Questions of approach

Vahni Capildeo begins her first visit to India. (The first part of a longer essay; read the second and third parts here and here)


In the beginning were the dogs

The lady with curly hair was efficient and I liked her. She knew how to put me at my ease: tell me a story.

“I don’t know of anybody who’s been immunised who has died of rabies.” She prepared the jab. I wanted to close my eyes. “Such a pity, all those poor children in the streets who die of rabies! They’re just the right height, you see.” I opened my eyes. The right height? “All those stray dogs. They go for them and get them just here.” The nurse made a fast, gleaming gesture to the side of her carnation throat.

I had no expectations of being bitten by anything; but I do have the impulse to pat. Licking may be the return for patting. Rabies can be spread by saliva.

So: the course of jabs. While I was at it, I went for hep A, hep B, and typhoid jabs too. To my surprise, both arms hurt enough to affect my sleep posture for a couple of nights. There was a hot hardness in the rabies arm (the right). It felt as if I’d acquired super powers: I ought to be able to double-zap people by holding out my arms inside which the invisible war-dance of vaccines whooped away.

Whether the jabs affected me otherwise I don’t know; those were dizzy days anyhow, in terms of train travel and personal circumstances, my sendoff a fine show of cruelty in the English regional spring.


Clearing the air

You hear that someone is going to visit a place for the first time. Do you say anything to this news of the not-yet-occurred? Perhaps you encourage the soon-to-be traveller to speak about her or his expectations. Perhaps you chip in with travellers’ tales of your own.

To mention India, unlike mentioning any other destination, was to provoke reactions resembling fury, or at the least a loss of sense and normal formatting.

Never go there,” warned a cousin hardened by London’s Docklands, Wall Street, and kickboxing. She had a terrible time. Everyone was out to get something!

“You will be robbed in Delhi,” opined a well-meaning Englishman.

“Where is home for you . . . Could India be a home?” wondered a normally hard-headed Scot, who seemed anxious that I should identify myself with a physical location, even if one that I had never visited and which had developed along its own lines since my ancestors took ship or were shipped some hundred exceptionally odd years back in the era of the Empire his granitic ancestors rhotically adminstered.

This was one worse than being told that I would find myself in India: a slack phrase blurry with insolent unreality, implying that I had never left a place where I was not (in this life) born . . . or that I had been born lost and could not know it until the day “India” dawned on me . . . or that India was a storehouse for layers of selves, peeled off their owners by a spiritual kitchen knife on some astral trestle table, selves that ghosted about a subcontinent, keen to seal themselves back onto unwitting returnees.

“No dairy, no salad, only bottled water, and budget about a hundred pounds a day; you will want to buy things,” recommended an expat Indian in Trinidad, via the transatlantic telephone. This worried me, twirling on my self-assembly office chair with my duck-egg-blue mass-produced mug of teabag tea, until I recalled that her possessions included a collection of evening wear, a handmade marble table, and a library that might have taxed a rishi’s powers of memorisation; and that all these received good use.

“I was ill for two years after going to India,” an Icelandic voice uttered with solemnity.

“You will find India familiar because it is a Commonwealth country and there are similarities between Commonwealth countries,” said a poet I much respect. He mentioned the ways of queuing.

I didn’t tell anybody what I was afraid of: that India might feel familiar because more people on the street, perhaps a majority of people, might look like close relatives. I was afraid of how I would feel their emotions. At the best of times, others’ emotions leak into me. When I read novels with an Indian or Indian diaspora setting, I struggle to keep a critical distance, modelling the imaginary people on the faces closest to me in childhood, and getting upset when in my mind’s eye I saw the motherlike, the fatherlike, creased into the various passions (usually of disappointment, bewilderment, etc.) that the author had chosen to inflict. Would the famed “squalor” and “poverty” of the streets drive me quite mad on a sudden, with the fatal instantaneity of Nietzsche driven insane by the sight of a horse being whipped in the streets of Turin in 1889?

This, of course, was a naïve fear, evaporating as soon as looked at, before it could solidify into a character of racism. Family seldom resembles itself. Why should a subcontinent appear as family?


Area of light

Airlines that shall remain nameless have wakened one particular poetic recollection in me: “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle” . . . I felt that India must be very far away. When I counted the hours, India emerged as closer to Britain, in terms of flying time, than Britain is to Trinidad. So even if herded into conditions that stale and degrade body and mind alike, bodymind together, I would suffer it from habit.

