Many people come to India for some kind of spiritual awakening, associating India with all things mystical and religious in nature. Amartya Sen wrote a genius book addressing this association (among other things) and the general side-lining of the strong rationalist, intellectual history of India. But never mind that today. Today I have less than one week left in this village where I've been whiling away the last four months and also my dear friend Karo has just arrived back in Germany, and we've both had cause to reflect on how India changed us (said with syrupy, hippie-like emphasis).
Let me count the ways.
- I got my ears pieced, and now I'm obsessed with earrings. I already have something like a dozen pairs and it's pretty much the biggest decision of my day. This is a radical change, because previously I never considered I might pierce my ears and I certainly never dreamed I'd think plastic, bulbous coral-coloured earrings are awesome. Now I do. But also all the other earrings ever.
- In a similar vein, I have started painting my nails for the first time. I never used to do this. I thought nail polish was one of things that just wasn't my "stil" (German word meaning something between 'style', 'taste', 'way of life' and 'character'). Now my nails are almost always painted, and always in some very bright colour.
- Colour. Most of my wardrobe in New Zealand is muted colours and, lets be honest, black. Now it is hot pink, green, bright blue, plaid, everything.
- Fabric. I care about fabric. I go to my tailors house for dinner and know his whole family on a first-name basis. At the fabric shops, I fuss, I only buy pure cotton, pure silk - I'm stopping on the way to Vizag in Odissa because of how famous the region is for silk and embroidery.
- I have glasses now. So I can see far away villages and stuff.
- I say sentences like: "It's too beautiful!" (Indians use the word 'too' as meaning 'very' constantly)
- If I see a cute child, I think it's normal to stop and have an extended conversation with them. In fact, I am late everywhere (this isn't new) because I have a policing of stopping to talk to every child who tries to talk to me. This policy does not apply to adult men.
- I think trashy pop music like this is seriously good. I'm not being ironic or anything cool, I actually just love it and sing along every time it comes on. I can listen to it twice in a row even.
- I started wearing rings because 1. When I didn't, Bengali women would look at my naked hands and ask why I have such a vendetta against rings, and 2. Because the rings sold in my area are so beautiful.
- Even if I am wearing: a brightly coloured kurta and choose slacks (tight Indian pants), earrings, a necklace and a ring, one of the local teenage girls will look at me askew and ask "Leila, don't you like eye-liner?" and in the same day another one will tell me, with their concerned face on: "Leila, if you put eye-liner, you would look too beautiful, really." I've internalized this rigorous idea of getting dressed, and now I feel like I won't feel ready until I look something like this:
At least for my wedding, eh? I said to a woman today "I wish I was Indian. I want a big Indian wedding" (the picture above is traditional Bengali wedding jewellery).
She said, like it was the obvious solution, "well, marry an Indian man!" and I told her that I already have an idea of who I'd like to marry, and he's unfortunately Canadian. She made sympathetic tut-tut noises.
To summarise, some might say India has made me more superficial and silly (both directions my character was doubtless already headed in), and I would agree. But it's also made me love being a woman, in this particular female body. This feels like a bizarre thing to say about such a famously bad place to be a woman, but here in West Bengal, it's made me feel like some kind of playful, treasured forest nymph. Some schools of feminist thought would argue I'm just taking joy in decorating my cage, a metaphor well-fitted to my new love of jewelry, but for me (I cannot speak for others) it has been more like a celebration of embodiment. In India, my own embodiment has felt okay to me, for the first time. I got sick, a lot, at the start and I've felt hot beyond anything I'd experienced before. My appearance is always being observed, commented on and I'm very conscious of how much skin I show. Climbing Maenam was physically my limit and the beds I've slept on are little more than a board with a sheet on it. My body is always there. And now, at the age of 28, I love it. Covering it in jewels seems like the entirely appropriate response.