“I’m in India,” the reality sits in and not just India, but Bhopal, India. The site of the 1984 chemical disaster that lives on today. I arise from my horizontal state of lucid dreaming and into an upright posture of excitement and gratitude, with an internal thought: “What now?”
After I applied insect repellent, I decided to wander around—due to the difference in time zones, my sleep pattern is going through an alteration. As of now, I am not feeling like an ethnographer, someone who is far away from home, rather, I feel oddly at home, for now, the sights and sounds are familiar to me. I have spent time in the Caribbean and the rainforest of South America and certain things are the same world-wide, whilst others are drastically different. Then it hits me, I am in the field—this is anthropology—this is ethnography…as I type these words, I am performing the tangible task of transcribing my field notes.
As I sit on the balcony compiling notes, the sound of prayers is vibrating through the air—Bhopal is a mixture of Islam, Hindu, and Christian teachings. Along with the sound of prayer, is the hustle and bustle of cars and mopeds honking, and the voices of a language I do not comprehend. I am sitting underneath a red brick canopy of towers and verandas and to the near distance is the luscious greens of trees and vegetation. Bhopal, as I can tell from within the compound, is a mixture of religion, culture and ethnicity—a conglomerate of humanness. It is humid, though there is a cool breeze, and all I want to do is take my shirt off but Bhopal is a conservative city and I am not fully aware of all the rules and regulations—and I have watched too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad to not take every precaution, haaha.
This morning, I met Sathyu, Aja, Tasheem, and Devender. These four are my point persons and will ensure that I have access to everything that I need to perform my tasks. There is a weekly two-hour meeting on Wednesdays and I will be introduced during the meeting, today (Wednesday). It is in Hindi, so after my short introduction, I will leave and get back to transferring my notes. Devender will be my translator and tour-guide (I found out that none of the patients speak English). Tomorrow, I will meet Shahnaaz, who will be my librarian/archive point person.
The meeting was interesting, men sat on one side and the women on the other. It is held in an open circular structure with a high cone-shaped roof/ceiling made of organic material, looks like straw but I am not sure—think Native American style. As I do not speak Hindi, sitting through the entire meeting would be unproductive.
Surprisingly, I am not jet-lagged! Oh shit, I lied—it’s kicking in. Woosah.
I attempt to take a nap but instead, after twenty minutes of cardio (skipping), I feel better. Right before I left the United States, I read an article on GQ.com about the best ways to recover from jet-lag and a gym workout post-flight is the remedy. The best piece of equipment one can travel with to ensure daily exercise is a jump/skip rope—the perfect 15 – 20 minute cardio workout, get your heart flowing and freshly oxygenated blood moving.
Devendra knocks on my door to take me to the supermarket, when we get downstairs there is a motorcycle awaiting us, to my dismay! I have not been on a motorcycle since the age of fifteen with my boyhood friend Liam Mitchell and I was filled with terror and I have since dared getting back on one. Motorcycles are everywhere on the roads of Bhopal—maybe more than people, vehicles, and or cows. Yes, cows. Life is all intertwined here in Bhopal and one cannot tell where animal, human, and machine start and or begin, it’s an urban symbiotic conglomerate. I hopped on like a pro and held on for dear life—there is no manner to traffic it seems, but I have a feeling it is organized chaos. For an outsider it may seem manic and out-of-control, however, with the ease and know-how of the locals, there seems to be rules and regulations for navigating the streets of ‘old’ Bhopal—apparently ‘new’ Bhopal is different. It has been a while since I have felt like the ‘outsider’ or the ‘foreigner’ in a place—but I am soaking it all in!
I was invited to an all-male hangout out tonight before dinner with a few colleagues. Men and women are highly segregated in daily activities in Bhopal. As I mentioned, it is very conservative and consequently religious. On the walk back to the compound Dev asks “Are you religious?” I replied, “No” and I followed up with, “Are you?” He responds “No” but that “Everyone in India is religious—either Hindu, Islam, Buddhist…” and he listed a few others. Can one then say because of this religious conservatism, many of India’s problems remain?
The soiree was fun. We talked about Barack Obama, the recent earthquakes to hit Nepal and India, Darjeeling Tea, and the contrast between New York City and Bhopal. I had a taste of a few Indian snacks, Indian rum, and Indian cigarette—it was very National Geographic Explorer meets Anthony Bourdain and I loved it! It is funny, because I have not been on the back of a motorcycle since I was fifteen and in one day, miles away from home, I have done it twice within a four-hour period. The ritual of sitting on the floor together, crossed legged, in a circle, surrounded by the sounds of laughter, the touch of compassion, the kindness of sharing, and the look of caring warmed my heart—all of which happened during the Hindu-English dialogue. Language may be a barrier between human beings but the core values that we share remain the same, the soul speaks the same language and when the heart vibrates at the same pace, one thing is possible, a charming time! As an anthropologist, the ritual of socialising stimulated every part of my intellectual gamut; as a philosopher, what made all the difference was the words of one of the gentlemen at the soiree, he looks over to me and says, “Good food, good drink, good friends.”