Published Jan 24 2015, by

Don’t Fence Me In

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Day Two:

8 am start. We rumble through the early morning streets of Delhi while Praveen, our tour guide teaches us about the caste systems—their history and today. I watch people from my big window. She calls the assistants on the bus (they offer water, fruit, they wipe the condensation from the insides of our bus windows so we can see) boys. I hate that for them. I see two people throw up before 8:15—just throwing up from a car and another on the side of the road. I see a man relieving himself at a wall just next to the street. I quickly look away, but by the end of the day I will have seen too many men doing this to count. This is India. Life—all aspects of life are visceral and there is no hiding—no hiding the poverty, the patterns of the day, the needs of the human body. These people are living in a very tough truth. But somehow they are happy.

We see cows at the intersection. I see turbaned men on horseback as if they just rode in from a film set. But they didn’t. They, like the thousands of people I will see today are going through the rituals of their day. They have a list, too. We arrive at Qutab Minar, the oldest Muslim Mosque in India built in 1193 by Qutab-ud-din Aibak immediately after the defeat of Delhi’s last Hindu kingdom. It is early—the parking lot is empty and we make our way. We are given a lesson in crossing the street: wait for an opportunity and then charge! This is not very comforting. The Mosque, a conglomeration of stones from previously destroyed Hindu (27!) and Buddhist temples is a marvel—even with 50% conservation to the grounds and structures. We see neem trees, and ficus, flowering trees and thousands of birds. The 73-meter tower of victory is a virtual time line of architectural style, personal taste and available materials. The optical illusion of a narrowing pillar makes it looks twice as tall as it is. A cold damp fog makes our experience even more ethereal. This place has no time—it is a frozen monument to a tumultuous past, courage marked by the immense effort to be and to display a belief system for miles around. The monument is clean—simple in its presentation and I am glad it is not crowded. I make a mini-mediation I will put up on Facebook later. We take more pictures that we will ever need of the tower. It’s simply a marvel.

We scurry on to our second historical site of the morning: Humayun’s Tomb built in 1565 AD. This place—also know as the Baby Taj Majal (built a few years earlier) is now a World Heritage Site. It is recognized as one of the first significant examples of Mughal architecture in India. It is awe-some in it’s perfect symmetry. Maybe it was the haze of jet lag but this perfect symmetry was calming. Because it is a tomb for Humayun, a Mughal emperor who reigned twice between 1530 and 1556, there is a natural still, but I do think the patterns of multiple 9-square gardens settles the mind and prepares one to enter the tomb’s structure with a certain solitude. This was all true until a wave of hundreds of darling school children consumed our path. They were so joyful and full of light, no one minded the interruption. It was hardly and interruption. They were a reminder of life and our future in a place of death and memory. And they were funny! They pretended they didn’t speak English but we knew better. They wanted to pose for pictures and tell us their names—slowly as if we didn’t speak English. They jockeyed for “first position” in our conversations. I noticed perhaps one teacher to every 50 students. In India, it seems, you are on your own from an early age. Their rancor was orderly, though, and I would say they were very well behaved. We moved on through this three-dimensional “paradise” experience and welcomed the first sign of sun since we arrived.

After Humayun’s tomb we found ourselves in Old Delhi for a rickshaw ride. I am suspect. I consider opting out. I hate the idea of a human laboring to carry me just for fun. I debate it in my head. I decide to try on this India.

I didn’t think about being 5’10”. I tried not to grimace or comment when the tiny (!) rickshaw driver attempts to PUSH me into the tiny seat. Everything is tiny. Except for me. I go with it. Legs too long—no place for a natural foot pose. Caron snuggles in next to me (she’s tiny) and off we go. I try not to think about how heavy this weight must be for this minuscule man. I decide he has muscles and this is his livelihood. I take it all in: smoke, dirt, the smells of a rotting street, people with a list, men, mostly men all with a purposes, electrical wires loosely webbed over us, dogs, sad, skinny dogs near lifeless at the side of the road. I see a group of men carrying a wrapped corpse draped in marigolds and red flowers. We wonder where the pyre is. I forget to look at their faces—but they, too, are in this web of purpose. This is the thing they have to do today. And so it goes on for every person I will see today. It is a moment and then they are gone into the hustle and dim of the street. Impermanence. I brace my elbow against the bars of the rickshaw. The seat slants forward so it’s all a good test of my ability to brace my 5’10” frame and keep myself from landing on sweet hardworking rickshaw driver and falling into the questionably puddled street. We encounter the alluring contrasts of India: above the threshold of these rugged streets vendors sell with unbridled enthusiasm saree fabrics, glittering embroideries, tassles and silks fit for queens. This is India: a juxtaposition of the unexpected, the extremes of beauty and the reality of the struggles a city with more people than the population of Australia. We sample spices and tea and popped Lotus kernels. I never knew the potency of cinnamon until yesterday. No wonder merchants of the 16th century took such risks to import these delights. Just like them, I want more. We barrel on through the streets. I see my first domestic monkeys. I try not to hear the driver grunt when we go over a pothole. I’m all in, and I’m not falling out.

