Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Point Two Three Seven Billion Stories

When you live in a country of 1.237 billion people (2012 census) you wonder where they all are. You imagine that every square mile of the country must be covered by one endless city, like Coruscant in the second Star Wars trilogy, an endless sea of buildings and towering spires, and that every square inch must be covered by humanity.

I travelled outside of Chennai for the first time earlier this week. I flew to Bangalore, a short forty minute flight over the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. It was the first time I had flown over India in the daylight. As we climbed above Chennai, the city gradually gave way to grassy lots overgrown with weeds and, eventually, to fields.

The land between Chennai and Bangalore was wide and green. Between rolling hills, it had the same geometrical divisions one might see flying over the American Midwest, agricultural fields. There were few roads, a few villages. I wondered where all the people were.

Of course, India is nothing like Coruscant or the neon city in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.  The fact that the country can hold 1.237 billion people and still have forests, fields, and villages is a testament to the country’s vastness.

Before I left for Bangalore, I took the boys to lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. No, you did not misread. Yes, we have CPK in Chennai!!

My work was hosting a lunch for the newcomers to India. Elise and I had already purchased tickets to go to a Christmas gala hosted by Sam’s school at the Westin (read below). At $65 a pop, the tickets did not come cheap…especially by Indian standards. We were committed, but we couldn’t not go to our own welcome lunch either, so Elise stayed home to make sure Clem had a nap, and the boys and I went to the Lego Store and lunch.

As we were driving down Velacherry Main Road, on our way to the Phoenix Mall, we passed pineapples piled high on wooden carts and spiral-horned cows munching garbage. The side streets were narrow. Hardly streets at all, they were more like alleys. We drove fast, but I tried to look down each alley way. Lines of drying linens criss-crossed the lanes. Maim dogs limped through puddles of stagnant rainwater. Each alley was like a small community onto itself and each alley was filled with hundreds of narratives.

This sense that I was surrounded by millions of tales was exacerbated in Bangalore, a city roughly the same size as Chennai only much more spread out. Bangalore had Kingfisher and nice weather, but I missed my home in Chennai. Where Chennai is a sleepy village, Bangalore is a city. The streets are wider, like highways. The skies are more open. The buildings taller. There are fewer trees. The side streets, therefore, are not alleys, nor are they narrow, and they do not hold communities or towns, but entire cities. Hence, the lives of the people in these cities, their stories, fill the ether. You can almost feel them swirling about you in much the same way you can almost feel cell phone calls, emails, and text messages zipping by your head invisibly through the air.

You may think that being one person among such masses might offer some sense of smallness, some sense of anonymity. I know I felt that way in New York City, but in India quite the opposite is true. I stand out. 
Myself, Elise, and the kids are stared and gawked at. They are particularly enamored with Clementine whom they call "Nene" and Peter whom they regard as though he were a reincarnated Hindu idol. Being American makes you somehow super-human. Above others. I asked our driver to stop so I could buy tea from a roadside stand. He wouldn’t. He said that tea wasn’t for me. It was for a working person. I wasn’t sure if he was saying I was too good for the tea or the tea wasn’t good enough for me. Or, possibly, he meant to say that the tea would make me sick, in which case I wanted to, at least, find out for myself.

The fact that we have a driver at all sets us apart.

A less humble man could feel like a god here. The mass of humanity doesn’t bring anonymity. It could bring a sense of invincibility. One could feel like their money could heal any malaise and with but a wave of one’s hand you could either cure all evil or rain down lightning and destruction from above. Maybe this is how the British felt. But is dangerous to feel this way. Fortunately, I am a humble man.

Nevertheless, you can't go a day without seeing tens of thousands of new faces...the faces on the young girls in khaki police uniforms sitting on corners under sheets of corrugated aluminum siding in wooden police outposts...the faces of the old women sweeping the streets with brooms made from palm fronds...the wrinkled faces out the car window of the distinguished old men riding scooters beside you...and you can't go a day without wondering where all these people are going and what all these people are doing, and yet knowing on some level that they are all as eager as you are to get home and see loved ones, and in these millions of disparate, parallel narratives passing by one another more commonalities may exist than one might initially suspect.

In Bangalore, I saw houses made of cardboard, with roofs made from plastic tarpaulins layered atop one another and held in place with bungie cords. I saw naked babies bathing in dirty puddles. I saw yellow chicks following their hen mother across the street. There is poverty everywhere. The growth of the Indian middle-class is not myth, but the Indian definition of middle-class is very different than the American--or even Brazilian--definition of middle-class. It would be easy to let the poverty, filth, and stench of India overwhelm you. If it not for the wealth of peace and happiness, the abundance of clear, pearl white smiled on dark-skinned Tamil children in the streets (the same ones Elise is photographing), the smell of tandoori grilling or samosas frying in a large vat of popping oil. Even the wild dogs in India are mild-mannered.

And I am sure they have stories to tell, too, thus upping the count.  

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