In an angry, profane-sounding swoosh of Tamil, my aunt—an exotic, squawking bird plumaged in sweat and sari silk—is upon him. Her chaotic jumble of rolled r’s is unintelligible to my ears. Over the past two weeks, I’ve picked up the vernacular here and there: words for “tender coconut,” “grandmother,” “sweltering heat.” But somehow, I haven’t learned the words for “how much” or “too much” or “but I’m not a foreigner.”
Through the haze of heat and growing discomfort, I look at the man. He’s slight, not much taller than me, of unidentifiable age. That ubiquitous Indian mustache obscures the better part of his face, burnished to a clean terracotta in the summer inferno. His dusty dishwater-colored uniform reminds me of something you’d spot on a movie-set extra. I try to make him see me, widen my eyes so I’m a living picture of helplessness, sorrow, womanly reproach. But he only gives me a disinterested once-over before turning back to my aunt, that same impassive look on his face. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but it’s obvious none of us are getting into the temple complex for the “Indians only” rate of 10 rupees.
“We’re not American, we’re from Delhi,” my mother says in faltering English, as if it were an ocean liner on the narrow channel of her tongue. I understand the ruse; here, people use English more than Hindi to communicate across dialects, regions, and differences. The guard eyes her quizzically, gives her an “oh, really!” look, and proceeds to speak in Hindi, which she should rightfully understand—that is, if her lie actually holds. She stares back at him, wordless and defeated.
As I’ve done numerous times on this trip already, I silently admonish her for having said anything. And for not speaking in Tamil. After all, as it turns out, I’mthe boorish, English-only monoglot here, while she has proved herself echelons above me.
Over the past two weeks, my mother has virtually ignored me, reacquainting herself with relatives and code-switching from Tamil to Telugu to English with astonishing facility. On those occasions, I sat alone, watching the bruised sky darken like a patch of ink on silk, chewing pungent betel leaves and spitting them over the verandah, into a street colonized by pulsating waves of auto rickshaws, gypsies, and fruit vendors. My mp3 player wasn’t working. Cousins and distant relatives around my age, who could have served as potential diversions, were in Ooty or Goa, presumably taking cover from the onset of Chennai’s remorseless heat.
“Why didn’t you ever teach me Tamil?” I asked my mother at the end of each long day, as we lay on our beds, staring listlessly up at the ceiling fans and absorbing the din of the sleepless crowds outside our window. Only it was more of an accusation than a question.
“I don’t know it well myself,” she would reply. “It’s been 45 years since I spoke it fluently. Things come back in spurts … I don’t know.” She’d wave her hand in annoyance, an abrupt gesture that I recognized as her way of ending a potentially agonizing conversation.
In the meantime, a small crowd of beggars and locals has gathered around us, and it’s getting hotter. All the while, I’m wishing I’d worn a salwar kameez in a shade less conspicuous—perhaps muddy orange, or a poised and matronly green. I can’t help but feel as if my fuchsia-colored foreignness is the tasty bait drawing in the onlookers. It’s not ridicule I see on their faces, but I feel marked all the same. I’m ashamed of my own disgust as a naked toddler tugs on mydupatta and shakes a clump of beads entangled in his fists. A woman with shorn hair and bloodshot eyes comes up behind him, smiles at me, and I experience a flash of reassurance, comfort. “Beads,” she says slowly. “Only 200 rupees. Cheap and best. You want?” That perpetual refrain, “cheap and best,” has become an ill-favored mantra to my ears over the past weeks. My sense of connection to the stranger is quickly deflated.
I get the distinct feeling that I’m playing out a script that’s repeated itself for hundreds of years. I feel like someone from a history book. Kind of like a strong injustice has been committed, and I’m both the victim and the culprit. A cross between someone caught drinking from the wrong fountain (they used to call them “colored,” I wryly note to myself) and the kind of entitled foreigner I used to read about in postcolonial studies classes at Berkeley. My only access to the motherland: the space of commerce.
My aunt says something else, insistently. All I can make out is “Indians … Indian passports.” But it’s a losing battle. I whisper to my mother, “Why don’t we just pay the 250 rupees? That’s, like, six dollars, isn’t it?” My mother squeezes my hand and whispers back, “I know—it’s not such a big deal.” My aunt seems to sense our collusion and whips her head back to us. “You’d be wasting your money!” she yells in English. “It’s the principle of the thing.” I wonder what she means by that. I know her well enough to understand that she views my mother and me as only marginally Indian—as picture-snapping pretenders, aptly apologetic but culturally barren, all the same—so I decide that the principle she must be referring to is monetary, not identity-based. I’m slightly embarrassed—250 rupees, six dollars … it’s nothing to me and my mother, but it’s more than half the cost of the bangles that shimmer and jingle on my wrists, a gift to me from my sick grandmother. My aunt glares at us and flounces back to the ticket office, where she’d purchased three 10-rupee tickets just five minutes ago. Defenseless, we follow her.
