lying in her lap, the same feeling plagued my mind: uncertainty. We had all planned this together. Even if Matt was 100 km away, each stop, each journey, it had all been


36 days of desensitization to animals eating roadside garbage: June 2. Perched on a black plastic chair, I eyeball Belgian Fries Co. and Baker Street Bistro Café. Madi and Matt are beside. While nostalgia is coming full circle in the former, childlike infatuation characterizes the other. I’m somewhere in between… I think. Actually, no, I have no idea. Over the past couple days, I’ve found myself absorbed in the sights and landscapes, yet, the more and more I see of my country, the deeper this sense of isolation grows. Continue reading

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Ascension

Tribal: the word has a stigma of social and cultural backwardness. Yet, the definition is changing as the internet continues to penetrate rural communities. At least for the Bodo’s – the scheduled Assamese tribe I stayed with for a couple days – the changing definition is intertwined with globalization.

People are people, supposedly.

It wasn’t that my expectations went unfulfilled. The experience was insightful and Kokrahjar was by far the most hospitable place I’ve had the pleasure to stay in. Yet, their joint candor and demeanor was, at times, almost uncomfortably familiar. Maybe I was expecting too much.

I don’t know.

Now isn’t the time to write another manifesto. Instead, I‘ll talk about my last day in the fabled northeastern state.

Adil and I woke up around 3:30 in the morning. After we got ready, we grabbed our luggage and left for to the bus stand. Looking out at the dimly lit compound, the Stalin-esque vibe I got from this socialist relic was fading. Regardless of the political system, the people here seem happy. Around 4:15, we hopped aboard the bus. Although the ride was rocky, it was nice to feel the sun rise and watch the world re-animate. At the station, we bought two tickets to Guwahati: Assam’s largest city and our final destination.

Trip length: 4.5 hours. Cost: 35 rupees. Conversion: $0.52.

The train arrived in a couple minutes. Following protocol, that is, India’s ever-present social Darwinism, we rushed in to find seats. Claiming the first set of empty benches, we guarded our seats territorially, like hippos. Soon enough, the engines kicked into gear, churning on to the next stop.

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Dreamlike

Plane Wing

 

It is 11:10 P.M. on April 25, 2016. I‘m leaving for the airport in under 6 hours. Even now, the gravity of this 2 month stint abroad hasn’t set in. At this point, I’m positive it won’t feel real until I’m in India, lost in the chaotic frenzy, aggravated by the incessant honking. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been counting down the days until I leave, my laughter growing increasingly hysteric as the double digits turned single.

I’m at zero now.

Alongside the cacophonous chortling, a tingling sensation has begun to slowly overwhelm me – as if every atom in my body is conscious of what is soon to come. Needless to say, I’m excited. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt this elated in my whole life.

So, back to the beginning. My road to a summer in South Asia began with an email from my Sanskrit professor. Although the details were scant, he mentioned a program in which students could intern or conduct independent research in India during the summer months. Upon reading this, I was under the impression that a research proposal had to follow the archetypal fields of study – science, medicine, technology, etc. Regardless, I was interested.

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