3 Feb

I’m currently reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss, a book about the author’s search for the world’s happiest places.  About India, he writes,  “I hate it.  I love it.  Not alternatively, but simultaneously.  For if there is anything this seductive, exasperating country teaches us it is this: It’s possible to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time and, crucially, to do so without your head exploding.  Indians do it all the time.”  Now, I often feel as though my head could explode at any moment, and I’m not sure if I’ve managed to love it at the same time I’m cursing it.

Mumbai is a city of extremes.  Take wealth and poverty, for example.   The rooftop bar at the Four Seasons, one of the city’s best, overlooks a slum.  In this city of extremes, I have discovered my personal extremes.  I have been the best and worst version of myself.  And, as much as I hate to admit it, I am my worst version more than I would like to be.

In his book, Weiner talks about “going native,” when someone moves to a foreign country and completely immerses herself in the local culture, lets all of her “old ways” die, and adopts the new place as her own.

I have not gone native in India.  In fact, I resist things more than I should, and although I try to stay calm and collected, sometimes I snap.  If I had gone native, sitting two hours in traffic to go six miles wouldn’t irritate me; it wouldn’t bother me when people show up 30 minutes late for an appointment; I would barely notice the constant honking.  Seriously, why honk when traffic is at a stand-still?

And, if I had really gone native, I probably wouldn’t hate traveling on India’s trains.  Most of my friends who work here love the train.  It’s the quickest way to get where you need to go.  True, it is.  But, I don’t know, there’s something about being shoved onto an already-packed train by a group of 20 women then standing with someone’s un-deodorized armpit in my face for an hour that isn’t appealing.

Last Wednesday was Republic Day, a national holiday in India, and since my working friends had the day off, we planned to spend the afternoon in south Bombay.  I went to the train station, bought my ticket, and waited at the front of the track to board the First Class Ladies’ Car.

When I was in India back in 2007, we took an overnight train from Chennai to a village for our homestay.  The program coordinator told us that we would be in a First Class Sleeper Train.  I pictured a hotel room on wheels, basically.  A plush bed in a dark, cozy little nook closed off from the rest of the train.  “And, waiters will come by so you can order food,” the coordinator said.  I imagined room service.

I soon learned that First Class, by Indian standards, is not much different from Third Class.  You get the same bed (a bench that folds out into a bed) and the same coarse blanket, but in First Class there’s a curtain for privacy.  Trust me, it’s going to take more than a curtain to get privacy, especially when the room service I imagined turned out to be a guy walking up and down the aisle, pulling the curtains back, and yelling, “Chai!”  “Samosa!”  “Peanuts!”

And the bathroom.  Far from First Class.  A sign near the bathroom entrance says, “Please refrain from using the toilet while the train is stopped.”  That’s because the toilet is a hole in the floor of the train.  Better to pee while the train is moving than leave a puddle at the station.  My first time using a squat toilet was on a moving train around midnight somewhere between Chennai and the middle-of-nowhere.  I peed all over my leg, returned to my bench/bed, GermX-ed my entire leg, and changed pants.  No one was going to convince me that Indian trains “aren’t so bad.”

The only good thing I can say about overnight trains, or long-distance trains in India, is that you have an assigned seat.  Not on the local train.  Every woman for herself, and these Indian women are ruthless.  If you don’t shove your way onto the train, they’ll do it for you, or leave you behind trying.

Last Wednesday, when the train pulled in, I moved to the front of the platform so that I could be one of the first on.  Before allowing the dozens of people off the train before trying to get on, about 20 women, who had formed a group around me began pushing me and each other onto the train, against the hoard of the people trying to get off.

As the train started to roll, someone grabbed my neck and pulled me back toward the center of the car.  Before I could get my balance, check to make sure I still had my belongings, or regain sanity, I felt a woman grabbing at my shirt, pulling it from the shoulder.  I was still being pushed further back into the train as the woman started pounding on my arm with her fist.  I looked to the side.  With her free hand, she was doing the class beggars’ sign language, stretching her hand out toward me then motioning to her mouth.  I lost it.

“Stop touching me!”  I yelled, as I grabbed her arm and flung it off of me.  She pushed her way into the crowd.  There’s no way she even has a first class ticket, I thought.  And, then I felt awful.  I hated myself for thinking that and for taking my frustration out on that woman.  And, I really hated India at that moment.  And, no, I didn’t love it simultaneously.   I really just hated it.  I hated that something seemingly simple as getting on a train wasn’t simple.  I hated that most things that should be simple aren’t.  And, I really hated the person I was in that moment.

I’m sure that woman was used to people treating her worse than I did–I’ve seen how some people treat beggars–but that was no excuse.  I wanted to apologize, to make it up to her.    I looked around, but she had already been swallowed by the crowd.


3 Responses to “Extreme”

  1. Jackie February 3, 2011 at 12:46 am #

    Wow, girl! Def your best post yet! True emotion! I am totally NOT excited to be stuck on an Indian train in about a month… but at least we will have each other! Be sure to cut yourself some slack: after all, as you said, you truly are in an extreme place and you are learning about yourself every day through very frustrating circumstances–it’s ok to feel all of this emotion. I hope that you have an AMAZINGLY good day for every bad day you have. I love you!

  2. Eeva February 3, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    Great post, made me really think. I guess we all hate ourselves here, because India forces us to be snappy fighters every now and then. Luckily there are enough good moments! See you soon!

  3. Mom February 4, 2011 at 9:14 am #


    I smiled when I read how you lost your cool and shouted at the beggar on the train because I know you and how awful you must have felt afterwards. I laughed when I read where you peed all over your legs on the train on your first trip to India because I know what a “germ freak” you are. And when you had to sit in traffic for hours to go a few miles, I could almost see your face scowling because I know your level of patience!

    Yet for all of her shortcomings, whatever India’s allure is to you, it must be captivating because you keep returning. I believe when you sit down one day and write your own “Geography of Bliss” you will look back and admit that there was a beauty about India and her people that surpassed all the negativity you witnessed!

    Love you and miss you!

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