I was sitting on the train from Chennai to Bangalore. The sun rose, a red bindi in the diffuse light. The train coiled itself around gentle hills. Farmland, lush green flowering trees, people, and villages all flashed in the window. The train stalled at one point. From my vantage point, I could see a boy washing clothes. He couldn’t have been more than 15. He was crouched behind a concrete building, near the side of the tracks with just a meager bucket of water and a bar of rough green soap. He would methodically lay out an article of clothing, dunk a smaller mug into his bucket, and douse the garment until it was wet enough to lather with soap. Then, he scrubbed his clothing against the rough stone floor, vigorously rubbing it back and forth with soap until it was clean. He would take water to it one more time to remove the suds and then wring out the excess water. The newly clean garment would be added to the sopping pile of clothes to be hung up on the line. I marveled at how quickly he moved, how hard he scrubbed, the fact that he was a teenage boy doing this. I thought about how much water a washing machine wastes, how efficiently he used the small bit of water spared for the task.
I imagined myself washing those clothes. Talking to that boy. What would we talk about? Did he go to school?
I feel like I’m circling around the “real” India. I’m in the right neighborhood, but I haven’t found the house. There is a notable distance between the average person on the street and me. My lack of language limits communication. I feel really frustrated by this. I feel as if I’m not in “real” India. Real India is anywhere but where I am.
I was at dinner with my cousin and several of his friends in Bangalore this weekend. They were discussing two friends of theirs who had recently stopped dating. I asked why.
Nitya, sitting to my right, said, “They’re from different communities, things are—”
Karan, to my left, cut her off. “Why are you talking to her like she’s a bloody foreigner? She’s Indian!”
I burst out laughing. It was the dilemma I’d been grappling with, perfectly manifested. I know how to cook a full South Indian meal, but I have some embarrassing gaps in knowledge. I can’t even name all the states of India (and there are far fewer than 50).
There’s one degree of separation between India and me, but I’m realizing that other Indians are grappling with this issue. Indo-Anglian authors (Indian authors who write in English) have been accused of not being as Indian as their counterparts who write in Hindi or Bengali or Tamil. And then there’s the impossible complication of the hundreds of dialects and landscapes that fit together like a puzzle to make India. Is it north or is it south? Is it sea or is it jungle? Is it blood or is it experience? The boy washing clothes near the train tracks is necessarily more Indian than me, right? Because he isn’t anything else? Because he knows how valuable water is?