Stained-Glass Butterflies and Men with Guns

Violence. Authority. I imagine that the police in India are aiming for the latter, but I can’t help but see the former. Here’s one of the little comparisons that I’ve been so happily avoiding for the most part. I came here to experience India and to seek out pockets, moments of civilization. Comparing the US and India is not what I’m after. Finding the best in each place I go is the point. But this one thing brought back to me my foreign-ness here and the fact that I do not, cannot know exactly what to expect.

Walking out of the airport, I had my first experience with Indian guns. The police at the exit were carrying shouldered rifles. Real, deadly rifles, with which they could shoot and kill someone, even if fleeing. I was taken aback, but also exhausted, and it seemed to me a bit foggy. I didn’t even have the energy to imagine a cause for these rifles – reports of suspected terrorists arriving, protests outside, a violent passenger who was being removed from the airport. I just passed them by with a “whoa.”

Awaiting the train today, James and I spent hours in the Mumbai Central train station. For the most part, I was happy and contented. I had a veritable pageant being performed around me.

There were very poor women sitting in a group with one man (prostitutes and a pimp? Another thing I can’t recognize here). They were eating bread and butter, but somehow the man had cadged extra butter. They made little balls of the butter, popped them in their mouths, and appeared to luxuriate in the richness as it warmed on their tongues. The bread was dispatched much more quickly. The women rarely looked at me, but if I smiled, they smiled back before ducking their heads. One pretty young-old woman joined them, showing the short, torn edge of her insufficient sari wrap and exposing her tatty petticoat when she sat. She was the liveliest of them, bantering with the man and poking at the other women until they laughed along with her. Her hair was in a tidy braid that ran down to her waist, and the end flicked from side to side as she looked from friend to friend. Though she settled down after a bit, she rocked for a while, back and forth from hip to hip, rolling her bottom on the cool concrete. I wondered, drugs or just high spirits?

In an absolutely discrete group sitting four inches away, a family waited patiently. The mother propped her shoulders on the seatbacks behind her, legs folded under her sari, only a hint of sag to her straight shoulders. She sat on a large blanket, her family’s bags beside her, her children in front of her, and her husband next to the children. Her smile for the baby standing a step in front of her, perhaps two years old, charmed me. I looked at the baby, wondering at the emotions behind that loving, wry, indulgent smile, and saw a little person with pinpoint concentration. Not confused, not intimidated. This child looked at one thing at a time and it seemed to me that he saw that thing. Not some other thing, not a thing like it, but exactly that one thing the way it existed in exactly that one moment. I smiled too, loving the present, loving the feeling of sharing an experience with a baby. Because that is what India has been like for me as well. I am seeing everything for the first time, and so I feel that I really see it. More than at any other time in the parts of my life that I remember, I was being present, seeing people and things the way they are. I had feared what I call screen syndrome. I experienced it at the Grand Canyon, where I couldn’t quite understand that I was seeing something real and present, rather than on TV. Heading to India, screen syndrome had seemed possible. After all, most of my ideas about India had been formed through photos, Bollywood movies, and documentaries. But that baby and I were having the same experience, of seeing the real, not the expected. When he looked at me, we stared into each other’s eyes. After a salt-water taffy moment, I felt my face change shape. I smiled, completely unselfconsciously. The baby smiled too.
Self-consciousness came back to me, though. I glanced up from the child and met eyes with the mother. She smiled at me, laughed, and when the baby looked at her, she pointed back at me and modeled a wave for the baby. He waved at her and she laughed again, pointing at me and waving. He turned back to me, and suddenly we were all playing a game. We waved, made funny faces, laughed, and finally allowed our attention to fade as the child’s brother started to play. The baby joined his brother. The mother and I continued to share smiles until they left, when she once again modeled a wave at me for her children. They both waved at me, the older unsure why I rated a wave, the younger unsure why wiggling his arm was necessary at that moment. They disappeared, with their bags and blanket and love.

But this post was going to be about violence, wasn’t it? Did I start by talking about guns? I did, and because there was one experience that wrenched me back into a separated, analytical, observer mode. It was a moment, very short, but it reverberated in me for quite some time. A group of police walked between James and me and the others sitting in the station. This group was very brisk, very businesslike. They knew exactly where they were going, and they weren’t getting ready to wait. That alone set them apart from the others wandering the station. The second thing, the big thing, that set them apart were the Kalashnikov machine guns, butt in hand, muzzle on shoulder. I dissociated right there, right in the middle of one of my most deeply immersed days ever. Part of me tensed, ready for trouble. Part of me sought a cause for the machine guns. And the realization slowly spread that this was not special. That there was no cause, no trouble. Only men with guns.

Only men with guns. Violence? Authority? These men didn’t give the impression that they were going to the back of the station to shoot someone. They didn’t give the impression that they were about to grab someone and drag them away. But their guns did. Their guns spoke to me of danger, of abuse, of pain and fear. Their guns said to me, I can kill you.
I imagine that the people inside those uniforms hope, more often than not, that they will not have to shoot anyone. I imagine that the people inside those uniforms hope that the uniform itself, coupled with a gun that can kill your entire family if you make trouble, will keep you in line. I imagine they are hoping for an authority that they can don with the rest of the accoutrements of their positions. And in a way, I imagine that they get what they are looking for. I would certainly do as they ordered. Move here? Okay! But the phrase that circles through my head in these situations of overt force is this: If I can’t get respect, I’ll settle for fear. And me, I find that absolutely, completely uncivilized.

Now, I would never suggest that this experience was Indian in nature and not something that happens in the US. I have experienced the same thing many times in the US. Those times when the authorities feel fear and decide to inspire it instead. But in a day-to-day way, on a daily basis, it feels less scary to see a pistol firmly strapped to a cop’s hip, snapped down and secure. Have I just been successfully habituated to that, or is it really less of a show of force. I’m not sure. But a shouldered machine gun inspires in me a very different feeling. Even knowing that the pistol is a Glock that can cut a person in two, the snap helps. It suggests force in abeyance, force that is not deemed necessary in that moment. The mere suggestion of a present calm calms me. But now, thinking about Glocks verses Kalashnikovs, I’m not so sure there is really a difference. Violence in potential. I don’t like it.

To move past that feeling, I left James with the bags and walked outside. There are gardens on each side of the central drive up to the station. They are fenced, for viewing only, but I walked along the fence of each one, looking for the present moment in the flowers. I found the present in a green, black, and red butterfly with the sun behind it, dipping and sipping and pollinating, looking like a mobile stained-glass window.

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