Conversation Piece

5:20 to Jaipur

What does it say about you if one of the most notable themes of your travel tales is the way you kept breaking out into hysterical laughter?

Back in December, we left winter behind for India: five weeks of cockroach-infested train rides, squat toilets, warm Kingfisher beer, packs of stray dogs—and some of the best food we’ve ever eaten, the nicest people we’ve ever met, and the most beautiful places we’ve ever seen. Now back and shivering in North America, we don’t need to step foot inside another fort, palace, or Mogul monument anytime soon, but would gladly hop on a plane to Delhi tomorrow.

While we wait for the frequent-flier miles to accumulate, the only way to keep the trip alive is to talk about it, endlessly, and since our friends won’t return our calls anymore, we’re taking things public. But can we write about our experiences without sounding like uptight germaphobes or creepy soul-searchers? And why do we constantly deride a place we claim to love?

If turning travel memories into writing is problematic, telling the story of our trip to India feels harder than catching a train out of Jaipur. (Which, trust us, should require a post-secondary degree and at least four years of on-the-job training.)

Nicole: From the moment we left New York, we tended to approach the trip as a chance for amusement—not exclusively, of course, but we definitely jumped at any opportunity to degenerate into hysterics. This was especially true for me when things got really difficult or frustrating. Sometimes, though, I wonder if things were actually, objectively funny, or if I was just overwhelmed by India and therefore ready to laugh.

Pasha: Yeah, India’s totally hilarious, but I’ve never seen that captured in anything I’ve read. I guess it’s because what we consider funny is so day-to-day over there—like at the restaurant, when you ordered the “fruit salad and ice cream,” yes, of course the waiter brought you an unpeeled banana and a popsicle that we watched him buy from the convenience store next door. I suppose when you write about travel you’re supposed to illuminate some sort of larger experience—whether personal or cultural—and just listing ridiculous events doesn’t really do that. Though, for us, maybe humor was more of a coping mechanism.

Nicole: Maybe, but finding things funny had to do with feeling both totally out of my element and also sometimes a little worried for my well-being—not that things were ever unsafe, but part of the reason Indian men on the beach in their Y-fronts were so hysterical is because it seemed like one of them was about to follow me into the water, swim stealthily and shark-like, pop up, and grab my boobs. (Which is what happened, pretty much exactly, to your sister.) I can’t really write about those anxieties without seeming like a nervous, race-panicked white girl, but I can’t write about the hilarity of India without writing about the terror—how a two-lane highway suddenly becomes a three-lane highway, or a piece of lettuce might give you a brain parasite. And if I’m writing about India, I’m writing about the hilarity, so I feel doomed to seem like an anxiety-ridden ‘50s housewife shouting for Lorazepam—which only happened once, to be fair.

Pasha: Right, on the overnight bus between Bangalore and Goa. Which, at the time, wasn’t funny at all—those “sleeper” bunks that didn’t lock down, so whenever we went over a pothole in the road (every 15 seconds or so), the bed bounced upward and body-slammed us; me, panicked and sleep-deprived, peeing endlessly into a water bottle and dumping it out the window; my sister getting groped in her sleep, with her boyfriend right beside her—but I know what you mean about using humor to convey, or mask, the cultural anxieties we had while we were traveling. That bus ride was completely awful at the time, but when we retell it now it has become totally hilarious.

Conveyed in writing, my interior state might seem intolerant, but I need to be honest and acknowledge that it came from not knowing what was going on, feeling totally shut out, and sucking at things. Nicole: Either way, it’s best just to laugh and realize it’s OK to laugh.

Pasha: Yeah, although there’s this politically correct expectation of travel writing, which wasn’t our experience at all when we were over there. Writing with cultural sensitivity now would feel disingenuous.

Nicole: Maybe, but I also don’t think it’s enough just to say, “Oh, forget political correctness, do and say what you want.” Conveyed in writing, my interior state might seem intolerant, but I need to be honest and acknowledge that it came from not knowing what was going on, feeling totally shut out, and sucking at things. Travel can be so solipsistic, and Westerners especially tend to view it as a path to self-improvement. While I really loathe that attitude, if I were to write about India I would have to focus on the most difficult and accordingly gratifying experiences. The trip was most rewarding—and funniest—when it was a struggle, especially when I think and talk about it after the fact.