The queuing for the Delhi departure from Heathrow turned out to be like nothing I had experienced before. The constipated Disney World forever-time snake was eyed keenly and split several ways by the Jet Airways officials. The less mobile, the elderly, those with children, were briskly taken to freshly opened desks, whether or not these were marked off for luxury customers. Staff quickly changed pace, arriving from elsewhere or standing in situ to serve the hoi polloi, with no resentment of their changed function. The splitting snake could have looked like the happenstance success of muddling brown chaos only to the most prejudiced eye. I tried hard not to idealise the process, yet still felt the way I had once felt in the arms of an impersonal, experienced dancer at a Rhodes House ball: flung this way and that, I ended up in all the places I wanted to be, exactly as if I had put myself there. Was this a service culture of the colonially groomed? Was this an all-day business culture of shrewd self-exploiters for whom pragmatic adaptability is key? Was this the serene smoothness of the agelessly oppressed? N/A (not applicable). I shut up the internalised voices of my unhelpful, friendly commentators. Whatever this was, wherever it came from, it worked.

Suffering was not on the menu. Nor were the formulaic instructions such as “Move the meat and eat the salad, if you are a vegetarian,” which during flying years had accustomed me to fasting at forty thousand feet. The question was, “Vegetarian or non-vegetarian?” And to entertain oneself during the rich and, for me, too-lavish vegetarian meal? This airplane was already the future. Sitting down, I had travelled in time. The world from which I had come might be perpetuating itself into the twenty-first century; but to reach from there to India required a projection forwards that exceeded the spatial.

The sense dropped into me that India was the world to come. The world in which I had been staying was a form of the past.

This sense would recur.

Now what was all that electronic equipment attached to the little screen facing the passenger? If this was the provision for economy class, what dematerialisations and holographic visits might be happening a couple of curtains away? Only the thought of my lack of funds prevented me from swiping my bank card to make telephone calls from my seat to the ground while in the air. I resisted sending SMS messages to occupants of other seats, though the passengers were intriguingly various: India may be a unity, but for sure it is a manifold one. I played a number of satisfying games, including old-fashioned hangman at three levels; read regional and international news; and refrained from trying out the language learning programme because it offered only European languages.

And with every announcement something peculiar was happening. I was recalling a stratum of Hindi, derived from — where? Films? Parents? Early comic books? . . . I could not tell. Whereas, say, East Asian languages run like birdsong to my ear, the Hindi was clicking into recognisable syllables, words even, phrases, numbers, instructions. There was an alarming courtesy to the way the language was elucidating itself, as if a character from a fantasy novel had walked up to me and taken me by the elbow and whispered to me something of which I understood perhaps fifteen to twenty per cent, but enough to know that the world was not bordered as I in my pillowed safety had imagined. I resisted this, too.

You have not dreamed me, I told the language. I am not yours. I do not, even up in the air, even with you in my ear, I do not, anywhere, belong.

But I was passing into an area of light.

It was “night” (whatever the hour), and the pressurised cabin dimmed to a scarlet-shadowed then charcoal dusk.

It became “day” (what was the hour?) when the overhead lighting twinkled periwinkle and rose then sodium orange and lilac.

The bodymind was cosseted into its new time zone. Jet lag was not to be. Time had caught up. Finding oneself was an irrelevancy.


Aerial view of Afghanistan

Over Afghanistan. Photo by Jon Ardern, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license

Stop that plane!

This is a record of illegitimate reactions.

Full day was outside. Afghanistan was on the little screen’s magic map. I looked down. The mountains were bleak, so bleak! Ridged with frost, and brown, so brown! The vividest blue unrolled itself, making plain the peaks and flatlands.

I did not expect this reaction: I wanted to stop the plane. I wanted to land. I wanted to be in that, inside the bleakness and colours. I was, somehow, for that. I had a deep longing to not continue to Delhi, to not be citied.

I felt sick with something, I did not know what.

As a child, I had used Crayola crayons to rub rust and indigo and white landscapes of bleakness into the thin paper used for art at school. I never showed anyone these pictures. Those were pre-Internet times, and besides they were the times of the limited availability of foreign books in Trinidad and Tobago’s newly national shops: I drew from dreams.

As an adult, I sought this landscape, eventually going to Iceland and finding a version of it: the volcanic and uncompromising laying-out of land like map, black and white and mostly treeless, the rivers running mineral-bright.

An illegitimate thought: is it possible for a memory to be inherited genetically? Family legend had it that my great-great-grandmother was “an Afghan woman with red hair and green eyes, a Muslim,” who was married to (ran away with?) a “Rajput.” Such a pairing could have no home, any more than Romeo and Juliet. Rajput my great-grandfather certainly was: I have his sword and lance, both sharp and with an ugly, intimate, unfussy feel to them, as if they have killed in the course of their everyday closeness to their lord. But what was she? That side of the family has paler skin, differently shaped hands, hollow eyes, and a rare blood type.

