Leaving India

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 7, 2005 | Destinations: India / Mumbai

As I prepared to leave India for the first time, one of my colleagues said, "You will miss India." I told her that I had to leave: I had been having disturbing and suggestive dreams in which I was running over an ocean toward New York City as shards of the Statue of Liberty were evacuated on an Indian train. There was too much I would be giving up by staying; I would come to view my time there as a sometimes horrific interruption of an otherwise ordinary and peaceful life. She knew better: it was not an interruption; it was a permanent fracture. A character in James Baldwin's novel Giovanni's Room says that Americans should never spend any extended period of time in Europe. If they do, she says, they will never be happy in either place. Her remark could be extended to almost anywhere, but I found it to be particularly true of India.

Before I left for India, an Indian-American acquaintance said, "You will leave a part of yourself there." He said the words sadly, as if he were describing an amputation. And he was right: in India I watched bits of myself rub off on everything around me; and the self that would remain was unrecognizable.

India was driving me crazy, but the decision whether to leave was worse. With two weeks remaining in my stay, my mind oscillated wildly between hating India and missing it. At night I was overcome with melancholy: speeding around in cabs, I gazed at the women in their salwar kameezes; I marveled at their grace amidst so much pandemonium. I even felt that I would miss the sad, soot-colored children padding on bare feet through the cement-colored air. One's consciousness is so stimulated in India that leaving implies a loss of consciousness akin to death.

To wander through India's streets is one, and a many-splendoured, thing. But to work in India's systems is another. Recent polls had shown that most Indians believed that their country would disintegrate. Believing that their politicians were corrupt and immature, Indians waited for these same politicians to save them. As unfamiliar as India was, I felt I belonged there more than I belonged in America, where I presently write. I am sitting in a well-lit and electrified room. I feel more at ease here; I am surrounded by familiar things; I can expect that the telephone will work. But if I speak to a stranger or even a friend, I am constantly reminded of my distance from them. In India there is no distance. The chaos of India can be strangely calming. One day I returned from Chowpatty Beach in Bombay with a feeling that I had never been happier in all my life. As absurd as it now sounds, the beach exuded a strange positive energy that seemed to welcome me. I knew that I would have to struggle to feel alone there, and that the nature of Bombay's poverty was quite different from the only other poverty I had known: that of Chicago's South Side. India's poverty was oddly life-affirming, an expression of some inclusive life force. The South Side was divisive, cold; it was already dead.

Early in my stay I wrote home describing a tranquility I had not known before. Aspects of American life had previously irritated me, but I believed that by exploring different American lifestyles I could discover contentment. In India I realized that I might have to escape America entirely. In certain respects, I felt more at ease with a Muslim Indian woman than with practically any of my countrymen. When I thought of my life in America I thought of relentless spells of solitude and ennui.

This never changed. What did change was my tolerance of India's mayhem and privation. In some very small measure I began to feel the pain and frustration of living in the developing world. And as long as an alternative existed I could never erase its comforts completely from my mind.

The distinction that clearly arose was between mental malaise and physical suffering. I suffered physically in India more than I have ever suffered in my life: the very air caused me to suffer. But I was without the mental malaise that had plagued me in America. This is no less true for being so trite.

One day I was sitting on the balcony of a guest house in Dharamsala. I was bundled up and shivering from the unexpected northern cold. I would occasionally see Tibetans walking up and down the hill; they wore little more than robes and sandals. At first I thought they were foolish to do so. But they were used to this cold; and for all I knew, Dharamsala was balmy compared to Tibet.

I was accustomed to being warm. I had been blessed with any number of amazing technologies: baseboard heating, insulating fabrics, heated automobiles. I was accustomed to hot showers -- which many hotels in Himachal Pradesh lacked -- because I had grown up with a hot-water heater. I was accustomed to flawless telephone service. I was accustomed to flawlessness. "Technology," wrote Max Frisch, "is the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it."

