Hobson-Jobson, an Anglo-Indian Dictionary (formally titled Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive), is a dense, acrobatic tome detailing the crosspollination of colonial English and vocabulary from the subcontinent. So, with over 2,000 of these definitions at hand, it’s a marvel that when the e-mails appeared, asking “So how is India so far…?” I seemed to lack the right words.
Precariously perched on my flat’s sagging three-legged bed (held up by a brick on an overturned bowl), I stare hard at the mosquitoes as they bounce, one-by-one, off my lone fluorescent light flickering across the rusty metal closet. Outside my 6th-floor window, the purple Royal Orchid Hotel sign sleepily welcomes visitors through the haze. The frantic streets below are finally starting to quiet.
I was a new arrival to India, welcomed to Pune by the clamorous monsoon in a city of three million sweltering bodies. I had nine months to photograph women’s rugby in India. And here I was, a few weeks in, and that e-mail question lingered. Where to find the words?
Maybe I’d write: “Oh, it’s simply grand.”
As the lesser Himalaya soaring in the shadow of Everest. As the politician’s daughter’s wedding that welcomed an entourage of 20,000. Or the elephant taking a Sunday walk.
The 1.2 billion people in this country is a number as unfathomable as the girth of well-fed aunties in bedazzling sarees and white walking shoes at the joggers’ park.
Or how about the fat wallets of the Mumbaikars, and the throngs who live on $2-a-day? Or the dancing bodies in a Ganapati parade leaping below my flat? Or the giant elephant god himself, hauled in a truck bed down to the river slum? And those innumerable fireworks exploding across the horizon on Diwali, their curly trails blanketing the city.
I could answer my friends, “It’s totally perplexing.”
Like the physics-defying autorickshaws that recklessly, safely, careen through city streets. The smug corruption worn by mustachioed men in tan government uniforms, eyebrows cocked for money. The tin-roof slums barnacled along that 5-star hotel. The beefless Burger Barn.
The truck back-up alarms sing Jingle Bells year-round. Isn’t there something irreverent in buying a sack of gooey, alarmingly-orange jalebees outside the crematorium? Or scanning the dueling newspaper headlines that divulge the salacious details of Kim Kardashian’s antics alongside last evening’s bride-burning?
Exhausted on the roadside, I sit among Dorito-eating rats while a man molds pale prosthetic legs.
Barrels of drinking water marked “TOXIC: FOR INDUSTRIAL USE ONLY” and signs to please obey the traffic laws (what traffic laws?). The cross-legged woman, begging on the sidewalk next to the fruit stand, keloid-traced acid burns splayed across her cheekbone and eye socket. Pelvic thrusts of Bollywood superstars on every highway billboard, above the saddled-up camel that trots beneath.
I could tell them, “It’s hot.”
Just like the steaming sweet masala chai found by the sticky thimblefuls on every street corner. The ghee dripping from your aloo paratha, singeing your fingertips as you dunk it in watery dahi.
Hot as the night bus with its malfunctioning air conditioner you curse, spooning your friend in the tiny double-bed berth. The Goa sunburn peeling the skin from your nose and the rum-flush in your cheeks from dancing all night. Your kitchen, the one with the perfect view of the sinking sun, that’s being gassed from sputtering burners after you’ve come home from photographing the monsoon. Dry air that wafts a remarkable stench of fish flesh and piss, sizzling on the pavement in the sun. The embarrassment on your face for your funny accent.
Another answer would be, “It’s sometimes scary.”
You come to India blind and try your luck by surrendering to fate. Your fear dissolves while riding on a motorcycle behind a hot-shot Sikh teenager in a skull-and-crossbones bandana: if you crash, it’s not your fault — and in this thought, you find peace. Your body retorts at seeing a little girl carrying balloons with a gun aimed at her face by a bristly mall cop; stares and whispers, or Was that a hand I felt? in a crowded place.
Have you recognized those alien ways in which your body physically responds to feeling vulnerable? Your fear lessens when you learn to relinquish control, to understand you’re at the mercy of place. You chisel your expectations and graciously learn to see the good in the bad.
But, there is constant good. “It’s always worth it.”
Success in small victories: ordering the grease-soaked potato fritter and bun vada pav from the street vendor and having on-lookers nod their heads; giving directions to a local; buying the newspaper and fresh papaya after owning the road in your running shoes before the city stirs to life. Or finding the freshest sugarcane juice in town and being able to confidently tell people, Spicy? What’s spicy?
Watching a team of deaf children learn to play rugby – a few kids grin toothily when they decorate your hair with flowers. Finding the right blue sleeper berth (empty) on the train to Jaipur or entirely thrilling your Indian friends with your pancake-making skills.
It’s feeling, in a strange way, that you belong here. You can keep up with the game.
Learning to dance again.
This place is unapologetic. She entices you to love her but her candor may cause you to despise her. She romances a visitor with ideas of the exotic only to strike with gruesome realities. She is blatant, intentional, coy, mischievous. You must let go of all expectations and develop a patient sense of anticipation.
India awakens a new introspection: to be okay with relinquishing control. To believe what you’re seeing, even if you can’t find the right words.