Friday, April 11, 2008

Known Unknowns

I've been back in the Bay Area for over a month now.

I returned with the waning rash, ankles thick as daikon from not getting up often enough during the long plane rides I took to get home, and a cold.

But, of all things, jetlag was not an issue. My sleep habits are terribly erratic, so my body has low expectations when it comes to sleep.

As expected, many people have asked me, "So, how was India?!"

When I first returned, my response was, "Great!" "Beautiful!" "Amazing!" Basically, it was my way of not really saying anything about my experience, because I hadn't had a chance to compose the answer for people, or for myself.

When people ask, "How was your trip to Tahoe?" You can say -- it was awesome. We went sledding and the snow was amazing. Anita made awesome Indian Nachos and James made his famous chicken curry."

I found, at least for myself, that when I returned from India, the response was not going to be that easily assessed and expressed. I began to feel that one of the biggest mistakes I could make in my life would be to underestimate the transformational power of what I had experienced. Transformational not just for myself, but potentially for other people as well.

As I slowly began to digest everything that I had seen, heard, smelled, tasted, touched, and thought during the 16 days I spent across Hyderabad, Delhi, and Goa, a response of higher fidelity started to gel. This was not a forced or calculated digestion. It was the kind of thing where you're spacing out one evening after a particularly ugly day and a beautiful memory takes hold of you.

Synapses start firing and a new course is charted in the brain, like a trail of lanterns leading the way in meandering darkness, then you hear the ocean nearby, the inkling of a new thought; an original idea.

The closest I have come to a fully articulated response to my trip to India came during a conversation I had with my friend Annaji, who was the person who suggested that I create this blog in the first place.

In attempts to close this chapter of the blog, here is an account of this response, included in a letter I wrote to my friend Teja, which accompanied a book I sent him to thank him for the books he had given me during my trip.


How is life?

I went to Lake Tahoe a couple of weeks ago with some friends. While they were skiing, I sat in the lodge and read this marvelous book --
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

It moved me. It changed my outlook on life, if ever so slightly.

I thought you might enjoy it as well. Or it may potentially be completely irrelevant to you.

I am unsure of how issues of mortality and consciousness stand in your mind. Is the weight of experience of a wealthy Frenchman stricken with locked-in syndrome pondering his mortality and state of consciousness in a private hospital in relative comfort -- different from the weight of experience of impoverished people slowing dying of starvation in the countryside, as Nehru's account mentions?

I want to say that they have equal weight, because each life has the same value. However, I think there is something to be said for relativity -- that your perception of one person's tragedy is dependent on your own experience of the like. And sometimes, depending on your station, you can stretch your arms to embrace two extremes.


In my case, I can fathom Bauby's experience, though I think it could seem fanciful compared to other tragedies in the world, including those recounted by Nehru. Nontheless, I think it is a valuable, fascinating, and heart-breaking story.

Annaji asked me if I enjoyed my trip to India. I said I loved it.

He said -- what did you think? I said it was beautiful.

He knew that I was holding back something.


And then we really got down to business.

I told him that when I say that I love India, I mean it with a surging wave of adoration from the middle of my chest. I remember all of the beautiful people I met, who treated me like family, like an old friend, though I had just arrived in their country. They opened their homes and hearts to me. With greatest sincerity, they shared their food, their clothes, their culture, their stories, and their dreams with me. I love India.

And when I say this, I feel like I am laying down a pefect hand of cards, while guiltily hiding a few other cards behind my back.

Cards like poverty and casteism.

But then there is also the joker card. This card is the hope, the light -- the josh.

And one thing I noticed, and this may be a sweeping generalization, is that just about every Indian I met had this boundary-breaking card shining through his or her breast pocket.


Annaji and I went on to talk about what I saw, and likewise, what I did not see. Not what I did not see as in "I didn't get to see the Taj Mahal because I had the mutton keema."

We talked about what it means when you see astounding poverty, and if this is what you can see, can you imagine what it is that you cannot see?

When you see people, dogs, and birds -- all picking through the same huge pile of garbage on the side of a street in broad daylight -- what is it that is hidden? What kinds of things happen in darkness, in isolation?

And then Annaji referred to Donald Rumsfeld's famous "Known Unknowns" speech:



What are the Unknown Unknowns of India? What are the Unknown Unknowns of ourselves?

We closed the conversation with Annaji asking me,"Well, what are you doing to do about it?"

I told him, "I'm working on it."

I've joined the Douglass Street Laboratory, a writers' group run by Matthew Davison, trying to make sense of what happened in this blog, on the page and on the street, and the country that inspired it.

At the very least, I believe that it will help to turn a few Unknown Unknowns -- to Known Unknowns.

1 comment:

celadonbird said...

you are so right. i will copy some nawal el saadawi's writing on traveling to india for you. it's amazing. she comes close to articulating the impossible.