Had people been happy before these technologies? Surely they had been; they had not yet come to take them for granted. Despite their country's plight, the Tibetans in Dharamsala were radiantly cheerful. But people would not be happy if these technologies were taken away. They had become addicted; and in the absence of their comforts they would become as irritable as an addict deprived of his drug.

So in a sense it was this addiction that brought me back to America. The bulging Bombay commuter trains irritated me; dysfunctional telephones irritated me. I wanted to eat all the food I wanted, to listen to my humble sound system, to drive my modest car through urban jungles. I wanted to sit in a comfortable chair in a warm house. I wanted to isolate myself from the conditions in which most people live.

After a three-week journey through India, I had made up my mind to return. I expected no tearful reunion; I only yearned for continuity, a sense that life was proceeding as planned. I yearned, in short, for progress, for peace. The three-week trip outside of Bombay had shown me too many things; I needed to see no more. One can suffer, but one must suffer for a reason.

When an Indian colleague told me that she could not imagine living in America, I told her that had I been born in India I would not be able to imagine living in America either. If I had not been born into America's comforts, the comforts would strike me as unnecessary, self-indulgent, even depraved. And I would scurry back to India where I was loved by shopkeeper, hairdresser, and fellow teacher; where, even if life is not always easy, life is interesting.

My mind was made up, but my heart wavered. Walking around Bombay's august Victoria Terminus, I would think to myself, "This will not be in America, nor this, nor this...." When another colleague asked me playfully, "So when will you be back?" I grumbled and said, "Two weeks." I told friends that I would land in America, see what my heart said, and probably board the next plane back. I closed e-mails home with the words, "Torn in two."

The last two weeks were especially excruciating. During this time I glumly purchased a heart-shaped balloon from some girls standing on a street corner. When my American supervisor arrived for a visit, my Indian students asked me nervously, "Has she come to take you away?" I came to know the song "Pardesi Jana Nahin": "Foreigner Don't Go". Like most Hindi film songs, I had heard it all over the place but it was some time before I realized the meaning of its chorus. Teachers and I joked that the students would be singing this song soon enough; I sang it with my students on my last day of classes; I caught a colleague humming it under her breath.

And on the very last day I would see my students, as I stood burdened by gifts in front of an audience of hundreds, a student came to the microphone to sing the song. As she did it, her voice cracked and she began to cry. I cried too. All my reasons for going away suddenly meant nothing. In leaving my students, I felt as though I was abandoning my children. I had left something of myself in India, but they had given me much more.

The students started to come to see me a few days before my last class. They offered tiny presents: a notebook bearing the words "write and remember me"; plastic key chains shaped like teddy bears and filled with colored beads; pretty, useless pens; a crystal dog-like animal (the girl insisted it was a rabbit). >From one student I received four going-away cards containing crayoned drawings and collages. They asked for autographs and addresses.

I was prepared to teach when I walked into my last geometry class. But my colleague announced, "No lesson today." Two students who had hardly uttered a word all year approached me with a homemade Thank You card. It contained poems like "Roses are red Sky is Blue Sir like you Are very few." Suddenly I realized how attached to my students I had become in a short five months.

But there could not have been less closure between us. Saying goodbye to all of them would have been impossible. I left hurriedly, and on my last cab ride home I was blinded by tears.

To the very end I was ambivalent. On the night of my departure I sat in my empty flat. I reckoned all that I was giving up. I read and re-read going-away cards as if looking for a signal. I especially recounted the words of one of my fellow teachers. It was written in Hindi on the back of a Thank You card:

"Badhate hue kadam le jaenge tumhen manjel ko aur Duaai saath le jana ham ve sakte nahin kuch aur"

A group of young men had helped me translate it on a street corner in Bandra. I had tried to translate it myself with the help of a dictionary and my sketchy knowledge of Hindi, but apparently its vocabulary was Urdu.

"Your footsteps will lead you to your destination I cannot be with you, but I am with you in spirit."

- The End -