December 7, 2012

Looking at Each Other

My first few days in Jaipur were filled with what I called "neocolonialist guilt." At my guesthouse I was waited on by at least three servants at dinnertime, who would all gather around and stare silently at me as I ate alone at the table. Every night I would try my best to make conversation, but my limited Hindi prevented much more beyond "Oh, potatoes. Very good. Yes, very good," which is not captivating table talk. Sitting there by myself, getting my water refilled after every sip, I felt like I was resurrecting the British Raj singlehandedly, and I kept expecting a fourth servant to show up behind me wafting a punkah to keep me cool.

Gradually, the white expat anxiety gave way to plain irritation as I got smothered by the same excessive attention out and about. Stepping into a department store for a pair of paints, five sales clerks instantly enveloped me and followed my every move, so that the moment I touched a piece of clothing they would pick up five completely dissimilar items to present to me. "If you like those shorts, sir, why don’t you also consider this winter jacket?" Meanwhile, I’ve been trying desperately to form personal relationships with the owner and front desk manager of my guesthouse, checking in every day to say hello, but no matter what I say the response is invariably: "Any problems with your room? What more do you need?" And then of course, there’s the constant staring on the street, the staring at work, and the sense that I stand out like a sore thumb. The attention and the impenetrable formality have put a sort of cage over me, and I'm feeling boxed in.

Only recently have I realized that this "caged animal on display" analysis is awfully self-centered. To assume that everyone I meets alters their behavior around me or feels compelled to lavish me with attention because of my blond hair is a pretty internalized interpretation, and that sort of assumption is as much a stale remnant of colonialism as anything else. So what if it's something I've been missing about Indian culture in general all this time?

New Yorkers commonly cite their proximity to eight million other people as an excuse for what outsiders would term rudeness. "I walk by dozens of people on the sidewalk every day," they argue. "We're packed into subways like sardines. You expect me to stop and shake hands with everyone who comes my way?" Curtness is a practical survival strategy. India suffers a similar overcrowding problem--on the scale of, say, 1.2 billion people. But methinks they've opted for an altogether different tack than ignoring one another; instead, I think they've made a determined commitment to actually acknowledge each other. If putting up with millions of other people in your life is an unavoidable reality, Indians have chosen to excel at it. I compare it to infamous Indian traffic chaos: sure, jampacked streets full of motorcycles, rickshaws, and cows will inevitably create a few crashes, but they'll create infinitely more oustanding drivers.

So what does excelling at living alongside each other look like? For starters, staring can be forgiven. People are interesting, so why not look at who's in front of you instead of spending your life staring down at the pavement? But more importantly, hospitality is sacred. We're all guests at one time or another, and in India one is nearly always sharing a roof with other people, so we ought to take it as a serious duty when it's our turn to play host. As for weddings, well, drawing up a finite guest list and leaving someone out of the celebration is tantamount to social heresy, so better to open the dancefloor up to the masses. If we have no control over who we're surrounded by, why not embrace inclusion? New Yorkers have tackled overcrowding by treating others with respect as a mandate; Indians have taken a more affirming approach and have adopted "the more the merrier" as a mantra.

I think that's something I can adjust to. I'm willing to trade in some personal space in exchange for the fruits of human connection. Take the gym I've started attending, for instance. My first week I thought I could slip in, spend some quality time with a treadmill and my headphones, and slip out again. Oh, no no. Here at least five trainers prowl the floors, and upon arrival every day I'm seized, presented with a daily list of exercises, and required to complete them--and get my completion card signed off--before getting permission to leave. And let me tell you, getting caught skipping warm-up stretches is bad news. Naturally, it was a bit infurating my first few days not to step onto a cycle without getting my posture corrected. But then it hit me -- why be annoyed by free personal trainers who will actually make sure I do what I'm supposed to? I can get used to extra attention.

That being said, India has also come up with a grimmer solution to the challenge of living side by side that is, if anything, the opposite of inclusiveness. Its intricately stratified class and caste system, rooted in centuries of tradition and institutionalized by the categorically-minded British, influences every human interaction. Between every two people there is an encoded status of superior and inferior, master and servant. For those with higher status, the world is conveniently compressed, as the servant class can be more or less invisible to them. The servants, on the other hand, are obliged to constantly acknowledge their superiors. In this eternal pecking order, it's easy to imagine the roles of guest and host taking on the dynamic of master and servant.

The challenge for me, then, in forgiving the excesses of Indian hospitality, is to not let anyone become invisible. If everyone in India is going to stare at me, I'm determined to look right back at all of them. The employee who cleans my room every day and summons me to dinner--whom the guesthouse management call "the boy"--is a deaf man who I'm told applied for years to desk jobs but was denied them because there were no allowances for his condition. He must have finally gotten fed up with me over-excitedly waving and smiling at him every time we ran into each other, and this morning he gifted me with an Indian Sign Language alphabet sheet. I can't wait to finally have dinnertime conversation.