Intense Conversation

So it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. My method up to this point has been to keep daily notes in my notebook (the paper kind) and then to write a blog entry using the notes and date it for the day the events actually happened. But I haven’t written anything at all in my book since coming to Varkala, and there are some things that don’t involve any specific day’s thoughts or actions, so…today is the 12th, and that’ll be the date on the blog entry.

We’ve had so many amazing conversations since moving here. One of the things I’d read more than once was that Indian people think nothing of coming up to you and starting up political, religious, and social-issue type conversations. James and I have had a few stunning examples of this, but it’s so incredibly common that I could call it typical of our Indian experience so far. The first question is where are you from, and that one comes in a myriad of formats. After that, all bets are off.

Two of the more in-depth conversations we’ve had occurred with small groups of young men. Exactly the people I feel like I have the least in common with, but these guys seem so much more idealistic, idea-oriented, passionate but non-judgemental, etc, etc than the bored kids who make me more uncomfortable than bad neighborhoods.

There were the chai boys – students of the Axis College for Economics and Commerce. I’ve mentioned them before. We talked while drinking Hasim’s chai on the corner opposite the small campus. The first day, we just got the basics – where are you from, what’s your name, do you like Bush.

Ugh. I’m really tired of that question. But I knew I was in for it when I left the US..

The second day we went to Hasim for chai, the boys were there again. The most voluble of them started pelting us with questions. He seemed to have put some thought into this, some version of “I wish I had said…” that was mostly about nuclear power (there’s a deal going on) and the economical repercussions of India getting in deep with the US for such a thing. He was way into nuclear power.

(Most parts of India have “power shedding” – a half hour every single day where there is no power available in the grid. If you don’t have alternative power systems set up, you hang out in the dark or with a candle. And that’s on a good day. We spent one night in Varkala without power all night, which means that it gets muggy without the fan and the mosquitoes act up. Besides, we had washed some laundry in the shower bucket and that stuff did not want to get dry without the fan…)

Anyway, so nuclear power is popular. There are some concerned people, but it seems to be mostly people with alternative power systems. Ha. I wish everyone had solar panels and batteries! (At least batteries can be recycled – whatcha gonna do with the waste from the plants?)

But we had a rockin’ conversation on a subject that would have been avoided at most family gatherings, let alone with strangers at a roadside stand. Have I lived in a boring United States? Is there a US where these things happen?

Then in Varkala, we were sitting on the beach, desultorily shooting gorgeous pictures, relaxing in the presence of a slice of India. (Varkala didn’t feel like India for the most part. It felt like a carnival, with barkers and cutpurses everywhere. I didn’t really fear for my wallet any more there than in Delhi, nor did I have a harder time with the autorickshaw drivers. It just wasn’t, you know, Indian. Um. I guess I mean that it was overwhelmingly white. And that was during the off season.)

Off topic, anyone?

Okay, so we were sitting on the beach. And James took a great picture of four teenaged boys sitting just past the next wrinkle in the sands. And then they got up and started moving down the beach. When they saw us, they came right over, saying hello and trying out various English-language greetings on us. All laughing, we handed each other our lines. Once that game got old, we got the grilling. Country of Origin. How do you like Kerala? (I think I forgot to mention that Keralan people don’t ask what we think of India – they’re only concerned with Kerala.) Nuclear power. Bush. Iraq.

Wow. That got big and serious fast. This young, pleasant-faced boy really just did that. He just asked us point-blank, if we disagreed so much with Bush and the killing in Iraq, why weren’t we fighting it?


I’ve never been asked that point-blank. I’ve had people hint at it, dance around it, suggest the thought. But never just ask the question. While planning our travels, we were not secretive about the fact that we wanted to travel partly because of the way we felt about the US: discomfort, disaffection, even despair for future (if the US doesn’t riot if Obama loses, I’m never going back). But that’s not the only reason, and people (including me) more or less avoided the stickier parts.


So, here we were, on the beach, chillin’. And suddenly we were being called out for being quitters, unpatriotic, etc, etc, etc. Nicely. Beautifully.

My response was fast. “I was arrested fighting the Iraq war!” (During the big protest in San Francisco, I was penned but not caged, written an “arrest” ticket, but they “lost” the records of it and I never had to go to court.) It felt inadequate.

James, being so much more skillful than I, was better able to explain simply that there isn’t enough change, that the change that happens is planned, coopted by the needs of the powerful and made to serve power rather than spread it. How Obama might be better than Bush, but a two party system is a handshake, not a change. Being in Kerala helped. We tried to explain why we so admired the Communist government of Kerala and oh – did that ever turn us again!


So now we (James and me and four passionate young men, all but one reticent to speak but fire-eyed) debated the contrasting benefits of Keralan-style democratically elected Communist leaders verses the (geographically next door) Chinese Communism that was self-determined. James and I argued for Kerala’s version while the boys argued for China’s. Now when I say argued, you have to remember that we only sort of speak a common language. We were debating world-leader level issues with third grade vocabularies. Strange thing is that it worked. You really can discuss important, worldwide, human nature kinds of thing in simple words. What a lesson!

We all brought up good points, shook hands finally, and handed each other all the goodbye lines.

In my Varkala experience, only this felt real. Only this meant Kerala to me. And they were just visiting; they were tourists too.


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