June 10, 2009
We flew into the night, right through the sunrise, up into the clouds and over them until the floor was white and the ceiling extended forever, across the world in all directions, blue. India would be just over the Atlantic, on the exact opposite side of the world. It didn’t matter if we flew over the Pacific or the Atlantic. We could have gone in either direction, into the sunrise or into the sunset. Either side was the same distance. It all led to the same place.
On the plane, I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and thought about the past and how the future always leads to thinking about the past. Before leaving my bedroom, I grabbed the book Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut because its small size packed nicely. I didn’t even know what it was about, and then I read the back and thought it would be a funny contrast to read about World War 2 and Dresden while traveling to India on a business trip. But really, the book is about the past, and how the past relates to our present and future. The narrator writes, “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much of it was mine to keep.”
How much of India would be mine to keep? Now, four weeks later, so much of it is sliding away, now that my car and my bed and the beach are my culture again. I awake each morning and get clean. I drink the water from the faucet. But before, on that plane, all I could think about was what was to come, instead of what had already happened. As the clouds moved below us and the darkness swallowed our small plane, with its bright little windows all in a row, I read Vonnegut’s description of a war veteran who has sustained incredible loss and heartbreak, a man who he says has “come unstuck in time.”
When I was a little girl, I used to lie on my grandma’s living room floor and imagine what it would be like if we flipped the house upside down, and everyone had to walk on the ceiling as if it were the floor. The chandeliers were centerpieces, the arches doorways or little gates, and the exposed wood grid was a practical format for furniture arrangement. What would have happened if gravity had unstuck itself, and the house had actually turned upside down, and things had turned opposite, like the way the water spins down the drain on the other side of the world?
Now that several weeks have passed since my return, I have struggled to put into words my experiences in India because they transcend so much of what I formerly understood. It is a relief to find people who have been there, who know how drastically different the culture and the mindset and the relationships are, and yet how they are very the same. It is a place of paradoxes and opposites to us Americans, a place that is terrifying in both its ugliness and its beauty. I saw life, and I saw death. I touched it. I laid my hands on it and prayed for it. I say it, life and death as singular, because in India, life and death often seemed so intertwined that they were the same. The only way I know to describe the experience is to say that we came unstuck in time.
Vonnegut’s narrator launches into a story within his own story, about a war veteran named Billy Pilgrim who goes on a radio program to talk about his experiences. Billy Pilgrim believes that he had been kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1967, from the planet Tralfamadore. He was taken there and displayed naked in a zoo, and there he mated with a former movie star from Earth named Montana Wildhack. Billy Pilgrim says that the most important thing he learned on Tralfamadore is that when a person dies, he only “appears to die.” On the radio program, he says, “[A man] is still very much alive in the past, so it is silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadores can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. When a Tralfamadore sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadores say about dead people, which is, ‘So it goes.’”
I had heard so many stories before going to India, so many instructions on what to expect, what not to expect, and to expect the unexpected. My friend and co-worker LR told me that once you get to India, you realize that all your senses have been on mute, and suddenly they switch to full-volume. This is true. She also told me that you cannot go to the places she has been and return the same. “You can’t see this and do nothing,” she said. This is also true.
We spent most of our days seeing the India that tourists do not see. Now that I have returned, and strangers hear about my job, they often say one of two things: “I’ve always wanted to go to India,” or, “You must feel so good about your job.” I believe that most people want the Vanity Fair version of India, full of dancing girls and Taj Mahals and elephant rides. I also do not feel good about my job. I love my job. I am incredibly thankful for it and terribly humbled by it. But I do not feel good about it because human trafficking and slavery are overwhelming and dark and prevalent, and it’s so damn hard to know that these things exist, to have seen the faces of women who are manipulated and incarcerated and robbed of freedom, hope, and dignity. It doesn’t matter whether or not I feel good about my job. Our organization is so tiny in comparison to the problem. In one place we stayed, there were an estimated 10,000 prostitutes in one square kilometer. We’re helping about 68 in all of India.
Still, seeing the difference in those 68 compared to the women we saw who are still working the line was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It is as if I knew their faces before I got there, before those moments that I actually saw them — those present moments that instantly became past. And now that I’m home, it feels like their faces are still out there ahead of me, somewhere in the future waiting for when time will again unhinge itself, a big open door, or another horizon waiting to swallow up a different plane.
photo by friend AA