My Passage to India – 7/30/2000

In February I went with four friends to India. No, we were not President Clinton’s advance team. My partner of thirteen years, Urvashi Vaid, whom I can’t marry, and wouldn’t if I could, even though we could use some new Corning ware with matching tops, is Indian and we wanted to see from whence she came.

Since our return, I have been reduced to loopy, halting responses to the innocent query, “Soooo? Howazzit?” Perhaps the lingering effects of killer jet lag made me think I could cogently summarize my trip in this space. There already is a whole body of bad work from people sporting dressy bindis, inhaling bidis, strumming sitars, trying to convey their transformations through a haze of sandalwood incense.

So, think of the following as a mercifully short impressionistic slide show, in no particular order. Lights, please.

  1. In Bombay, a city of 16 million, [stop, review – that’s twice New York City’s population and there’s no neat freak, anal retentive, control queen for mayor, and I wouldn’t wish him on Bombay] we were stuck in one of the grimiest, noisiest, hottest traffic jams I have ever, ever endured. I had my very own claustrophobic passage to India moment, exited my body and transported myself to the sweet spring air of a walk on the jetty in Provincetown. It is not that I am some highly evolved spiritual practitioner. It was pure survival or psychotic break.
  2. When I was packing for our trip, I thought I would bring some cornball Valentines for my traveling companions, but then quickly forgot about it. Not to worry. In the past ten years, Hallmark has made its mark in India. Any variation of heartshaped schlock was up for bargaining in tiny stalls. India was an easy mark for Eros’ arrows with its long tradition of over the top, swoony romantic movie musicals, cranked out by Bollywood. The romance still centers on arranged marriage, but that proved no consolation to the Hindu Fundamentalist goondas who trashed heart festooned stalls and attacked romantic looking couples on Valentines Day. Roses are red, violets are blue, that western love thing, here is taboo.
  3. At least twice a day, whether we were in the city or the country, at little stalls or cantonment hotels, on planes or in rickshaws, I was “sirred.” With short hair, no sari and minimal bangles, I was addressed “Sir” more times than a character in Peanuts. When one of my fellow travelers wore the silver ankle bracelet we gave him, he stopped traffic in Kerala. One guide book said there are no gay men in India, just “frustrated husbands whose wives won’t give them blow jobs.” In the south, there has been a string of deaths of lesbian couples. The police report them as suicide pacts. Lesbians we met believed they were murders but had been stymied in their inquiries by the families of the women and the police.
  4. For the three weeks of our visit, Deepa Mehta was all over the news. Fundamentalists shut down her movie set in Benares where she was trying to film Water, a movie about the treatment of Indian widows. Every story had to mention her earlier blasphemy, Fire, the story of two Indian women who fall in love. [See above. Not a Bollywood sanctioned theme.] In Bombay the ratio of men to women is 65% to 35%, due to amniocentesis, starvation, neglect. One guide responded to my frown with, “Why would you want to have a girl?”
  5. Did I already show this slide? There are a lot of people in India. One billion of them. One sixth of the world’s population. 719 people per square mile. Like fingerprints and snowflakes, I never saw two matching saris. I never saw one large piece of equipment either. India was scrambling to get the place ready for the other Clinton’s visit. People were doing the most intensely physical, non-ergonomic, repetitive, carpal tunnel syndrome inducing, OSHA “Don’ts” work. And if someone fell from the hand-tied bamboo scaffolding four stories up, there were always replacements.
  6. We returned to Al Gore and George W. fighting over Jesus Christ for their personal savior and running mate; Who Wants to Marry A Multimillionaire? the ABC’s of arranged marriage; California’s passage of its Pre-emptive Prejudice Initiative on how marriage should be arranged; Oscar hoopla over the gender bending Boys Don’t Cry; the continued vilification of Hillary Clinton, not Swank; John McCain’s suicide bomber attack on Fundamentalists in South Carolina.

Lights up, please.

In India the function of religion as social enforcer, and of romance as the beautiful buttress of relentless heterosexuality with its rigid gender roles are perhaps more obvious hallmarks of patriarchy and its oppression of women than in the United States. Because of that, nothing at home looks the same. For that, thank you, India.