Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The lure of India

My family moved to India half-way through 11th grade. It was, to quote Joseph Heller, love at first sight. From the minute we arrived, I loved the food, the smells, the people, the art, the religious imagery, the chaos. To say that it is exotic and beautiful and mysterious doesn't begin to capture its draw. To this day I find myself inexorably drawn to Indian movies (including Bollywood), restaurants, and literature.

I've been mesmerized by a series on PBS right now called The Story of India. I recently reread one of my favorite books, The Great Indian Novel. I was watching TV the other day and caught part of The Namesake, the movie made from Jhumpa Lahiri's wonderful book. I've been reconnecting with old friends from India on Facebook, and busting out my old photo albums from high school. I feel like everywhere I turn, it's calling to me and dredging up old memories, including one that has become a snapshot of my quintessentially Indian experience.

My senior year, a friend of mine named Dan was invited to be an extra in a BBC miniseries that was being filmed in the city of Allahabad, an overnight train trip southeast of New Delhi. The filmmakers were looking for western-looking people to play British colonialists in some crowd scenes, and asked him to try to get some of his friends to take part. So he asked me and two other friends, Greg and Emily. In addition to the modest pay (a couple hundred rupees, maybe?), we got first class train fare and room and board in Allahabad.

The trains in India are not sleek silver bullets like the Amtraks in the United States. They're perfectly sturdy and safe, but have the feel of older trains, with the comfortable "chug-a-chug" of the engine and wheels and the gentle rocking that makes for a great night's sleep. Our berth had 4 pull-down bunks that were more than suitable.

I was awakened early the next morning, at maybe 5:30 or 6, by the slowing of the train as it pulled into a station. The sun was in the process of coming up, but it was still dusky out, with the sky purple and grey, and made hazier by the morning mist and the steam of the train as it rolled to a stop. I sat up and looked out the window. There were businessmen in suits and tradesmen wearing dhotis and women in sarees. I could smell the spices wafting off the trays of the guys selling somosas, and felt enveloped by the general headiness of the Indian air.

A chai-wallah passed by the window with a basket of clay cups full of spiced tea, flavored with sweet milk and cardamom and cinnamon. He had a monkey on his shoulder. I bought a cup of tea and savored it slowly, taking in the scene outside the window: the mist, the vendors, the crowds, the early morning light. As I finished my tea, the train started moving again. I finished my drink, and then threw the cup back out the window onto the ground, recycling it back into the earth.

I'm dying to go back to India, to show it to Jason and to see the massive changes that have occurred since I lived there 20 years ago. But part of me is afraid that I'll never recapture that magical, mystical feeling of that morning in the train station.

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoyed reading through this posting.Many thanks.

    Dredging India