The first thing you notice about India is the quiet.
The unexpected bursts of it, I mean – tiny little salvos of Nothing dotting the rumbling compunctions of this country’s inevitable chaos, flattening you in the most unplanned moments.
Like when you turn down a blind corner of a thumping, ragged, inner-Mumbai alley and find yourself suddenly swallowed up by the stillness of a spare courtyard, or an insulated and glittery and ever-so-slightly-shabby shoe store, or a Hindu temple crammed uncomplainingly in between a workaday cafeteria and a tottering high-rise apartment building. Incense sticks shoved into the cracks of the walls. Pigeons burbling. A hush. Everyone everywhere in these little pockets chanting and entreating in low mutters, begging you for your faith or your dollars, or both.
Like the banana vendor catching a quick few ZZZs between customers, unhurried by the bustle of a mid-day city bazaar.
Or like when the power of an entire beachside town shuts clean off a few hours after sunset and boom: Lights out. Dead silent. All the music stops and everyone sitting in the restaurants and bars and strolling along the beachside cliffs is temporarily night-blinded, and it all just pauses for one quick minute. The conversation, the dancing, the eating, the living.
Then, bam: Back in business. The CD player resets, the lights flicker and blaze to life, and everyone giggles and returns to the work or pleasure at hand. For the meanwhile, at least.
It’s a comically grim-lipped wall of silence that tends to slam down on you most earnestly in the moments when you need most desperately to connect.
Consider Southern India – and the Goan beach village where I’ve come to escape the American Winter, to write and edit on my little silver MacBook Pro, to ensconce myself in a cocoon of heady self-satisfaction all the dull January long. What could be easier?
My task is complicated by an unsavory discovery: the entire town has been locked out of its own WiFi network.
The only place where one can catch any bandwidth is at the tiny, charmless beachside Internet Café – that’s what it’s called: “Internet Café” – where the chairs are all shit-plastic and the owner is too cheap to run the air conditioning and you sate yourself on tiny, sweating cans of Thums Up cola out of a tiny, sweating fridge.
When I’d pictured myself working remotely in India, I’d imagined drinking fresh, tart lassis and chain-smoking ten-cent cigarettes down on the beach while the Indian Ocean wafted salt breezes over my slack, focused countenance and my laptop buzzed contentedly.
Five hours per day spent sweating like a pig in a people-sized aquarium was definitely not on the itinerary, and by day three at the Internet Café, I am losing my cool.
After a few tedious hours, my back is aching. I stand up from my work, and from the sticky, grippy, plastic chair. I stretch, and I begin complaining loudly about the injustice of my plight to an Indian friend, Dipu.
Dipu works at the cocohut hotel next door, and he likes to hang out in the café.
“It’s awful in here,” I whine. “And too hot! You said they were fixing the WiFi!”
Dipu loudly and unhesitatingly declares that the delay is entirely the fault of the man who owns the Internet Café.
The owner was pissed off about all the other hotels and restaurants in town offering free WiFi to customers, Dipu says. This cut into his Interneting business, so he bribed some official or other to change the WiFi access password and to not tell anyone but him what it was.
Voila! Problem solved.
The young kid working at the café’s front desk glances up from his YouTubing to amend Dipu’s interpretation of events.
“Well, your boss raise price of cocohuts to 4,000 rupee,” the kid counters back at Dipu.
The situation quickly escalates.
“Well your boss takes away WiFi and we lose customers,” Dipu shouts back, gesturing to me.
I can’t resist throwing in my two cents. Even though I hate the sound of my nasally, know-it-all American voice, I launch into a capitalistic monologue about how visitors won’t return to their village if the services aren’t reliable, and the café owner needs to diversify his offerings to stay competitive, and I would never have come here if I’d known I’d have to sit in this overheated little room for five hours every day, and angry tourists, you know, talk to other tourists and tell them things like this … And – I’m not trying to be rude – but I will most certainly be passing on the word about all of this!
Dipu nods vigorously as my diatribe winds down to grumbling, the kid behind the desk says nothing, and we’re all staring at each other angrily and nobody’s backing down, and just then the Internet cuts out, and the YouTube music stops, and I instantly lose my most recent hour of work.
Dipu smiles, points to a foldout map tacked to the wall above the soda fridge, and says, “Nice, this map of China.”
It’s like a benediction. And everybody laughs, and everybody relaxes, at least a little, at least enough that it doesn’t even matter very much that it’s actually not a map of China on that wall at all. It’s a map of India.
It doesn’t matter that Dipu can’t pick out his own country from the checkerboard grid of the Central Asian land mass, which has been partitioned and repartitioned so many times by now that maybe it’s not even worth trying to dechipher anything anymore anyway.
What really matters is happening in other, far quieter places – still, air-conditioned salons where The People with The Power reside. They were sitting in those arctic rooms 10 years ago, or 100 years ago, and likely, they’ll be sitting in them 100 years from now as well, hatching schemes as smooth and round and stinky as rotten eggs.
The New Democracy isn’t slow-boil social betterment, the dirty, overtired masses floated ever higher by a rising tide of industry. It’s not a Purple Humanitarian Kool-Aid you can make a country of 1.3 billion people drink to the sugary, insubstantive dregs and call it nation-building.
Hang the high metaphors and the Pointy-Headed Economists who rage on about White Tigers and shifting social mores. Hang the “Shining India” that newly elected Hindu Nationalist president Narendra Modi has promised to the hopeful hordes.
The New Democracy is death by a thousand cuts; the contours of the developing world pockmarked to disfigurement with half-cocked workarounds and slow-bleeding sores. It’s ending up with maybe half of what you’d hoped you’d get and tipping your cap and calling that good fucking enough. Or at least a step closer to it, and that’s something, isn’t it?
The New Democracy is two young, skinny Indian guys in a shabby Internet Café at the edge of the Arabian Sea tracing the chain of wicked custody backward, arguing spiritedly over whose boss has turned out to be the bigger con, and discovering that the whole thing is a loop anyway.
It’s an entitled Westerner stepping down from her gilded perch and climbing into the beautiful muck with the rest of the poor SOBs who call this planet home, down where the swimming is slow and the commands of the Universe to PLEASE BE QUIET FOR JUST ONE SECOND are harder to dismiss. It’s her, stopping one sweaty, tropical beat to slurp a can of knockoff cola and field the unbidden silence in grudging, clumsy stride.