In the Seminar, Trying to Launch Passage to India

I’ve got to lecture on Forster and the Raj, the partition of Bengal,
but I can’t focus, and it’s not only
that I’m remembering my own months
in India, the smells of cardamon, turmeric mingling with charcoal
smoke amid rickshaws, water
buffalo, bicycles, camels, and eighteen
wheelers. It’s that I’m still twitchy about the Englishness I inherited
from my mother, who sailed
to New York from Southampton
on the Queen Mary. So when Lisa complains the novel is confusing,
she can’t keep track of the weird
names, I push my notes aside. Okay,
I say, let’s make a list, start with the Brits. Hopeless, spouts Richard,
they’re racists, all of them, imperialist
capitalists using their hegemonic power
to oppress the indigenous people. Detestable, disgusting, especially
Miss Quested, he snaps. I’ve been
dealing with my anglophobia
for years, ashamed of the way my mother and her snobbish brother
would blithely butcher names
of places, saying Urnuhkoolum
instead of Ernäkulam, with the emphasis on the wrong syllable. But
before I can ask if everyone in the class
found all the Brits in the novel
despicable, Lupita asks why they have to live off by themselves
on the hill. Because they like
playing royalty, sneers Richard,
adding, they’re recreating their own little England with their canned
peas and their stupid plays. He’s
right. Yet I can’t forget my third day
in Delhi, when Manjit led me into the sudden calm of the Hyatt
and fed me a lemon lassi, saying
she could see I’d been about to
go under from too much India too fast. And I’d thought myself
the consummate traveler — a dozen
stamps on my passport. I won’t
mention the time on the beach south of Chennai when a horde
of kids followed me, clutching
at my kameez till I broke free
and stumbled into an Anglican church with its pews lined up
in rows. If it had been
1920, with a pink-cheeked British
officer nearby, I could have blubbered about those hateful boys
taunting, poking, and created
as big a crisis as Adela Quested
when she accuses Aziz of accosting her in the cave. Now Marcy
is asking what the British were
doing in India anyway, and I’ve
got to backtrack to Elizabeth I, tea, opium, and indigo. But I hear
the fluting voice of my English
granny, a governess in the Punjab
who regretted the return to London, where she missed the neem
trees, the banyans, the spices,
the Bhatnagar family, and the bulbul’s
song. So what happened in the Malabar Caves, Annie is asking,
and Cathy explains: Before Adela
entered the cavern, she was
Ronny Heaslop’s fiancée, but inside the cave, she heard the voice
of her real self, so when she
came out, she’d changed, just
like India had changed him, he wasn’t the same guy she’d known
in England, he’s turned into
a bureaucratic jerk. And Michael
adds that, after Adela left the cave, she heard an echo in her ear till
she finally confesses Aziz had
never bothered her at all. I didn’t
know, when I arrived at JFK’s Gate B31 for my first flight to Delhi,
my eyes the only blue ones among
hundreds slouching in plastic
chairs, waiting to board, that when I returned home I’d be headed
for a divorce. And I didn’t
know, in towns like Ludhiana,
some men knew American women only from TV, believed us all
to be sluts, so I was half
embarrassed and half flattered
at the dinner party where the guy kept snuggling up, calling me
Marilyn Monroe, me with my
breasts no bigger than dollops of dal,
with my gray-blond hair, while my horrified elegant hosts
pried him away. But now
I’m telling the students how
I learned to say “atcha” in Punjabi, the one word I was sure I could
master, trying over and over until,
furious at my inability even to pronounce
the word for “okay,” I lost it, blew up, hissed, snorted “uh-chah
as loud as I could, and the whole
room shouted, I’d done it, I’d gotten it,
I could almost pass for Punjabi. Now even Richard is laughing. But
I don’t mention how angry
I really was, how exhausted, frustrated,
and, unlike Adela Quested, up to my neck in “the real India,”
even though people were
oh, so kind, exclaiming how well
I was managing for my first time. The fluorescent lights begin
their erratic, crackling hum,
and Lisa catches my eye,
plunges in: Mrs. Moore got it, didn’t she, she liked sitting with Aziz
in the temple, and he even
praised her by saying she was
“Oriental,” but why did she freak out in the caves? Cathy explains:
Mrs. Moore thought
she trusted in the goodness
of people, but inside the cave, everything she believed is erased,
and she knows Adela is wrong
to accuse Aziz. And on page 223,
adds Cathy, Forster says Mrs. Moore wasn’t the “dear old lady”
everyone thought, India “brought
her into the open.” Michael, Jose, and
Annie are nodding. Marcy is jotting notes. I give it a minute, take
a long breath. You know, I say,
we’re all tired. What if we quit
for now. I’ll see you next week. But before I let them go — I can’t
stop myself — I tell them about
the first night I ever spent in India,
when the lock to my room at the Delhi YWCA wouldn’t open
from the inside, and my friends
kept calling, but the phone didn’t work
and I couldn’t figure out how to let them know I was trapped
until the clerk at the desk agreed
to break the rules and allow my frantic
university hosts to climb the stairs and bang on my door, holler
at me, are you there, are you there,
like a blinding echo, and
I wasn’t even sure if I was, or when I got out, who I would be.

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