India – Privilege

Our Butoh workshop teacher displayed bones, feathers, a dead bat, and rotten teeth, before she gave us instructions to imagine that insects were eating our insides. I writhed on the floor with about forty other westerners who altogether generated a pungent cocktail of odors in the wet heat of emotional catharsis. Sweat acted like an adhesive between my bare arms and the wooden floor, while it created a slick lubricant across other bodies. In the moments when I opened my eyes I was confronted with contorted faces accompanied by monster-like noises. Bodies of the people I had only met a couple of hours prior, appeared to transform into soulless skeletons moving through thick grey mist.  When the sounds weakened and only a few twitches stirred in the pile of bones on the floor, our teacher invited us to join in a circle to share our experiences.

            Afterwards a large group of us went to a café, where we laid on pillows around a low table filled with rice, vegetables, and chai tea. Fellow travelers shared stories that meandered through countless landscapes across the planet. Descriptions of earthly elements illuminated the culture and politics of the people who inhabited the various lands discussed. Like a complex piece of music the conversation started slowly with spacious trance inducing imagery that came alive through discordance, and was often followed by simmering strings vibrating with romance and heartbreak.  

A few hours of wading in the richness of connection saturated my being.  I felt heavy. I said goodbye to my new friends, hefted my body off the pillows and trudged out into the dusty, noisy street to make my way back to my guesthouse. A bright yellow silk scarf attached to a woman on the back of a motorcycle whipped in front of my eyes only a few feet away. For my own safety I needed to snap out of the dreamy alternate reality of the café. Honking taxis were the alarm clocks that jolted me into consciousness, and the distinctly unfamiliar odors wafting by were the smelling salts that kept me alert. Foreign voices created both the boundaries and passageways around and through which I could move forward, though the café conversations kept lingering, trying to pull me back. 

The road was steep, and I climbed through streets that seemed to become more narrow as the density of the pedestrians and vehicles increased. As I neared the center of the city, a voice weaved its way through the thick atmosphere, distinguishing itself from all others. “Do you remember me?” I followed the thread of words to a young Indian man. My gaze must have been blank, because he reminded me that he was Nadine’s friend.

“Yes,” I said with hesitation. Yet another distinct reality was pushing its way into the foreground of my awareness. In spite of all the distractions around me, I was still not entirely ready to leave the café conversations I’d been replaying in my mind. They were far too juicy, and were giving me sustenance for the final assent to my guesthouse.

I continued to look at the young man, although the cautionary words of a sympathetic Indian shopkeeper, spoken to me weeks earlier, rose into my consciousness: “If someone approaches you, they want something from you.” My memory of meeting this man started to surface; in my mind’s eye. I saw him with Nadine. She’d spent a lot of time in this area of Mcloud Gang near the Tibetan temples with the spinning prayer wheels – hollow red metal cylinders with gold embossed symbols on the outside and mantra scrolls on the inside that spun on rods mounted into the walls of the temples. Spinning them was said to be the equivalent of reciting the mantras. 

“Ajit,” he said, reminding me of his name.

“Yes, how are you?”

“Good, how are you?”  

I was full and tired. I wanted to be in my guesthouse, lying in the bed with the shades drawn, enjoying my reverie. I wanted to dissect the experience I had had in the workshop; to recall the felt sense of the agony of imagined rotting flesh; to bathe in the notion of how brave and interesting I was to go through that experience with other brave fair skinned people.

 Ajit asked me if I had Nadine’s Facebook address. “She left a week ago without saying goodbye,” he explained. Nadine and I had eaten lunch in a Tibetan café right before she left. After lunch, she’d pushed a bag with a yoga mat and some clothing into my hands. In a rushed voice, she’d said, “My bus leaves in half an hour. I don’t have time to drop off these donations. Can you take these to Tushita?” 

Looking at Ajit’s rejected face, I pulled out my iPhone 6 to retrieve Nadine’s information. Ajit noticed my phone and compared it to his flip phone. He asked me how much mine had cost. I translated it into rupees and immediately wished I hadn’t. He then told me he was looking for work. He was seventeen; his father had left his family a long time ago, and his mother had died two years ago. He had four younger sisters who lived in a village forty-five minutes away. The only work he’d been able to find was restaurant work. (I knew that the young men who worked in restaurants also lived in the restaurants. They slept on the same pillows that the patrons sat on during the day.)

“I need to look after my sisters. I can’t stay away all day and night.”

My traveler’s high started to sweat out of my white skin. He was telling the story of so many brown-skinned boys, a story that made me feel impotent and ashamed. He asked if there was anything he could do for me to make a little money. I thought for a while. What might I need help with? I was traveling. I didn’t have anything except my backpack.  It was so heavy.

“I want to move out of my guesthouse. You could carry my pack up the hill for me.” He said he could do that, and entered his number into my phone. Then he looked at me with a sad expression and said, “Nobody ever calls me. They say they will, but they don’t.”

“I’ll call you,” I said with sincerity. 

The next morning I loaded up my pack with the intention of moving to a quieter more peaceful place. I really didn’t want to put my heavy pack on my back again and hike up the hill that led out of town, so I looked at Ajit’s number. He could be an hour away in his village, or half an hour away down in the city. 

It was partly impatience on my part; I just wanted to get out of that noisy place. But it was also because I didn’t know how much to pay him. How much should one pay someone to carry their thirty-five pound pack up a mountain for fifteen minutes? Should it be enough to cover the cost of a meal for him, him and his sisters, food for a week, or an iPhone? Nothing seemed like enough.A phone call to Ajit, another interaction with him, felt heavier than my pack.  I carried it myself.  I never saw Ajit again. 

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