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August 15, 2008 / calebdresser

Echoes of the hammer

I boarded the night train in Banares, the ancient city of Shiva on the banks of the holy river Ganga. Orange-clad pilgrims crowded the platform as I ambled to my second-class car, plastic flowers and carved cobra heads decorating staffs from which dangled their little clay pots filled with the sacred bacteria-laced water. I tossed my backpack up into my berth and soon fell into conversation with the people in my compartment. My new companions were a pair of Italian girls and a middle-aged Indian couple. I was surprised to discover that I felt I had more language and culture in common with the Indians than the Europeans – reverse culture shock when I get back to the states is going to be really interesting. As always, though, talking with westerners near my age was a rare luxury to be treasured.  By and by the Italians grew weary of trying to understand the American- and Indian-accented English, and returned to their berths to read, leaving me talk with the friendly couple. I learned that their son had been working in the Silicon Valley since 2001 and that, like many of the highly educated Indians I’ve met, they had traveled a bit in Asia and America. We had a jovial conversation about rice science and Indian-American cultural differences, but eventually I too returned to my berth to read a business article about subcontinental startup businesses in emu farming, IT, and edible cutlery.

 

As it neared supper-time, I got out the little packet of wafer-cookies that had been the only hygienic food available in the station when we left and proceeded to eat my way through half the tube, figuring I’d save the other half to fill my belly just before I slept. The wife in lower berth across the compartment quickly noticed and, frowning, started speaking quickly with her husband. In this highly foodie culture, eating a meager or low-quality meal seems to be considered a fate that is almost as bad as being alone without someone to talk to every minute of the day, so I was only mildly surprised though still quite touched when they insisted that I scramble down to share supper with them. Their food was indeed much better, roti and ladyfinger and mixed vegetables and mango pickle topped off with gram-flour sweets that the husband produced from the furthest recesses of his traveling bag. After dinner we continued our conversation where it had ended two hours earlier. The husband excused himself to wash his hands at the far end of the car, and our talk turned to family. I observed that their son must be very culturally aware and speak several languages, having lived in both America and India. She smiled at the compliment and said yes, he certainly was – and he had also lived for six years in Libya and knew some of the language there as well. Startled, thinking perhaps I had heard wrong, I leaned in and asked incredulously “Gadhafi?” She chucked and said yes, they had lived there from the time their son was four to the time he was ten; her husband had been working as a doctor, and she had found time to teach when she wasn’t trying to raise her children. Of course I had to ask the inevitable “What was it like living there?” She twinkled her eyes and said in a friendly voice that mostly it was quite pleasant although a bit hot during the day, though the night in 1986 when they were bombed by the Americans was one of the worst of her life. My stomach turned over. Their house had been next to the airfield we targeted and they had spent a terrifying night huddled in the dark with their two small children thinking they would never see India again. Her husband returned from the wash-room at this point and said with a slightly tense half-smile that yes, that night he thought he was going to die, and prayed that he and his wife and children would all go at the same time.

 

What do you say to that? What can you say to that? I had just shared their food and exchanged stories about family and laughed at their little jokes. They clearly bore me no ill-will as an American, and yet despite their friendliness and the fact that I hadn’t even been alive at that time, I found myself feeling tremendously guilty, apologizing for our heavy-handed foreign policies past and present, trying to explain that a lot of us didn’t think bombing and military deployments were always the right answer to our problems in the international arena. They listened appreciatively, though they also did their best to make me at ease. I slept restlessly in the swaying upper bunk, trying to breathe deep and stretch out  the knot in my stomach while listening to the occasional snores of a kind, humanitarian man who could easily have died at American hands. I arrived the next morning in Delhi tired and distracted.

 

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Its incredible what a difference being an American makes in your expectations about places you’ve never been. In the last three months I’ve met a lot of people – none of them American – who have gone places I thought you simply couldn’t or shouldn’t go as a civilian: Burma, Srinagar, Afghanistan, Iraq, Tajikistan, and now Libya. None of them have acted as though they thought they were being particularly brave or taking risks, either – I’ve hear people say things like“…and then in 2007 I spent six weeks in northwestern Pakistan…” in the same tone of voice an American might use when mentioning a trip to the Bahamas.

 

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Looking through past blog posts, I’m realizing that a fairly substantial proportion deal with serious and sometimes violent subjects. While this is partly a function of my interests and personality, I do have to say it can be really hard to focus on anything else when, for example, someone is telling you about living through an American bombing raid. These things have an immediacy here that is totally different from the detached feeling one can get when hearing about the rest of the world from within the confines of the United States. In addition, when sitting down to write, I usually feel more strongly about whatever political or social observations I have than I do about the fun I had visiting a local temple or hanging out with Indian college students, so what filters though is perhaps a skewed impression of my life here. I’m having a generally good time, though it is needless to say a very different lifestyle from the one I lead back home. I definitely upped the ante a bit when I came to a place with no native speakers of English. This is orders of magnitude beyond a study abroad program in a capital city, though certainly not on the level of total immersion and isolation one hears about in some Peace Corps postings. If my writing tends to have a serious tone it is because there are some very serious things going on around me. To ignore them would be delusional, though I am careful to make sure there is also some hilarity and fun in my life. At times I can’t wait to return to the frivolities of life in America – and yet I often wonder how I’ll feel about such things when I do finally see them. Somehow I doubt it will be the same, but so far a flexible and highly ironic sense of humor seems to get me though stuff here just fine.

 

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. BenGolas / Aug 15 2008 6:00 pm

    Wow…. Nice beard!

  2. Margaret McC / Aug 15 2008 7:59 pm

    Ben is right, and
    Winslow and I both said, Wow, you look like cousin Sam T. So good to see you looking so well, too.

  3. Margaret McCandless / Aug 16 2008 1:37 pm

    Okay, the serious part of your writing here, we all know, is far more important than how we feel about the photograph. I sure am sorry that I haven’t been able to make the United States what it should have been by the time you were born. I sure am grateful that you boys are heartfelt people. Roti and vegetables, mango pickle and sweets, and my nation’s terrible bombs next to the house of these kind people. It is awfully hard to bear, and very important that you write it. Thank you.

  4. Leigh / Aug 24 2008 10:43 pm

    kale, i love your writings….

    as hard, and impossible, as they are to identify with, I can only hope that they bring some clarity and restoration (?) to writer and reader.

    talk soon.

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