September 30, 2012 by Louis Ritzinger
It’s been exactly one month since I stepped off the plane at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, and I’m finally beginning to feel some semblance of comfort and normalcy in this place. I believe this thought first occurred to me early last week, on a pedal rickshaw ride to the local supermarket to pick up some essentials. I read somewhere (and thus assume it to be true) that one of the most important sensory tools we have as humans is the ability to selectively ignore certain stimuli. Say, for example, you’re at a restaurant chatting with somebody across the table. As you listen to that person speak there may be any number of conversations occurring around you. Servers are carefully navigating around tables carrying platters of food and drinks. People are eating, nodding, pantomiming and laughing. Perhaps there is some music playing. There is an abundance of information to be processed all around you, each piece containing its own little message. The girl three tables down finds the man she is with to be exceedingly boring. Somebody ordered a dish with bacon. The waiter is very, very sorry he handed somebody the wrong dish. Smooth jazz is still horrible.
But we don’t, under normal circumstances, process all of this. It fades into the background as a dull murmur. A blur. Barring the occurrence of some highly unusual, extremely appealing or threatening event, we stay focused on the task at hand. Our brains have the amazing capacity to tune out information we don’t find to be important at a given time. It prevents us from being submerged in what would otherwise be far too much to process cohesively. It keeps us focused on the matter at hand. The date sitting across the table from you, for instance.
When you first enter a foreign place, however, this vital adaptation goes out the window. Suddenly, you feel as though you must observe and understand all things all at once.
For example: “Is that car going to hit me? Look at all those dogs. Ignore the people staring at you. That car is definitely going to hit me. Man that guy on the motorcycle has a death wish. What a beautiful building. Oh hey there cow. I can’t believe that car didn’t hit me. What’s that guy selling over there? Look at all those vegetables. What is that horrible smell? Ok this car is DEFINITELY going to hit me. What is that amazing smell? How do I say that word in Urdu again? What is THAT?? Why are they doing that? What did he say to me? Wow that was too close for comfort.”
You get the idea.
The point is, this week, as I was taking that now somewhat familiar route to the grocery store, I found myself doing something I hadn’t really had the chance to do in a very long time. I zoned out. I thought about nothing in particular for about 2 minutes. And what a glorious, wonderful two minutes those were. A moment of peaceful emptiness in a tumbling sea of crazy.
You see, noticing everything is exhausting. Our brains aren’t meant to do it. Its discombobulating, overwhelming and, ultimately, not that productive.
We do so little when we try to do so much.
With that in mind, my goal for this week has been to just keep my mind focused on what is occurring now. In this moment. I’m completely aware, by the way, that this is something of a cliche, but its also something that I’ve always had trouble with (and also appears to be a common theme across other awesome travel blogs). Perhaps I have my utterly normal, stable, relatively privileged upbringing to blame, but I’ve never handled big changes all that well, and for the past couple of weeks I had fallen back into that pattern. I’d be in my room, usually doing work or listening to a podcast, and some memory of the past would come into my head. Some were recent – others quite distant. Some were profound and life-changing events – others were moments I had, until that point, seemingly forgot had ever occurred. But all of them came with a hard tinge of sadness and nostalgia. A longing for the past and familiar.
What’s really self-defeating about the whole process is that I was fully aware of the fact, having experienced this sort of melancholia quite a few times over the years, that at some point down the road these events that are happening now are going to be the things I look back on with such a sad fondness. I’ll wish I had realized just how valuable they were. “Look how much you took for granted!” I’ll tell myself.
On Friday night a few of us took a trip to La Martiniere Boys’ School with the son of a homestay family – a guy around our age who has just recently finished his undergraduate degree in the States. The trip was for the sole purpose of gazing at the architecture of the elite academy which, as its name might suggest, was built by a French employee of the British East India Company – Claude Martin. The massive structure is a stunningly ornate tribute to both French and Mughal styles, adorned with expansive and intricate gothic-style trim, complete with two massive stone lions perched proudly above its 7 archway entrance. Two flood lights illuminated the building’s facade which, at its highest point, stands at about seven stories with windowed pillars that (at least to this entirely unqualified observer) seem to echo other Mughal-era buildings that dot the cityscape. (I forgot to bring my camera this time, but hope to have pictures at a later date)
La Martiniere School has its own fascinating history, our friend/guide informed us. Claude Martin, by the end of his life, had garnered the reputation as the richest man in Lucknow. Judging by the scale of his remarkable building (which served as his house before his death in 1800), I wouldn’t doubt it. A good friend of the ruling Nawab, who by this point was more or less a puppet of the British Raj, Martin appears to have lived quite the lavish life and, at least according to our friend, had quite the interest in the local culture – particularly when it came to the women. Nevertheless, he was never married, and is now buried below the school in one of the extensive corridors that run below the ground.
We sat with the building as our backdrop, tucked away in that remote corner, staring out past the dark, slow-moving river – and in that moment the city’s many pieces looked as just one, faint, golden blur.