Back at the hotel we have a quick turnaround. What was that the guide taught us about planning? Anything is possible but nothing is planned. We are waiting for the amazing tailor who has worked on three sarrees over night to deliver them to us at the hotel. The bus is leaving for the opening reception of Texas at 5:45. I shower quickly—hot and bothered by the lack of time, lack of saree and no real plan B. I am worried about my speech (6 pm) and pulling it all together with this remarkable opportunity to celebrate the Texas artists we’ve brought to India for the first time. I needed about two hours to write something meaningful—find a text of a Texas writer’s impressions of India, a song I can’t think of (I will later—5 minutes after I speak). I needed two hours and I had about 3 minutes. At 5:35 I decide I will go to plan B at 5:40. At 5:39 a welcomed knock at the door from my invaluable colleague and friend Stacie Adams. At 5:44 I have half the saree on and no real plan for how I will drape all 5’10” of me. Plan B? No. I go with it and race to the lobby where our beautiful group waits. Praveen, our guide laughs when she sees me. I stand in the lobby while three or four lovely friends race for safety pins and resident saree experts to help me. I try not to sweat.

At 5:50 we are on our way—appropriately (perhaps in a modern way) draped. I hear Julie Tobolowsky receive a call from her husband George (he is one of the leaders of this amazing project—and one of the artists). He’s a bit distressed at 6:01 that we haven’t arrived and the program (the one where I am speaking) has started. I start breathing slowly on the inside knowing that the next fifteen minutes are going to be a hot mess. Bus arrives. I race out first lining up what I am going to say in my head. George is at the curb. With all the elegance I can muster we walk in to a very crowded room, TV cameras, documentary camera crew, guests, artists, Ambassador, speaker of the senate…and on and on. I smile. Adjust my saree and take a front row position. And suddenly my nerves are replaced by happiness. So happy for these artists. So happy for this beautiful exhibition (that I haven’t seen yet!). So happy to represent the Crow Collection and Dallas—and so happy that I get to talk to this warm and love-filled room. I thank 3 out of 4 of the dignitaries and talk about the importance of this moment. I talk about the importance of cultural education and the gifts of what we have learned in Texas from the simple practice of a Namaste. I announce future exchanges between the Lalit Kala Academi and the Crow Collection. I consider singing (with the Texans in the audience of course) “Oh give me a home” (because I can’t think of the song I know is just right) but (thank goodness) I decide not to. I try to connect us all with my words-and it is happy and good. We light the ceremonial lantern (nested in flower petals) with real fire and smoke fills the gallery. Oh, India. I wish we could be more like you.

It is a perfect night. Tea with the Chairman of the Lalit Academi and his wife, the festivity of something new for Delhi, a post-reception on the rooftop of the Taj Mahal Hotel. At this moment I remember the lyrics I think are just right and at the welcome I shared a little Texana thanks to Gene Autry, the first movie star cowboy born in Tioga, Texas:

Don’t Fence Me In

Oh, give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above
Don’t Fence Me In
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever, but I ask you, please
Oh, don’t fence me In

Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies
On my cayuse
Let me wander over yonder ’til I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon ’til I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

(Just turn me loose
Let me straddle my old saddle underneath the western skies
On my cayuse
Let me wander over yonder ’til I see the mountains rise)

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
Gaze at the moon ’til I lose my senses
Can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

I read all of the stanzas-even the repeated ones. And isn’t this true? I am grateful for the opportunity to jump fences with passport and visa in hand and be here. Be in this moment. I am grateful to learn how alike we really all are-and how love seems to be our most connective tissue. We toast (not an Indian tradition) and laugh and make plans for more India in Texas and more Texas in India. And I know in my heart this is just a beginning. And isn’t it a blessing to have beginnings?

-Amy