The man who owns the building I am staying in was a Commodore in the Indian Navy, and his uncle was head of the Indian Navy. When I stepped out the morning of my first day I heard his welcoming voice rise from behind his living room overlooking the front garden. We had a long talk about Indian history as his servant poured us tea. His servants name is Bickki and he talks to him in an entirely different tone of voice than he talks to me. It’s hard for me, an American and a Bahai, who knows in my heart that we all our equal in the eyes of God and should be treated with the same respect, to understand a society that so consciously keeps people in their places.
A day later I will invite my driver Maxwell to have lunch with me and note the stares of the maitre d and waiters as he follows me into the restaurant. We have broken some invisible code. I almost want to say to everyone. Don’t you know. It’s bring your servant to lunch day! But of course no one would get the joke.
As Max and I talk, and the soldiers at the next table glare at us, it is clear he is no different than me with the same hopes and fears. He and his wife have just had their first baby and are preparing for the naming ceremony which will occur 25 days from the birth. That is the day they chose the name for their infant. This name will be Isaac and he must book a hall to hold the 100 family and friends who will come to celebrate with them.
Max too had an arranged marriage and he explained to me the whole process of hearing about his prospective wife, going to one chaperoned meeting with her in a strange city and deciding a day later that she will be his wife. He wrote her back and she agreed. At any step in the process either of them could have bowed out, but this would go against their parents wishes and to be cut off from your parents in this society is almost like losing your entire center of being. These days Max lives with his mother and father and the little baby, not yet named Isaac, sleeps between his wife and he in the bed, waking up at 1 am and 3 am every night.) I tell him my “infant terrible” war stories and we have a good laugh. I try imagining what it would be like to be Max in this society. Max’s dad is a driver and Max is a driver. Max once lived in America for a year driving around a US Colonel but his mother missed him so much he came back to India. The bonds of family run much deeper here than in the west. To be rich and famous is not a sign of true success here. Your family must be with you. I think again of the bad super star Cricketer movie on the plane and glimpse a bit more of the struggle of modern India. How do you get more western but retain the bonds of family and love that have sustained you for centuries?
When it is time to go I give Max all the leftovers to bring home. The Commodore greets me in the door way of my house and invites me to come visit him that night for a drink with a friend.
“7:30 Mr. Barry.” he says in that cheerful voice.
I feel like I am in a play. I am the character that sees too much, knows to much-- the character that is really an author in disguise. I am the traveler who need not leave his house.
“I’ll be there.” I say.