Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Side of the Atlantic

Two months ago, we were on the way to Mumbai. I have only four days left of my anti-malarial pill. It is now as hot in the North East as it was in India. Mumbai suddenly seems so very far away. I was thinking about it last night – I can clearly visualize the rickshaw ride from the Moser-Baer office in Andheri West (where I had my internship) to the apartments in Goregaon, but I am already forgetting what the heat felt like on my skin, or how the smell of Mumbai assaults you as soon as you inhale. It is the visual memories that will last the longest, aided by photographs, but eventually those too will fade. I almost wish that I could have captured the other senses as well – made recordings of traffic during rush hour (rickshaw-walas would put New York cabbies to shame with their honking); bottled the scents of open sewer, truck exhaust, and frying samosas; brought back samples of Koyla’s palak paneer and frozen hot chocolate from Moxxa. Photos and stories do not do them justice.

So what did I bring back with me from India, if not a complete sensory experience? First, a group of people I grew very fond of, and hope to be close with for a long time. Never-mind that Madeline and Kate just graduated – we can all take road trips to stalk them. If it was mildly traumatic to be thrown in the center of India, then it only made us closer.

Most importantly with regard to my career, field experience – I could never have done in the United States what I did in India. Because the idea of writing a complete screenplay before shooting a film – indeed, before even pitching the idea to a company – is still a relatively new one, the writers are more open to additional cooks in the kitchen. One would be hard pressed to find a writer in America willing to share the creative experience with a novice, but that is exactly what I got a chance to do. This internship was invaluable because of that – I learned more in those four weeks than I might have in years at a film company.

My whole outlook on life was altered by what I saw in India. I startled myself last week when I had a markedly smaller amount of sympathy for the panhandler in Syracuse than I used to – until I realized that it was because I had seen toddlers begging for money. After you have seen a baby in a torn shirt rubbing her distended stomach, a fully clothed, grown man no longer invokes heartache. In the US, we can’t even imagine the poverty to be found in other countries. Even our poor are far richer than theirs. I now also understand Madonna and Angelina Jolie in their quest for multi-colored children. Before Mumbai, I scorned their attitude, it seeming like a grown-up version of Pokemon: “Foreign Babies, gotta catch them all”. Since being there, I understand and empathize with this practice. You can’t help everyone, not in a million years with all the money in the world, but maybe you can help that one. That’s the most you can hope for.

Finally, and perhaps less important but more fun than the others, I love telling people stories of my travel – not lectures accompanied by a slideshow, “Here is the Taj Mahal, built in…” – but the more personal, interesting, and, if I can manage it, funny anecdotes – “Did I tell you about the time I almost got squashed by an elephant?!” Ironically, it is usually the experiences that were most traumatic at the time that make the best stories later on. Maybe it is the terror and adrenaline that makes it funny in retrospect, I don’t know. I do know that spending a month in Mumbai gave me a whole new set of stories to tell – which my friends and family no doubt appreciate, having heard my “That Time I Was Lost in Moscow” story one too many times. Now I can tell them about the time our bus almost hit a water buffalo, or the time I accidentally drank tap water at Farah Khan’s house, or how amazing the Taj looks in the sunrise, or how I missed the food as soon as I was State-side again.

That is what I left India with. The marble elephant and kurtas are nice, but what I will really value – after the images of India begin to dim and I can no longer remember what my daily rickshaw rides were like - are the friends I made, the experience I gained, the change in my attitude, and the stories I can tell.