Authored by Sarah Montross
May 3, 2019
It was time to visit India. For years, I had been an avid traveler but my destinations were mostly limited to places where I didn’t have to confront the shadow side of humanity or myself. I wasn’t exactly looking for Disney World, but I didn’t want to grapple with abject poverty either. However, my yoga practice was now firmly cemented and I yearned to understand the origins of this mystical philosophy. I found a group that was making a pilgrimage to India and booked a round trip ticket on Continental Airlines from Houston to Chennai via Frankfurt.
In the Frankfurt airport, I had walked past the dozens of distinctly German pretzel bakeries and wurst stands to the gate for Chennai. Passengers in saris and bindis waited next to a handful of Westerners in jeans and sweatshirts. On the plane, fragrant, sweet, and thick masala chai was served out of a plastic pitcher into small paper cups after rich green palak paneer and fragrant basmati rice in foil trays. I marveled at the sensory experience of it all, slightly delirious from hours of plane travel and high from the the faint but persistent smell of jet fuel in the cabin.
Upon arriving in Chennai, I journeyed down a hallway to the immigration desks past a huge tapestry depicting a scene from the Bhagavad Gita, resplendent with gold thread. At an ATM, I withdrew stacks and stacks of small, brightly colored, and well-used rupees, Mahatma Gandhi looking at me with his round spectacles. Outside the airport, the undulating crowd of humanity heaved, singing a chorus in a strange language as families searched for each other, auto-rickshaw drivers hawked their services, vendors offered strong-smelling treats, and horns bleated their presence. The air was thick with humidity and pollution. I sensed an internal wave of panic beginning to crest, the kind that starts to build when newness is overwhelming and the mind grasps for something familiar and fails. When I found the shuttle driver grasping a sign with the hotel name emblazoned across it, I felt a disproportionate sense of relief.
In the hotel room, the smell of mothballs was overwhelming, so pungent it made my eyes water. I wandered the room, looking for the culprit, and discovered them dotting the drains of the sink and the shower. I put my toiletry bag on the dingy counter next to the sharply-smelling sink. I then stored my toothbrush in a glass, next to a bottle of purified water, reminding myself to brush only with this bottled water. I would see locals gulp water directly from garden hoses like I did as a child in the sweltering Houston summer, but my body could not have a drop of anything that wasn’t from an unopened bottle. I carried an extra toothbrush in my toiletry bag just in case I fell into my firmly ingrained habit of brushing with tap water.
Our group met outside the hotel lobby for a visit to see a traditional Tamil Nadu dance performance called Bharatanatyam. Most of the group, all from the US, had been in India for some time already. They had visited the village of Vrindavan, a holy city threaded with temples around every corner and tailors who would create artistry out of any fabric, fitting it precisely to your body in exquisite Indian ensembles. When I joined the group, fresh from Vrindavan, they were dressed in their beautiful Indian garments of jewel tones, elegant in long gopi skirts and kurtas, handsome in raw silk shirts with Nehru collars and linen trousers. I immediately felt completely out of place in my typical muted neutrals, nothing fitting particularly well or looking overwhelmingly feminine. I felt made of black and white, while the rest of the pilgrims were created of vivid, living color.
It was as if I was back in an examination room in Louisiana with my mum and my brother, years and years ago. The nameless doctor with a clinical manner was giving us a physical that was required for our green cards. We had flown from England months before, slowly waving goodbye to our families standing at the tall window lining the terminal building. As the jet pulled away I clutched the silver plated owl my grandmother had given me as a going away gift. In the USA, we looked like the other people around us, wearing jeans and sneakers, t-shirts and sunglasses, but the card we were awarded after the exam said “Resident Alien”.
My mum had sent me to school with sandwiches made of shredded cheese and beetroot on slices of white bread spread with butter, cut into little triangular quarters. I gazed enviously at the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches of my fellow students as they lifted the whole sandwich to their mouths. I tried to eat my little triangles in stealth, hiding the fuscia stain that had spread along the edges of the bread and cheese and revealing my otherness. The start of every school year was similarly stressful, September indelibly marked by my parents not understanding nor agreeing with the American custom of buying your children entire new wardrobes for a new school year. My upper-middle class suburban friends would show up in new Guess overalls, Coca-Cola rugby shirts, gleaming Reebok hi-tops, and clutching the latest Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. I felt dull and small, left out of this tradition that promised a successful academic performance and inclusive social network. I had one new outfit, hard-won from my thrifty father, and after Monday’s new look returned to last year’s clothes for Tuesday and onward.
