WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2010
"Be bold - and mighty forces will come to your aid" - - Goethe
There are many overdue things to write about and unfortunately I will not get to them all, but this somehow feels like the right place to start. I am sitting on the Air France jet with only hours remaining before we land once again in the First World. While my fellow passengers still bear some of the dust and grime of the land we just left behind, India, and the whole Asian continent with it, is receding fast. I felt a well of emotion rising as I settled into my seat and the realization set in that I would no longer be seeing the faces and places that have fuelled much of my personal journey so far. Maybe it was the knowledge that I was now back in the familiar, in the world that I had known uninterrupted for nearly four decades. After 49 days in Asia, the first "Bonsoir monsieur, bienvenue à bord!" hits you hard, especially for an ex-Montrealer. This last week had been a challenging one, especially for my colleagues, but I must admit I was surprised just how quickly our Asian sojourn wrapped up. However, indelible memories remain.
I'm standing at the edge of a highway overpass in Bandra, Mumbai, looking down at a slum that sits in the middle of a circular meeting of roads. Like many others, this ghetto is slated for demolition and its dwellers bound for apartments in eight-story buildings that will spring from the ground in their place. We are approaching magic hour and the temperature has dropped to tolerable levels. I am completely lost in the moment as my camera travels instinctively from one gripping visual to the next. A father and son sitting quietly as the little boy examines his dad's impossible shiny and large wallet with bright eyes. Nearby, a mother is seemingly instructing her two teenage daughters how to dig through the trash efficiently to unearth valuables. A raucous group of kids are playing by an open fire. It takes me a while to locate the mischievous youngster with the kite. From impossibly far away, he has managed to find a way to float his kite past the ghetto clearing and high above the overpass so that with a few deft hand movements, he is able to get his toy to whizz directly by my head. The first time it happens I assume it's a bird that's grazed my hair but soon I get a proper whack, and the kite is up and out of reach again. When I trace the line back to its owner, I see a bunch of kids jumping with joy and pointing excitedly in my direction. And on the camera travels. The sitters, the walkers, mothers motioning youngsters back into tents, the elderly staring blankly into space... for me, being able to observe and record this is the "mindfulness practice" that the 46th-level Buddhist master in Chiang Mai told us about. Bliss of the highest order.
Then, a gentle tap on the shoulder.
"Turn your camera off now" says Javed, my new friend and driver who's been helping me navigate Mumbai for the last couple of days. I turn around and immediately see the Indian Combat Police SUV that has stopped by our car four lanes over. My previous dealings with Indian authorities have been largely unpleasant and I am aware of their sweeping powers on the ground level, so I walk back to their truck with some trepidation."You have made a big mistake, my friend." says the first officer who sizes me up. Dabangg's Salman Khan was clearly modeled after this guy as all that is missing are the Ray Bans- the swagger, the carefully measured tone and words are all there. "There is no filming here. Now you will have to pay a BIG fine. AND come with us to the police station." It's a moment out of the Wild West, time standing still, rickshaws and buses whizzing by, the sunsetting over the ghetto, the dust and unbearable stink swirling around us, as the two groups face each other.
"No." I answer back, looking him straight in the eye.
He catches his breath and is clearly taken aback. "Let me see your camera!" he counters, reaching for it. But I hoist the severely beaten up Sony unit for display only while keeping it close to me body. "It's just a personal camera, taking pictures of your beautiful city. We were at Lover's Point just minutes ago."
Back and forth we go for a little while, him stressing the illegality and hence punishability of my actions, me playing the innocent tourist filming in a public place. He does have a case in that I noticed clearly posted signs warning against photography and videography all along the shore. One must not forget that India is the second most terrorism-targeted country in the world after Iraq, so these guys are actually patrolling around for legit reasons. But we all know that today's encounter is strictly about money, nothing more. The fat cop sitting in the passenger seat looks me up and down a few more times then grunts something unintelligible to his cohorts. Inspector Chulbulthen points at me and says "This time we will let you go, but don't film here again." I thank him politely and we're off with Javed, the cops not even bothering to follow. Before long we are drinking black tea in his parents' traditional Muslim home, his orthodox father and I sitting wordlessly, facing each other, eyes occasionally meeting, a nod of the head, and silence. Javed himself has quite a presence... quiet reserve but an intensity that clears paths in the ghetto and throughout the city... a man with a colorful past according to Gaurav, having driven cab in Bombay for seven years and dwelling in the slums for nearly two decades with his wife and three kids.
When we came to India on the first ATWFF, our papers were lacking, as was the goodwill on the part of the authorities - we were promptly deported, and I remember our anger and frustration on that New Year'sDay in 2008. In the years since, I have spoken to certain friends who had had disheartening experiences here... so clearly it would be a love or hate thing. Perhaps I was coming in with a lot of trepidation, but I am so very happy that I found only good.
India has served up many memorable human connections, that is what I take away with me. The store owner across from the school in Panjim who lent me his bottle opener overnight; the extremely poor laundry man who nonetheless took great pride in his work, carefully pressing my t-shirts and in lieu of cardboard, inserting pages from the Times of India to keep them stiff; the chai vendors on the Mandovi Express who promptly sat down to drink with me once they rang up their first sale to me and would accept no more money thereafter... none of these gestures were solicited, they were given freely and, given the lot in life of the giver, made me feel all the more human to be able to receive it. Each country on this journey has delivered a version ofthis experience, but I've put India under the magnifying glass, perhaps due to my first bad experience here.
There is also something that I call the billion-plus effect, whereby each and every character and situation I experience, I imagine played out a hundred other ways - be it the beggar, the vendor, the guard, unique as they are, I imagine another hundred similar scenarios played out across this populous country - it's difficult to put into words but it makes you feel as just a small speck in a grand scheme, that your story is just one of a billion others, thus you should stay humble indeed.
Still, from what I can see, attitudes towards India are highly personal and subjective and as much as I would like, I cannot expect my traveling companions to share my enthusiasm. It has been nearly 50 days in Asia and I can understand the desire to move on to more familiar surroundings. I know without a doubt that India remains an unfinished chapter in my life, though. Greatly looking forward to returning.
I started with the Goethe quote, which I come to face with each time I put on my trusted Tilley travel vest (it's inscribed on the hang tag,and while it may be a cool marketing catch phrase, I have found it quite fitting for the ATWFF experience). One more foot note on the vest - I smile each time I put it on since my lady never misses a chance to poke fun at it, my "uniform" that unmistakeably puts me in "crew class" no matter the exotic environment or situation. The vest allows me to carry an unimaginable number of both vital and futile electronic and other trinkets, so I really cannot do without it on any transnational trek, but in truth, I am happy to wear it as I cross the globe, doing this truly blessed job that I've been given. Long may the vest's secret pockets hold.