On the path back to the office, three or four local vendors have clumped around us—a small fortress of persuasion and exorbitantly priced trinkets. I don’t bother saying “no” in English—or Tamil, for that matter—I simply mimic my mother’s irritated hand wave, as if I were swatting at mosquitoes. After a while, they disperse.
Finally, we reach the ticket office, and it’s a reiteration of the scene at the temple gate. My aunt shrills at the ticket man, another nonplused version of the first guy. He gives us that same look: unsympathetic, bored, endlessly patient. No way are we getting inside. Given my aunt’s sweaty animation, it’s almost comical. I curse under my breath and flip through photographs on my cell phone, no longer interested in maintaining the flimsy illusion of my Indianness.
It’s a long, tedious back and forth, one that includes my aunt exhorting us to present our Indian passports to the ticket man for inspection—although she well knows we don’t have Indian passports. The ticket man suggests that if we can’t pay the correct rate, we simply look on from the outside. And then it’s over. As we walk away, my aunt hisses, “I told you to shut up your mouths.”
It makes me wonder, momentarily, about the regionally specific rules and quirks of the English language. Maybe she doesn’t know that telling people to shut up would be considered rude in western countries.
Perhaps she means it in a harmless literal sense? But to add insult to injury, she turns to my mother and says, “Even if you try to speak Tamil, they can hear your accent. The best thing to do at places like these is to be quiet, say nothing.”
“But I didn’t say anything!” I protest, wincing at my defensive tone and feeling a lump rising in my throat. I want to throw the 250 rupees at her feet. She is a hundred times worse than the apathetic ticket sellers or the Indians who stand around, waiting for us to take out our wallets. She is worse, because she has probably made this trek many times before, and she knows that I haven’t.
Before our trip, I’d pointed out Mahabalipuram on a map and told my mother, “This is where I want to go.” I remembered it from the huge picture books (reeking of cardamom and that other unidentifiable redolence I’ve come to associate with India) that my grandparents would bring back from their frequent excursions. The mere idea of a seventh-century port city, complete with hidden cave temples and esoteric stone symbols just waiting to be deciphered, was a dream come true to a kid as obsessed with adventure and history as I was. It was akin to having the Egyptian pyramids in my own backyard. It gave me bragging rights that my uncultivated peers would never comprehend.
Years later, in 1999, a white American college kid tried to impress me with his knowledge of South Indian architecture—its crude, monolithic slabs so mysterious and alluring compared to the clean, instantly recognizable, white-domed edifices of the north. He told me about eating roasted chickpeas with the locals in Mahabalipuram, and even of his talent for haggling with vendors, which, he assured me, transcended barriers of language and nationality.
Today, as we walk outside, along the barbed-wire gates, I peer longingly through the chinks and imagine my fingers skimming that ancient stone: an open-air bas relief of the goddess Ganga … a dramatic tableau of Arjuna’s penance, straight from The Mahabharata … the five chariots of the Pandava brothers, each carved from a single huge slab of granite … smooth paladins protecting the land from desecration and greed. I imagine the hidden cave shrines—offering a cool, dark, silent reprieve from both people and the intolerable heat. I turn and gaze into the ocean, imagining I can see the top of one of the legendary Shore Temples, asleep in the Bay of Bengal, battered by waves and cyclones for centuries, but strong, enduring all the same. I take it all in as if I’m seeing it for the last time.
For so long, Mahabalipuram had been an invisible string hitching me to a history that wasn’t and had never really been mine. The sick conjecture I had before coming is finally confirmed: brown skin isn’t enough. I am guilty as charged. A foreigner. I am both mournful and relieved.
My aunt, slightly softened after the scrimmage, kindly requests that I hurry up with the picture-taking. Traffic will be heavy on the way back to Chennai. The tide of onlookers looms mutely behind me. Every once in a while, a tapestry or marble elephant sculpture is shoved beneath my nose. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I say, without really meaning it, as I snap photos on my digital camera through fences of barbed wire.
|Nirmala Nataraj is a critic, playwright, producer, poet, creative nonfiction writer, and erstwhile filmmaker. She has written for publications including Bitch: A Feminist Response to Popular Culture and ColorLines. She is also an active community arts organizer and a former board member/curatorial committee member of San Francisco’s Kearny Street Workshop.|