It is appropriate that I begin this chronicle with the one and only Hindi word in my lexicon. My preparations have assembled along the way from singular cogs of information – names of towns I can neither pronounce nor locate, professional contacts of the same nature, foods to avoid. Sometimes the entire trip seems like a sham, or a kluge just waiting to malfunction. I am leaving in 18 days, and I feel less prepared than I did last year when this whole enterprise nucleated. My callow sense of travel romanticism is gone with my bank account; my sympathetic nervous system is operating on all cylinders – I am fighting final exams but flighting from the country.
The question most often asked of me is how India became my ideal travel location. “Why India?” I answer at least once a week. Typical explanations suffice: Instruction is in English; I like curry; I wanted adventure; I have done multiple research projects on some aspect of the country. But if I were more frank and a better story-teller I would say the honest moment, which is such:
Throughout high school I spent most evenings doing homework while lying across my bed and listening to the radio, mostly NPR. Later at night on weekdays a show called The World Café played for two hours. Among the commercial FMs on the Wichita airwaves, this show was the jewel in the crown of public broadcasting. When I heard a song I liked, I waited for the next announcement and wrote down the name of the band on . This was pre-iTunes days, so I would go to Borders every week and listen to the sample songs on the band’s cds. The list of music I discovered and still enjoy as a result of the tenacity contains multitudes: Wilco, Camera Obscura, Wolf Parade, Andrew Bird, Neko Case, M. Ward, and the like.
One night, a song broke through the haze and glaze of reading. A milky voice drenched my room. It spanned octaves, succulently scoring stringy instrumentation below. I didn’t understand any of the words, which only captivated more. I couldn’t stop listening. I stayed completely attentive for the next three songs until David Dye returned at the next air break. The artist’s name was Asha Bhosle, and then it was onto the next song sequence.
The next day it took me nearly an hour to find her through an internet search, partly because I had written her name down incorrectly, partly because dial-up internet had yet to antiquate. Finally, after enduring the static connection chorus and minute-long page loads, I found the name of the song, which was created in collaboration with the Kronos Quartet -“Chua Liya Hai Tum Ne.” If I couldn’t say Asha’s Bhosle’s name, my mouth was far too proud to attempt this title. She was a famous Bollywood singer but retained a neotonous voice even in old age. I didn’t even know what Bollywood was, or what really what India meant, except a kite-shaped fill-in-the blank on geography tests. Yet, from then on I was enchanted. I would like to say my two-month trip resulted from careful contemplation and responsibility, and there were of course other steps. Truthfully though, the visa, the vaccinations, the train tickets all originated from a three-minute song distracting me from algebra assignments.
Now, my journey across the world is an oleo of geographic and academic landings. My schedule is packed yet unpredictable. I am already leaving with a taste for chai. I will carry everything on my back. I know one Sanskrit character but forget its phonemic twin. I anticipate Delhi belly afflictions.
But every time I listen to this song, I remember the original mystery and textured charm of the country that I enjoyed alone one night. Every decision towards the scheme since has also been my own. I have agency in the chaos. I hope this translates across continents once I am landed, steeped in it all.