The cabin crew asked us to close our windowshades for the movie, but mine stayed open a crack, watching for land.
For all the business travel I do, it's been years since I've been to a country for the first time. Already on this trip, I'd flown from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur and thus technically to Malaysia, though I'd not gone beyond a transfer lounge at the airport. But now, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Delhi, I felt as if I were about to sail off the end of the world, and into the next.
I've spent a half-lifetime reading about places, watching landscapes in movies, and listening with attention to travelers' tales. Where possible, I've done all these things while fondling maps, trying to place all these impressions in space so that I could see their relationships to land, water, climate. For countries I've never visited (most of Africa and Asia) these secondary impressions are all I have. Painted on different parts of the map, they form the mental equivalent of a Surrealist painting, precise but disjointed, with murky gaps between one thing and the next.
For example, I wouldn't pass up an expenses-paid trip to Russia, but lacking that, my mind has distilled a functional collage of Tolstoy, vodka, Shostakovich, Chechnya, steam baths, gulags, and panoramas of snowy plains with swelling romantic music. The mental Surrealist painting that I call Russia features stony surfaces riven by small cracks from which a cold wind seems to be blowing. It has some patches of greenish murk, some grey boxy buildings, some bloodshed, some conifers, and an onion dome. To my russophile friends it's a travesty, of course. They may educate me in ways that enrich my Surrealist painting, but it will remain Surrealist -- sensual in certain details, perhaps, but also fragmented and reductive -- until such time as I see Russia for myself.
(What we learn in graduate school, after all, is not how to deepen our knowledge but how to organize our ignorance.)
But of all the countries I've never been to, only one has defeated all my efforts to form a stable impression. When I think "Russia" or "Japan" or "Algeria" I get a Surrealist painting, but when I think "India" I go limp with vertigo.
I've been reading Indian texts for years -- from the Vedic and Buddhist scriptures to Rushdie and Naipaul. I've seen films, gazed at the map, heard the music. None of it coheres, and yet nothing seems more urgent or essential. All I have is my Culture Shock gudebook's advice that "whatever you can say about India, the opposite is also true."
Finally, there it was. After hours of sea, the Bay of Bengal heaved my eye onto a long beach that slid off into the mist. Then the land: green fields hand-sketched onto red-brown earth, each roughly but not exactly rectangular. A gentle winding river.
Here and there, the earth formed little textured patches, as though it had been chopped or stirred. It took a moment, but yes, these had to be towns, collections of buildings that all seemed made of the same earth, rather as a gall will swell and reshape the surface of a tree, but not change its nature.
At first it seemed there was a town here and a town there. But as I looked closer, I noticed smaller and smaller towns, down to the level of a few buildings clustered between two fields. Soon, I could look at almost any spot, and in a moment a small roughness would appear, some hint of settlement. Even from the air, this country was awash with people.
Then the textures of earth grew larger, and began reaching toward me as we descended. Towers, scattered randomly in the fields like discarded toys, announced the imminence of Delhi.
I have not begun to process the first days in India's burgeoning capital. It's a business trip, expenses paid, connections lubricated, impacts cushioned to a degree. But I've had a few of the sensations that I knew to expect, but that nothing could prepare me for.
I've learned how to stare straight ahead when a woman in rags approaches me, brandishing her malnourished infant like a weapon. And how to dodge the ragged five-year-old boys who run up to me, pull at my pants, sometimes even seem to be trying to trip me. (All Indians in rags are beggars, it seems. When they have any other purpose, even the poorest of them dresses with care and often with beauty, as though they might be called to a meeting with God on a moment's notice.)
I've walked back and forth through a public market, part of a surging,
peaceful crowd, until I came to accept the way people stared at me, knew there
was no threat in it, that they were simply noticing with benign curiosity that
I am very tall, very white, and very bald.
I've watched a car crash into a motorcycle, sending bodies flying. And I've marveled that I've only seen this once despite the chaotic habits of Indian driving. Here the double yellow line is merely a suggestion, honking is essential, and one fully yields the right of way only to cows. I've been in the front seat as my driver has surged across the center line, headed straight for an oncoming bus, yet swerved back just in time, sliding into a space exactly the size of our car between an old man on a bicycle and a group of women walking with their children, a space that somehow appeared just when we needed it. I've watched the driver during these moves -- he's a quiet man of about 20 -- and seen that he was acting without a trace of aggression or fear, that he was just doing what water does in a surging river, with nothing but serenity in his eyes.