The Story Of An Accidental Outsider

Driving through ‘God’s own Country’, thoughts of Bangalore flood in. As I’m pulled away from the city, from the gaze of the West, from my American identity, from the shackles of stereotypes and my inclination to be placed in the context of it all, I find myself wandering through foreign neighborhoods of my mind. I have passed through this country several times, and only now have I surrendered to the truth that I will remain always an outsider. It is in this acknowledged alienation where, groping to comprehend, I embrace the fact that India starts to make sense once one accepts that nothing here really makes any sense. Even with several lifetimes one would fail to fully grasp the beautiful complexities of India’s culture, the unique idiosyncrasies of its society and the deep tangled roots of its religions.

There is something about India that makes me feel so fearless, yet simultaneously as if I could shatter any moment. Helpless in my ignorance, I fear fabricating false assumptions knowing that nothing here is truly as it seems.  Like an onion, there are countless layers to this culture.  In the words of Anup, there are cobwebs underneath the table that one not only fails to see, but fails even to look for. Returning to India for the third time, I feel as if I am only now beginning to cut the surface. The South is so different from the North- a disparity that unveils further the country’s polarities.  Yet, it’s difficult to define the difference. From the eyes of a Western, I’m dreadfully aware of the potential flaws that may riddle any judgment I’m brave enough to pass. I remember years back when living in Varanasi, I asked my Indian friend Atin what India was to him.  Silence ensued the question, then a deep breath.  Suspended in this moment we sat bathed in the light of the moon that bled through the broken in roof of the old barn house.  “This is India”, he said finally rubbing dirt from the ground between his fingers.  “It is the sky above us that is littered with stars and the earth below our feet”.  I’ll never forget these words, as I have yet to get a more suitable explanation.

Fleeting acquaintances define one’s experience in so many inexplicable ways. As a photographer, I find myself wandering off alone through back alleyways and into slums many would avoid or not think to transgress.  Guided, and at times misguided, by curiosity, I’ve found myself in small shacks drinking tea with old ladies who nod there heads back and forth, back and forth at me and smile.  I’ve followed barefoot children into dilapidated temples and had to swallow my sorrow in the face of an ailing man as he passed on to the next life. I still to this day have failed to reconcile with death at the hands of poverty.  How to react and what to give is hard to say, I know only that whatever I offer will never be enough. My mind in a desperate struggle to understand, to justify, gropes for any explanation outside of ‘life’.

I have built an immunity to the smell of urine, car fumes and burning garbage, but not to the sight of starving children and begging elders.  Having been to India several times, I am no stranger to the hideous reality of starvation and death that one inevitably encounters here.  Anup proposed redefining to term “third world” to the “world of the third”.  Over the past week this concept has followed me like a shadow as the sunsets, growing increasingly more profound as I observe IT men in suits stepping over limbless beggars. Yet, dumb and numb I have no authority to say whether the gap is getting bigger or if it is finally trickling down. My take on the matter- it never trickles down. However, not wanting to accept this reality as part of life only exacerbates the problem by turning a blind eye to it.

Yet there is so much more to India that meets the eye. What has never ceased to amaze me is the seemingly contradictory nature of the nation.  Slums shoulder shopping malls catering to the rich.  Towering glass structures are being constructed with bamboo stalks.  The main course at fancy restaurants cost more then some make in a month. The nation at large is plagued with starvation, yet has a surplus worshipped beef. I’ve been slapped with the sight of little girls hold babies in lieu of dolls. It is not uncommon to see entire families piled on to the back of motorbikes. Herds of cows serve as the catalyst to traffic congestion. There is no smoking on the stations platform, but according to the guard the train’s tiny bathroom is fair game. I find I trust strangers’ sometimes more than sales people. Huts are erected in abandoned construction sites. The bright colors of temples are juxtaposed against the dull dirt roads. The chaos theory navigates traffic, yet there is an element of grace in all this disorder. Everything seems exaggerated here and nothing is as it seems.