Pasha: Yeah, but how do you write about something like that without it seeming self-congratulatory and cheesy?

Nicole: I just think it’s best to acknowledge yourself as an asshole. For example, how about the time I had to mail something from the post office? I was so proud of myself for getting the package I was sending sewn into white cloth by a tailor, waiting in line three times without more than two or three people cutting me, actually mailing the damn thing, and then knowing how to get home. Of course some guy was going to follow me outside and, very casually, spit on me twice—and, best of all, come up afterwards to tell me that someone had spit on me. If I’m going to write about that experience, it has to be with humor: Only after you’ve been spit on can you be self-congratulatory about accomplishing something as pathetic as mailing a package—then you’ve earned it. And since you’re being self-congratulatory about such a pathetic thing, the story becomes hysterical.

Pasha: There were plenty of times, too, that things seemed hilarious to us, despite being the norm over there. Like when we wanted to get away from the Goa backpacker scene, so we hopped on a bus to Colva Beach. It turned out to be beautiful, and we were able to find a nice quiet stretch with no one around. We had to take turns swimming so one of us could sit with our stuff, and when I went into the water a young guy (wearing only Y-fronts, naturally) waded up to me out of nowhere and asked, “Would you like to swim with me?” I didn’t want to seem rude—and, to be honest, I was excited at the prospect of making Indian friend—so I said, “OK,” although I wasn’t really sure what swimming with him would entail. But, wow, did you ever get a kick out of looking up from your book to see me holding hands and frolicking in the waves with another dude.

You cannot, as a person visiting for a month or two, have some accurate and authoritative version of the country. But that’s OK. Just tell stories and make fun of yourself. Nicole: Oh, come on—don’t try to deny the look of joy on your face! But, yeah, to that guy, swimming with you was a completely normal thing to do. In that respect, it’s a great example of how the clashes between what’s normal in India and our own social expectations produced a lot of laughs. I’m deeply attracted to those experiences. But I want to make it clear that despite how difficult India can be and how grossed out and frustrated I was sometimes, I had a great time. It’s an amazing place! So all of those things together made India work for me, and in writing about it, I’d try to convey that.

Pasha: But what about the problem of seeming mocking or racist?

Nicole: The key could be to not generalize, either to romanticize or deride, without acknowledging yourself, your particular objectives, background, and preconceptions. You cannot, as a person visiting for a month or two, have some accurate and authoritative version of the country. But that’s OK. Just tell stories and make fun of yourself. Describe what it was like to cuddle up in an 18-inch-wide berth on a 40-hour train and lay awake imagining cockroaches crawling on your face while everyone else on the train snored the night away. But also talk about how we woke up to a family unwrapping an endless supply of snacks and without a second thought sharing them with everyone in our compartment, or describe Rajiv, the tank commander we met, who told us he’d killed six militants up north, but was a total sweetheart with his three-year-old son.

Pasha: That’s the thing: I feel that there’s this limitlessness to India that’s necessary for talking about it, but impossible to capture. I like how your initial reaction was just, “This isn’t real,” because that’s exactly how I felt two years ago, going back after so long. “That can’t be a camel on the highway dragging a load the size of a house, can it? That guy isn’t riding in the back of that autorickshaw with his arms around two goats, is he? That isn’t an elephant with a family on top trundling down one of Delhi’s main downtown streets—no fucking way.” It’s crowded and crazy and dirty and occasionally beautiful, and you feel like you have to show everything to really get a sense of it. Maybe that’s why so many Indian authors write 800-page books.

Nicole: I don’t know about that, but yeah, it’s a place that demands to be talked or written about.

Pasha: Like you’ve said, though, as visitors we had no idea. Yes, all this goofy shit happened—but my appreciation of it as goofy reflects more on me than it does the country.

Nicole: Despite whatever baffling thing is going on, you have to realize that you’re the asshole—not India. And, maybe I’m just a masochist, but there’s something about that realization that I find totally comforting.

TMN Contributing Writer Pasha Malla is the author of two books: The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems).

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Pasha Malla & Nicole Pasulka