I have procrastinated about putting some sort of period on this series of posts about India. Even on tractable topics, I hate the pretense of summing up. (Most of us, I expect, can think of novels and pieces of music that are wonderful except for the ending.) When the subject is India, or even my petty adventures as a cosseted business traveler in India, summing up is obscene.
For a while I thought I'd write about the boy who stole my passport, and the vast and infernal "Foreigner Registration Office" in Delhi that I visited daily in the long process of recovering a legal identity that would let me leave the country. Kafka references would be unavoidable, but I'd do my best. I'd describe with genuine affection the hours spent in queues in stuffy rooms, about how I was glad to be in an endless queue to get to Counter #2, given that over at Counter #6 a mass of Arab and Persian men were practically climbing over each other to get at one harried clerk, all of them wrapped in a white haze of shouting.
The narrative of the queue would reach its climax and redemption in two minutes of a clerk's undivided attention to my paperwork, which she spent arranging layers of carbon paper, then copying numbers carefully from one form to another, then checking to see if her carbon copies were clear, then, finding they were not, carefully tracing over each character by hand. I'd connect this bureaucrat to Indians' deep attention to simple acts of service, the way silent men come into meetings and pour tea with such riveting mindfulness that they could be priests performing a sacrament before endless adoring crowds.
And I find that doing the work has radically changed how I respond to the sick, injured, or deformed that I meet in my daily life. I no longer avert my gaze. I'm thinking about what they might need, how I might approach touching them. And I think now that the instinctive aversion was not at all what I thought it was, and nothing I needed to be ashamed of. It was the instinct to touch and explore and help running smack into the deeply ingrained injunctions not to look -- not to notice -- to pretend nothing was wrong. It wasn't disgust. It was baffled tenderness.
I emerged from my last Indian bushwalk near the Laxmi Narayan Temple,
just as worshippers were converging on it in the late afternoon. In
front of the temple, a little to the side, was a simple wooden cart
containing a small pile of rags with the head of an elderly woman. She
seemed to be not so much sitting or lying in the cart as poured into
it. Only her head still seemed distinct and vertical. She called out
to me, triggering my reflex to turn away.
But not soon enough, clearly, because I still remember her quite distinctly, and I wish Dale had been there with me.
Perhaps I've embellished. I wonder in particular if I've grafted her head onto an image from Rushdie's Midnight's Children, where on a battlefield in newly-independent Bangladesh the hero comes upon a pyramid of minced flesh with three familiar heads -- three friends from his childhood now rendered as dying soldiers. In India everything seems rich with this kind of echo, as though despite all the freeways and subways and call centers, it's been centuries since anything happened there for the first time.
But "baffled tenderness" is right, not just for the woman in the cart but also for the boy who stole my passport, and the clerk with her carbon paper, and even for the violent human cascades that pass for traffic. I've returned so often to traffic in these posts not because I'm a transportation planner, or because the admiration of vast crowds is a safe cliché of writing about India. I know it's not one of those reasons, but I'm not sure what it is. The question leaves me baffled, tender.