Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Color is Your Parachute?

(Notes on touring Old Delhi)
Today was just India all the time. I took Janpath up Connaugh Place, bumped and scratched and clawed my way through seedy Paharganj, sidestepping street feces, crippled beggars, busted spurting pipes, reckless honking tuk tuk drivers, and aggressive rickshaw men. Almost had my pocket picked twice, both by boys, but I learned a quick spin of direction usually puts them off the scent. Either that or stop and raise my fists. They scatter. The eyes of people are always on me, though. Full gaze stopping as I pass. Who is this white man? So white and pale? What can we take from him?
They study the shape and size of my little shoulder pack figuring what is inside. They study how I hold my camera wrapped tightly around my wrist and close to my chest. They study my pockets and the folds in my pants. They speculate on my weight and height and if they could take me in a wrestling match. And they look right in my eyes. Every time. Right in my eyes as I quickly pass down the street. Pausing to capture a hidden alleyway here, stopping to picture a brilliant hanging sari there. The eyes of all the Indian men are on me wondering what I am worth, and so am I.
I found no relief from the blur of Delhi today. Horribly dirty conditions. Profound poverty. Complete disregard for human life and the surrounding environment. Men in a lunch line gulping soup dropping dozens of paper bowls on the road. Men defecating on overpass steps. Woman pouring food from the restaurants into sickening street drainage. Men chewing this disgusting red betel nut substance and spitting anywhere they please. And the constant horn blaring traffic. Amazing in sight and sound, filling my senses, giving me everything I wanted, the perfect memory I will carry back with me that I am so fortunate, so blessed. That perhaps, when I think about these people and the despair and sadness with which they live, that I’ll be able to teach again and not think so much about myself. That I will be able to serve people and find the goodness in them not focus on their limitations. Maybe, just maybe, it will work.
I walk fast down Chandni Chowk. I take in as much as I can and keep moving. I am good this way. I have trained myself to look quick to see and know. Make a story in my head, try to detach myself as best I can, but it is hard. I sometimes do this in the classroom as well, not give students the time they need. Play favorites. Avoid the troubled ones, the difficult ones, the ones that will make my hands dirty, make me sweat and hurt, and hate a job I once loved.
There was a constant assault on me today by mumbling legless, armless, lipless, noseless beggars. Old men. Young boys. Disfigured and marred. Broken human shells grabbing at me. There was also the constant pursuit of my business. “Hey, where you go?” “Hey, I drive you.” “Hey, just 20 rupee.” I was outside walking for four hours. All the time, almost every moment, some part of India was after me today, but all I could think about was, how beautiful these people were, how colorful. Just a people rich in color.
I know that sounds crazy.
I mean, I know it sounds crazy nuts, but every face I saw today was complex. Every eye judging me was in some way deep in rational thought. I jumped into a rickshaw and rode around Kashmir Gate, then entered the massive Red Fort entrance area and took shelter from the blistering heat under a lone tree while a sprinkler fifty meters away puttered out spray. But again the eyes were on me. I raced from there and brushed off the hawkers and market sellers and the beggars and walked down the middle of the highway embankment and found solace in this little kid’s park. There were busted out rusted old swings and crappy broken ladders to climb and drunk men passed out in the sun and lepers picking scabs against walls, and men rolled up under tarps dying, and workers grunting with shovels and oxen and the heat and the traffic, and so I just climbed this tall slide and sat perched on top just beneath these hanging branches for a moment to breath.
It was then these two little boys came up to me. Just two boys, about the same age as Xi’an.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
They grinned. Little white teeth.
“You play here?”
More grinning. They put out their hands, mumbling for money to which I gave them ten rupee, about a quarter and they walked off.
But I can give more than that, can’t I? I have more inside me to give than just that, I know.
I’ll leave you tonight with this. When I was a kid I remember a teacher reading this book to us called, “What Color is Your Parachute?” It was about realizing the shape and shade of the passion that is within you. It’s supposed to help give you insight as you fall, or for that matter, plunge.
Again, I don’t know.
Mostly today just broke my heart, but there was one funny moment. Along the sprawling, very crowded market area of Chandni Chowk, a rickshaw driver reached out and grabbed my hand suddenly. Startled, I turned around just as a little pickpock beggar was eyeballing me and ran away. I jumped backward. It didn’t matter that I’d read Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, and loved the idea of old oriental rickshaw travel. It didn’t matter that I’d just read excerpts of Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger to my girls. In these moments, book learning doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t.
I needed an escape.
So I took a turn and headed down this quiet little alleyway. Oh, how peaceful, I thought. Finally, a little respite. And what’s with this sort of nice carpet rug I am walking along…? Suddenly, I am tackled. I mean, hauled to the ground by four men. Muslims, mind you, dressed in robes. Oh, I see. I get it. I had just entered a mosque and did not take off my shoes. Really? Did I just do that? How stupid of me to not know where I was walking. How ignorant I can be at times.
The best part about it was the five blocks those men followed me bowing over and over again as they accepted my apology dozens and dozens of times, and how when I got back to my hotel and washed off all the sweat and grime and filth in a nice dip in the pool, how I was asleep before my head hit the pillow back in the room, I thought, I’m falling again. I can do this. I can be a man full of color too.

1 comment:

  1. This is great stuff, keep it up. Makes my walks around New York City super tame by comparison.