The Madiwala Market and the community that surrounds it has drawn me back time and time again. By definition, a community is a haven of social interactions that is bound together through a collective sense of identity and beliefs.  Incessantly India is juxtaposed with the west, which has emerged as a paradigm for industrialization and modernity. From this parallel an idea(l) of India has emerged which, in my opinion, fails to reconcile with the reality of what India truly is at heart.  In my opinion, the pulse of the city lies in Madiwala.  Soon after my arrival, I realize that this idea(l) manifest itself solely within the media and fails to do justice to cultural idiosyncrasies that define communities like Madiwala.

The metaphor of “map” interest me tremendously, as in order to map the city of Bangalore one must place the city in a global context. Mankind has projected a sense of space and imputed borders onto this landmass of ours. This map, in all actuality, is not intrinsic to this sphere in rotation.  America, like India, is real and an ideal. The media moment reflects the transition in which the world began to shape itself around the ideals projected via television.  As one can see, there are so many complexities at work.  It is only a matter of time before ideas get subsumed into the ideals.  In the case of Bangalore, the IT industry’s implications are subsumed into the idea(l)s.  What is the notion of the city and what is the notion of the nation, one must question?  How can one connect the city and the community, the ideal of the community and the ideal of the city?  There is a lie in li(f)e, as Anup would put it.  One lives with it, but that is life.  Are communities being produced, and as they are being produced are cities being produced? If this is true how can one explain the disparity between the hustle and bustle reality of Madiwala Market to the idea(l) projected of Bangelore that it is a haven of IT industries?  Are the slums that are the pulse of the city remaining still forever in its’ shadow?

The complexities of this social inquiry can barely be realized, let alone answered in such a fleeting encounter with the culture.  In India, weeks slip by, but the days are suspended in time. Endless strolls through the back streets of Madiwala Market seem like an entirety ago.  Petrified of forgetting, I clamber to find the words to record what I’ve seen and felt.  But to articulate what I’ve come away with is as impossible as attempting to nail bitter curd to the wall.  India has left an impression on me that sits heavy in my heart and mind, yet proves inexplicable.  The guilt of having nothing to say for myself is reconciled with the knowledge that something has changed within me that I cannot define. But, how can one describe the profound subtleties a culture impresses on you? This experience in India is like a beautiful scar I ache to boost about, but has marked a part of the body rarely exposed- and even if the occasion arose I wouldn’t have the words to tell the story behind it. With each passing day I’ve abandoned baggage from the past and redefined my aspirations, cultivating my sense of self in the context of the world at large and letting go of flawed perceptions of reality. In anticipation of returning home, I struggle to reconcile conflicting identities after being a world away from anything familiar.

Love or loath the country, no one leaves India the same. Pulling us out of the city, the road from Bangalore is freckled with random resorts and roaming cows. Women pluck leaves from the tea plantations scaling the mountains. Pastel churches lace the roadside.  We drive through the clouds.  I am overwhelmed by memories I have since long forgotten, as our car cuts through the lush mountain range and we pass purple shacks and toddy bars.  Recollections of the past redefine my place in the present, being present is like being suspended in time.  The resurfacing of forgotten memories feels like the embrace of an old lover, tasting the familiarity as it floods back into vivid tangibility. White waterfalls disturb brown rivers. I sigh, suspended between tears and a smile. Thoughts of the turquoise walls of blood flooded butcher shops linger. I have memories of insomnia married with late night Bollywood music videos. The countryside is too beautiful to swallow, to define, to articulate.  With fierce eyes and dirty fingernails I grope for the words to describe what I see. The diffused light of dawn sheds light on the road gleaming from the early morning shower. Magenta flowers sprout from a crack in the concrete along the road.  The car passes a Virgin Mary peeling off the wall of an abandoned church. Jesus Christ nailed to the cross swings side to side from the rear view mirror- helpless. Post rain shower’s heavy calm, the smell of monsoon- overwhelmed I watch, merely a spectator.  The lush landscape of Kerala triggers memories of the fluorescent glow of Commercial Street at dusk. I think of Bangalore and sigh, knowing the end is near.


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