But what does any of this mean?

Nothing. Nothing. There must be purely internal, non-genetic reasons that draw us to one place and not another. How many tiny, untraceable currents disintegrate experience into the stuff of imagination: coastline to sand to glitter; the desire to recognise, the recognition of desire like sea and sky playing off each other?

I do not care for mystical moments of superimposition, I do not care for a science of memory. It must be possible that one simply loves: a place, a person, a field of research: loves enough to make some kind of dedication to it. This is what it is to be drawn.

An illegitimate love: whatever its origin, what matters is the pure surprise of its arising. To involve myself in the origins of it would be to legitimise myself via illusions. One day I may follow that pure surprise into its future. For now I would continue on to the Indian cities: Delhi and Mumbai. A conference was waiting, a conference of the new.


En attendant

The airplane glided in early without having to queue for a place. Just how big was this airport or how did it cater for the planes running ahead of time? There was an absence of stress in the pilot’s voice. My ear had grown accustomed, on transatlantic flights, to anger knotted into the tone of announcements, as if public speech were an old-fashioned white and mauve handkerchief with one corner snarled as a reminder of something: of imperfection and of the need for patience?

Another rap on the knuckle, traveller: do not make a once an always.

The numerous crew were dotted about in their yellow uniforms, nearly the same colour as the orioles hopping about in the fuchsia bougainvillea at home in Trinidad, which I used to watch in the morning. Another swift mend by the needle of time: Trinidad morning and Delhi morning silvered together into my sense of the present.

But if I felt as if I were coming home, it was because, after the efficient flight, there would be the familiar mode of waiting. One way and another I have done a lot of waiting.

A whole new level of waiting elevated to a style of living was evident in the airport ladies’ room. Some women, evidently not bathroom attendants, so sharp and colourful that to describe them would be to travesty them, were in an unoppressed fashion hanging out in their corner between the back of the door and the paper towel dispenser. One of them accosted me with a jet of soprano Hindi. The pitch and intonation were exactly what I heard in women’s voices in more rural areas of Trinidad, where a kindly intentioned phrase accompanying the gift of a glass of fresh lime juice could bell like a scolding. Only the language was different.

I stared stupidly. Were these The Beggars of Western legend? Should I Give Them Something? Never-give-them-anything-hundreds-of-them-will-materialise-out-of-nowhere-and-they-will-all-want-something. Not likely. This bathroom community was in fine order. And how to Give? I remembered my toes curling and soul cringing when, with a gesture in which lordliness was actuated merely by the possession of money, my father or grandfather used to tip white service staff in Florida or hand some silver coins to head-tied, floral-skirted, vintage beggar ladies outside parlour shops in Trinidad. I had it in me, as people do when they grow up, to replicate that gesture if necessary. But was this an occasion to Give Something? I only had notes worth hundreds of rupees.

I continued to stare, yet more stupidly, realising that one of the last words that had silenced themselves to me while memory stopped time had been “do.” Two. Two what? I apologised in English. The women who inhabited the bathroom in permanent slight impatience stared at me mistrustfully. I got the strong sense that they felt I was pretending. I apologised in the bad Hindustani I could cobble together from a hundred years’ filtering down: I speak English. I am English.

“Angrezi! Angrezi,” I said.

“Inglees? Inglees?” they questioned.

No agreement even on the English?

Rudely making a hopeless face, I quit that scene for the larger salon of waiting. Everyone stood in an orderly jumble, in lines that did not need to be quite straight. Here for the long haul, I could see: but I could also see that there were enough staff at the counters, and again the unoppressed fashion of being in situ. Brownly blended into the crowd, I began to relax and had to suppress an illiberal grin. All those times I had had to argue my way back into other countries despite my papers being in order! Who looked foreign in this room? Oh, there was a large party of Saudi men, flowing with jollity in white robes and red-checked headdresses. They were like unsubdued uncles. Was nobody going to quiz Arabs? What world was this? I shook my head to empty it of the buzzing thoughts and shadow reactions that belonged to having waited elsewhere.

And emerging into the bright air without once having been asked why I was visiting India, I saw my name on a handmade sign, spelled the correct way: VANI: the “h” of compromise transliteration dropped, and I saw a young man who looked confusingly like a student from the University of the West Indies.

This is the first installment of a longer essay about the writer’s visit to Delhi and Mumbai. Further installments will appear in the CRB in coming weeks.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Vahni Capildeo was born in Trinidad. She went to Britain in 1991, and completed a DPhil in Old Norse at Oxford in 2000. Her poetry includes No Traveller Returns (2003), Person Animal Figure (2005), and Undraining Sea (2009).