By Kristen McGuiness
In Salman Rushdie’s classic book about India’s independence, Midnight’s Children, he writes, “In order to understand one life you must swallow the world.” Upon our first hours in India, there is much to swallow. It’s like my 80-year old friend in Paris says, “It’s an onslaught of the senses – the colors, the smells, and all those f*^king people.”
After a brief stop in Delhi, whose Duty Free ads of Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts and Jessica Chastain could be from anywhere in the world, we finally land at the Chennai airport. A Spartan but modern structure, we appear to be the only arriving flight. Back in the days of the East India Company and later the British Empire, Chennai was called Madras, like the drink. But now it has returned to its Indian roots, which run thick and deep across the landscape, knotted like veins as the people pulse and surge, horns honking, children sitting at the front of motorbikes, women sitting side saddle across the back. I expected this from India. I expected that all the worldly fears of the Western world would look like Boogey men in comparison to how India lives – unafraid of motor accidents or dysentery, boldly living for today.
We are greeted at the airport by Piru, one of Auroville’s native sons and an AUP alum. Ushered onto a short yellow bus with the words “One tree one life” written across the back, we take off into the Chennai sunset towards Auroville, passing scooters and live cattle as we go. All of the students fall silent as we watch this new world pass – housing developments growing up amongst thatched roofs, constructions amidst the squalor. There are a lot of people at work, more than one sees in America, and yet they seem to move slowly about it, as though hoping to prolong its end.
As night grows darker and we begin to fall asleep against the sound of chirping cicadas and the ongoing hum of other cars, there is something here that feels like home, so much so that when the men pull off to pee, we follow suit, shielding each other from the traffic as we all attempt a little roadside urination (some are more successful than others). We pull into a darkened community, greeted by a small gate and a sleepy security guard. We can barely see the building in which we will soon be taking most of our meals. Its brick columns and tropical greenery are lit up by the moon and the dull overhead lights. We sit down for our first meal – one specially prepared for Westerners just arriving (safe white people food), which we hope to digest well. We are tired and at this hour we could be anywhere, but then we get up and begin to walk down the long red dirt road, heading to our new homes. We are tired and full and excited and though we do not know what’s in store for us, we know this: we have arrived in India.