This trip to India is made possible by a consulting project in Visakhapatnam, the second city and port for the large central state of Andhra Pradesh. While travelling on the project budget, we had a very nice hotel on the beach.
If this were California or Australia, the beach would be awash with people on a sunny day. Here, when I walked on the beach near my hotel, I was struck by how few of the locals were there. I didn't expect to see young people in thongs; I understood India's notorious modesty about dress. But I'd have thought that the beach would still draw them as a place where half of the sensory sphere is blown open, free of the intensity that is so much a part of daily life.
The emptiness of the beach speaks of the Indian disinterest in privacy, solitude, or even open space -- which for me may be the most challenging feature of the Indian heart. The average Indian has lived her entire life among crowds -- both the larger crowd of the city and the cramped intimacy of most homes -- and sees no point in having space and time alone. My Indian colleagues have expressed intense interest in how I have spent my free time, eager to suggest packaged tours. When I tell them that I like to just walk alone in a new city, without a plan and certainly without guides and company, I sense that I'm describing quaint and peculiar habits of my home country.
The city seemed uninterested in its beach, so in search of the city,
I turned inland. I noticed at once, as I had in Delhi, the dramatic
jumbles of wealth and poverty. Indian wealth does not want to build
its own private playgrounds, but is content to grow where it's planted,
often with poverty next door or downstairs. It makes it easier to hire
help, I suppose, but it is also another expression of the disinterest
Wanting more of a view, I found my way to a local hilltop, where I could see inland to the greater mass of the city and the towering ridge of the Eastern Ghats behind.
Again, I was looking for more of a "wide-open" feeling. Like the beach, this hilltop would have been a park in a western city, but here it felt deserted, strewn with trash, sometimes used as a toilet. It was, however, a good place to look closely at Indian crows (Corvus splendens), which look and act like any other crows but have a characteristic light grey patch on the back of the neck. I need these subtle background differences to confirm that I'm really in another country.
From there, I wandered generally north, parallel to the beach but inland a bit. I vaguely thought I might aim for Andhra University -- the public state university of Andhra Pradesh. Once there, I wandered until somehow, three women in brilliant saris seemed to be going the right direction.
When I saw it, it all made sense. Without knowing it, I'd been looking for the Botany department. It is a nicely weathered modernist block, whose concrete blocks were taking on a woodlike texture in the subtropical mists. The front garden looked like it had just been planted, in great enthusiasm, with one of everything.
Like botanical gardens, botany departments often put labels on trees around their building. Here, they were hand-painted signs giving common names in the local language, Telugu, as well as the genus-species and family names. With characteristically Indian piety, they even gave the name of the botanist who named the species. (The conventions of botany require these, but I don't often see them on a botanical garden sign.) The uneven and careful script of these signs purred with the pleasure that had come from creating them.
Not many tall white men with shaved heads come around Andhra University at twilight to photograph signs on the trees. Soon I noticed a small thin man watching me. He approached cautiously, and I tried to be as friendly as our size difference would allow.
He introduced himself as an Assistant Professor in the department, and suddenly we were talking about all kinds of things -- academic life as well as botany. The nicest moment was when he introduced me to a Sapindus -- eponym of a big tropical family that I'd seen in Australia but had no feel for. I immediately asked him what characteristics identified the family, and it was one of those happy moments -- rare in the life of an academic, especially a junior one -- when his expertise was exactly what the moment required. I reached up and pulled down a fruit for him, and he showed how it had a hard round black seed surrounded by juicy flesh. (It used to be used as soap, he mentioned in passing.) That fleshy layer, plus the compound leaves, were the marks of the Sapindus family.
It has been a long time since I was an academic, and I realize how much I've missed moments like these, chatting quietly at twilight in some serene corner of campus, at a safe if little distance from daily life, figuring out how the world works.