No, this is not your typical writer’s residency. It’s in India. So, having been in Chennai – the bustling, matter-of-fact capital of Tamil Nadu – for just over 3 days now, I’m still adjusting. Having done a few residencies in the last few years, I’d gotten used to the idea of just turning up and sipping coffee while writing, then going for relaxing walks. Not that I thought it would be like that here… I think I was just so focussed on the content of my project – the personal and inter-cultural dimensions of “medical tourism” – I’d forgotten that travel always implicates the traveller. You are no neutral observer.
A few examples. I was on my way to an internet cafe when a man, about 60-ish, approached me, and started walking with me. He said he worked at the airport and recognised me from when I arrived – he gestured to his lower lip to where my facial hair is, then stooped over to imitate my posture, smiling. We chatted in broken English for a while, until he stopped, leaned towards me, and whispered “can you help me?”. He had a bag from an eye hospital and a print-out of the costs of some procedure or prescription, running to the thousands of rupees. I am not proud to say I gave him a tiny amount, then refused when he pleaded for more. I still don’t know how to feel. I can still hear him saying “I don’t ask anybody!”, then myself saying “but you’re asking me…”. I still don’t know how I feel about how I responded, or even what exactly happened, or what problems this man has, if any.
Who is responsible for the health of the Indian people? What happens when someone’s social circle can’t help or support him (or her)?
Example two, a little less significant. Just after this encounter, I popped into a little supermarket to buy a few supplies, and thought I may as well buy a few oranges as well. Only after I got back to the hotel, did I notice the sticker on them – grown in Australia. Does India actually need Australian oranges? I don’t think so. I don’t either. But they’re here.
Anyway, here’s a few photos that somehow reflect my first impressions of Chennai – well, of Mylapore anyway, the suburb where I’m staying. The traffic is a self-organising cacophony, the people are gentle and subtle and (for the most part) leave you to your own devices, it’s hot as hell (an overnight low of 25 is considered “pleasant”), and the locals love their little oases (the beach, parks, AC restaurants, the mall…).
Sounds liked you will be well and truly immersed. Re the question of responsibility, when I lived in India I remember telling people that I had worked delivering meals on wheels (part time job in Australia) and them being flummoxed: ‘But where are the people’s families? Why aren’t they feeding them?’ And from memory, when Indians are in hospital (the public ones anyway) their family has to bring meals in … It definitely challenged/questioned my notions of familial and societal responsibility.
Indeed, Emilie. India, and the dynamics of people’s lives, is always more complex than you (ie I) assume. Lots to learn and be astounded by…
Andy, it took me a while to adjust to the Balkans and I’m still readjusting (back in Melbourne 2 days now). But India is a much tougher gig. And I was just travelling through, while you (as Emilie said) will be immersed in one community and with a project to complete. I am eagerly anticipating the effect on your writing. It might be obvious or it might be subtle but I’m sure it will be there, and maybe in ways no-one could have expected. The occasional post will be eagerly devoured I assure you. Good luck!
Thanks Norman! Much appreciated. I’m beginning to adjust, learn when to push, when to hold back. Poems are indeed coming already, of course!
Great to hear your first impressions. Mylapore, a great place to be. I think everyone who goes to India is confronted by your experience. Sometimes I gave, sometimes I didn’t. There are no hard a fast rules and it’s never enough.
The juxtaposition of medical tourists with locals in need of medical care is no doubt confronting but also fascinating and absorbing. You are picking your way through an ethical minefield – a brave task. I look forward to more sensitive and empathic posts and, later, poems.