The surface of the road to the Bharatanatyam performance was mostly unfinished, and the ride jostled us about in our brightly colored upholstered seats. I sat on my own in the back of the bus, trying to mask my blatant otherness from the rest of the group by physically separating myself from them. I blinked back stinging tears, the heavy fog of jetlag making it hard to recover from the assault of my thoughts. They relentlessly jabbed at me with reminders of my inability to fit in with a group, my fear of sticking out, my inadequacy. My otherness felt exposed, and my tummy became nauseous as we swayed to and fro while the bus rumbled along on the seaside corridor. I curled into myself for protection much as a doodle bug rolls up when touched. Outside, plastic vessels of every shape and size lay scattered about the beach, a manmade replacement for seashells. Periodically, we passed by auto-rickshaws and scooters filled to the brim with human beings of all ages. Having this many people in any vehicle in America would have been outrageously illegal.
The bells on Bharatanatyam dancers’ ankles rang rhythmically as they made precise gestures with their hands and moved their bodies to illustrate ancient stories. Their makeup had been applied with precision, their carefully lined eyes moving in choreography with their bodies, and their hair was adorned with flowers. The show of beauty, tradition, and commitment to artistry was somehow overwhelming. Coupled with the heavy South Indian humidity, the cresting wave of sensory overload that had begun at the airport continued to build.
Afterwards, the village market was crowded with locals and tourists. We were a special type of tourist, though: one that attracted the local children like bears to honey. They wandered along next to us, upturned faces smudged, bare feet toughened, with longing eyes and pierced ears. In a foreign tongue they asked for money or anything, I imagine, and my heart broke over and over again. I looked up from the gang of sweet ragamuffins to the stalls around us, filled to the seams with exquisitely carved brass statues of deities, fried street foods, garlands of marigolds, malas of tulsi and sandalwood, sodas and bottled water. Cows reclined every so often alongside or even in the middle of the street, flies buzzing languidly around their heads. Every light was a fluorescent one, jarring to my eyes. I was assaulted, too, by the turbulent mix of manure, human scent, pungent spices, incredible floral aromas, incense, and urine. The sounds were of lively Hindi music, jarring and sometimes lilting voices, the children begging, auto-rickshaws honking, cows mooing, and vendors calling out to attract our attention, wooing us with their wares. Overwhelm quickly transitioned into the beginnings of an anxiety attack, and I asked our group leader to accompany me back to the bus. I sat in the darkness, alone, breathing, grateful for the cocoon of silence around me.
Later, on the drive home, I gazed out the windows of our bus at the darkening coastal sky. My eyes met with those of a beautiful Indian woman perched sidesaddle on the back of a scooter, her arms wrapped around her husband’s waist. She was dressed immaculately in a bright and regal silk sari. A stack of slender bangles lined both of her arms, alternating between the yellowest gold, glass, and jewel-toned enamel. Her thick glossy hair was pulled back into a braid reminiscent of Rapunzel as it trailed elegantly down her back. She saw me in my grey shirt, hair greasy from travel, eyes bleary with jetlag and unfamiliar pollutants. Her eyes were kind and welcoming, and I tentatively turned the corners of my mouth up slightly, just slightly, to meet her smile.
Blogging Adventurer: Sarah Montross
Sarah is a 500-hour Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT 500, YAECP) who has practiced and studied yoga since 2002. She has been teaching since 2007. Sarah received her 200-hour certification from Laughing Lotus Yoga Center and her 500-hour certification from Yogamaya, both in New York City. Sarah believes that teaching yoga is a sacred service to humanity. Through translating powerful philosophical concepts into modern and relatable language, Sarah innovates yoga for today’s student. Sarah has an innate understanding of the body that lets her craft sharp, impactful cues that move students forward in their practice at their own pace. Sarah approaches the traditions with awe and reverence while letting go of dogma that doesn’t serve to move her and my students in the direction of yoga.