How Was India? My Trouble In Answering That Question
When I worked at a camp one summer, we played a game called, “How’s yours?” One person would leave the room and the other players would collectively decide on an object, part of the body or event to describe. We might choose “belly button,” “birth,” or “socks.” Then the person who had left would return to the room and begin asking the players, “How’s yours?” one by one. We could answer with one word — “small,” “pierced,” “pink,” “centered.” The guesser could ask as many times as she wanted, but had only three tries to guess what we were describing.
It is easy to get stuck. The game can become hilarious as the guesser grows increasingly perplexed and participants are surprised by how others describe their own boogers, dreams or first kisses.
When people ask me, “How was India?,” I sometimes feel like I’m playing a big game of “How’s yours?,” only I’m the player in-the-know, and everyone else is guessing. The problem is, I don’t have a single and obvious whole to which I’m referring. My adjectives — disparate, contradictory and messy as they are — stand for nothing unified. Yet this does not prevent the guessers from filling in the hole themselves.
Smelly, colorful, noisy, silent, lonely, crowded, spicy, perplexing.
A lot of people, I’ve learned, want to have spiritual awakenings in India. They dream of a self that will be brave and free enough to quit their jobs, sell all their things, and move to an ashram. And so they project onto my experience all that they believe they would discover — that people without things are happier; that they need to learn to live in the moment; that they should eat vegan, shave their heads, stop shaving, move back home, move away from home, pick their noses, follow their bliss, buy new shoes, meditate every day . . .
These conversations usually end with the guesser looking off dreamily, fingering his collar and saying with a sigh, “Well, one of these days . . .”
I want to tell them, “I still have diarrhea.”
Don’t get me wrong, I am in love with India. Being knocked around physically and emotionally did stuff to me, and sometimes I trick myself into thinking that I can express that “stuff” with some kind of graceful coherence. But my edges are no harder for all that. I am still as lost as ever.
This is what I want to tell people about my trip:
“My sweat smelled like curry!”
“I learned how to eat a mango by biting off the top and sucking out the pulp.”
“I gave boiled eggs to a beggar woman with no hands.”
“The most dangerous thing I have ever done was cross the street in Delhi.”
For the most part, my return has been gentle. It turns out it is rather easy to accept hot showers, beds and drinkable water. Still, there are moments of surprise or disconnect. Grocery stores are bountiful and exciting. I wander through them, wanting to buy everything, leaving with nothing. Houses feel big and empty, and I find I would rather not be alone in them. And sometimes I catch a whiff of the India smell that lingers in my clothes — a deep smokiness, sweet and bitter and waxy that I haven’t smelled since I stepped off the plane in Delhi that first morning. It is both familiar and strange, bringing back the initial excitement of being alone in a foreign city.
That is what I want to share.
“Smell this,” I beg my friends, bunching up a corner of my skirt and holding it to their noses.
By Emily Strasser
About the Author
Emily Strasser sometimes writes about traveling and sometimes writes about home. She hails from the lovely Atlanta, Georgia, but is currently trying out New York for size, finding out what “all that” is about. Read more at SeaBrightly.wordpress.com.