It wasn’t until I reached the hospital x-ray ward that I not so astutely came to the realization that I had been hit by a car. Along with this understanding came a wave of pain and discomfort and a nagging question: “Who does that?”
Who steps blindly in front of a car, blissfully unaware that a two-ton metallic tank is blasting through its route, a route that, consequently, now intersects you? In fact, I had not only ‘stepped’ in front of the medium sized red sedan; I had happily ‘leapt’. I had been on my weekend run, joining the hordes of health conscious, DC Type-A health nuts. My husband, Rubin and I were jogging our usual route through the zoo when we discovered the back gate was unexpectedly closed. Looking around for another entrance we spotted the pedestrian ramp across the street. Without breaking stride and without the slightest hesitation, I set myself into the street like a squirrel dodging traffic…unsuccessfully.
I recall only one sentiment as my substantial rear made substantial impact with the hood of the sedan and then preceded headfirst in to the pavement (“bumper to bumper,” my Dad later jokes): “…oops…”
Sometime later as I nursed my wounds in the overnight hospital bed (possibly one of the most expensive lodging options in the whole of DC, I mused self pityingly) did I come to feel a sense of injustice from the world, a sense of complete powerlessness. These eyes and ears and legs which I instinctively trust to lead me away from danger (i.e. moving vehicles) had failed me utterly. It was with this vague sense of being a pinball in a pinball machine that I received the news that would change everything:
I was going to India on a Fulbright.
The news came modestly in the form of a letter from the Fulbright committee. This was a letter I had long awaited and even longer pined for. After two years of extensive grant writing and a constant drumming up of support both abroad and domestic, I had finally achieved the dream. I was going to live in India.
The irony was not lost on me. I was, in fact, going from the comparably calm but brusque and efficient transport of DC (everything in its place, escalator protocol: standers to the right, walkers to the left) to the absolute mecca of extreme and exotic travel. I had all too recent memories of Indian traffic involving a roiling body of unpredictable vehicular movement in which the safest route across was simply to send a prayer towards your respective deity, close your eyes and with no sudden movements, wade into the sea of speeding metal and cows.
An interesting turn of events, I mused. A really ‘up and down’ sort of week. The original grant proposal itself was to study the effects of Westernization on Indian fine arts and crafts. But given the recent epiphany delivered by sedan, this proposal seemed now just a bit academic, a bit stuffy in its self-assuredness. And if ever there was a land that would strip you of your self-assurance, it was India.
The idea was still true, but the premise built on sand. It’s been described to me that going to India is like stepping through a looking glass, becoming Alice in Wonderland. It’s a place where contradiction reigns. Where ancient and new jostle and compete, sometimes rioting in mass. A developing country of over 1.18 billion people, space is at a premium that only the upper elite can afford. Age-old traditions fight openly with new ideas, new values and best of all new things coming from the West. And the results are backwards, confused and most supremely human (in all its glory and filth).
Blasting neon plastic Om signs three stories high compete with spiritual Vipassana retreats and the earnest pursuit of inner peace. There are an endless supply of luxury hotels with marble floors and subservient staff members who will deliver orchid garnished fruit smoothies while beaming up at you with beatific civility. These same luxury hotels feature your own private balconies where you can gaze out and see street dwellers huddling under blue tarps and mud mixed with human excrement.
Yes, India is a land of extremes. And I had set up the impossible task of studying those extremes. To plunge into those places where my Western world had mixed inextricably with India. As an artist I had no delusions of explaining anything, really. No desire to package the phenomena. My goal was to follow the winding path into the cultural labyrinth that is India and come out on the other side…changed.