This is what I yell gleefully to schoolchildren, hired drivers, storekeepers, the woman who decapitates fresh coconuts on the side of the road to quench our thirst in the incredible Indian sun, musicians, everyone. It means “hello,” and when accompanied by a genial head bobble it gets a warm smile in return, a high-five, a conversation. This is the most open and friendly corner of the world I have yet seen, the only place I’ve been where one can smile and wave at a total stranger on a neighboring motorbike in bumper-to-bumper traffic and make a permanent buddy… at least for the next four intersections we end up riding together.
It’s true I’m less often understood than not, that sometimes the waiters will forget to bring my food until it’s time for the check, that the children who swarm me in the street hoping to sell me jewelry and handbags will overcharge me and follow me determinedly for blocks and blocks, hoping to wear the walls of my wallet down to a film watery as the tears that try to crowd my vision and skip down my cheeks to greet the outstretched hands that I’d rather take into my own or fill with bottles of fresh water than push away from my mind, my space, my heart.
I do wonder, as I’m served never-ending helpings of curries, meats, desserts, lassis (with a hospitable aggression few grandmothers could surpass) is the person serving me hungry when they turn in for the night? When they lay down in their own home, is it like the gorgeous flat I’m staying in, with A/C and a clean water dispenser and a shower and a refrigerator and a balcony overlooking the ocean? Or are they cleaning themselves when they can, doing their best not to spill the remnants of my lunch on their uniform so they an make it another day without taking the precious time and water to wash their clothes? When they sleep at night, do they have their own bed, or are they sharing it with a wife, children, siblings, parents, or sleeping on the street like the crowds of people I met on my first night here? It’s impossible to know.
Everyone looks like the royalty from the Punjab folklore I loved as a kid. Even the very most destitute of women wears brilliantly colorful, sparkling saris, startling me with their Hollywood-bright teeth. After three days I can't reliably identify the differences in economic standing by just looking at a woman’s clothing, all I can do is marvel that outside of school uniforms there seem to be no two saris or salwar sets quite the same, and always in the most vibrant colors I never knew I coveted. I've covered my hair, and in a silk salwar set borrowed from my sister, locals assume I'm just visiting from another part of India!
...at least until I open my mouth.
On my first night here, the friend's I'm visiting in Chennai invited me on an excursion they call Night Owl, in which a dozen schoolteachers visit people sleeping on the city streets to distribute care packages they and their students have made, containing bottles of water, bags of rice, toilet paper, clothing and other very basic supplies. We began at midnight, when it was most likely our targets would have settled in for the night and would be easily found. The first family we found were a grandmother and two small children, tucked into each other in sleep on a quiet corner. I learned that a previous teacher of the school had become quite attached to these particular children, and would visit them to bathe them and read to them when possible. The whole school knew them, and yet could do little for them beyond these monthly nighttime ventures.
We saw groups of half a dozen people arrayed on the sidewalks, some crowding around us asking for more, some swiping the packages we set down next to sleeping bodies. A very little dark-eyed boy followed me even after he received his package, hoping for an additional gift, and blew me a kiss as the bus pulled away. A very tired, excruciatingly bony person wearing only a sarong shuffled toward me as I bent to give one of the last packages to a sleeping homeless man on a side street. I couldn't look into his eyes and refuse him. Seeing the dignity and exhaustion there, I gave him the parcel instead. My friend who invited me to the Night Owl had a second package, which we left with the sleeping man. The last few people I saw before we returned to our luxury flat were two elderly women who clasped their hands as if in prayer and wished me Namaste through sleepy eyes after I delivered their gifts, not at all upset that I had woken them with the gentle whisper "Vannakum Grandmother, I have something for you." An older man with wild hair gave us the thumbs up and woke his companion eagerly, so the other man could see that we had stopped to visit them. He wanted his friend to see us for himself, thanking us in English, waving joyfully as we, humbled and heartsore, pulled away.
Life here is different, though I can feel similarities to Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, New Orleans, New York- all places I love deeply. There's something in the way people speak to each other, the way they like to give each other a hard time, the sense of propriety and dignity within each person even as the waiter delivers the food, the musician teases the audience, as the hired driver bears into traffic suicidally, something that reminds me of my own family from another former British colony on the other side of the world.
I knew I'd be walking into an environment more unknown to me than any I'd visited before, but I never once thought I'd feel this at home.
4/4 Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India
4/5 Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India
4/6 Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India
4/7 Chennai, India
4/8 Chennai, India
4/9 Chennai, India
4/10 Chennai, India
4/11 Chennai, India
4/12 Chennai, India
4/13 Frankfurt, Germany
4/14 Maine, United States