Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Taj Mahal and Problematic Feet

The summer after I graduated from college, a few months before I left for India the first time, my friends and I cooked a big Indian dinner. The dinner was, in part, to celebrate my impending departure, and at some point during the evening, someone asked me if I was going to become “A Person Who’s Been to India.” I bristled and said, “Of course not.” I knew the kind of person she meant. I thought, immediately, of a woman in one of my college classes, a feminist lit class at Smith, where I was the only student from Amherst. While I loved the professor and the readings, I was somewhat intimidated by the whole thing. And there was a woman in the class who was a year or two ahead of me who had just come back from India. She had a tiny piercing in her nose (much less common in 1985) and exuded a certain kind of affected sophistication. I was simultaneously fascinated by her and annoyed by her. Still, I didn’t particularly want to become her.

But, all of these years later, the truth is that every single day I do something or think something or use something that reminds me that I’m a “Person Who’s Been to India.” It’s been so long now that it’s woven into the strands of my daily life. I cart back liters of Biotique Walnut Bark shampoo whenever I go since that’s the shampoo I’ve used since I discovered it in Delhi in 1994, when my usually thick hair was losing some of its heft and luster. Nearly every surface of my house is covered with an Indian printed textile, and nearly all of the framed pictures on my walls are prints from India, carefully transported home in plastic tubes. When one of my cats is being bad (or even, sometimes, when he's not), I call him a “badmaash,” which means bad guy or hooligan or naughty child in Hindi.

I was thinking about this recently when I was putting ointment on my feet, this ointment, in particular:

(I've never actually seen this ad, but I was entertained to find it online.)

I've always had bad feet--this goes back way before India, although being in India never does them any favors. One friend in college even told me he could understand why I didn't have a foot fetish, having feet that looked like mine. (I'm not sure it's the only reason, but still.) But my feet have been better for the past 7 or 8 years, thanks to a moment at the Taj Mahal.

I had gone to the Taj Mahal that first time in India, and I hadn't planned to go again. (The Taj is amazing, as is the Agra Fort, but Agra itself is a pit and an especially irritating place to be if you're a tourist.) But not quite ten years later, I found myself directing a study abroad program, and there's no way you can have a study abroad program in northern India without taking the students to the Taj Mahal. So, I went once in the fall of 1999 and once in the spring of 2000 with my two SIT groups. And then again, a fourth time, in December of 2001 with my study abroad students from Varanasi. You can forgive me for being somewhat blase about it by then.

I was sitting at the back of the Taj, overlooking the River Jamuna, leaning against this wall above, with my colleague Dale. Dale and I weren't particularly close, but I liked him, and he didn't stress me out like my female colleague who drove me up a wall. (Even now, when I read things I wrote then, I get angry all over again at her, which is not particularly productive.) Dale was a mellow bald guy from Australia who'd been coming to Varanasi and helping to run a street clinic for years. One of his claims to fame is that he always went barefoot. (Now, he is living in Sweden with his Swedish wife, and I suspect he goes barefoot less than he did than when he lived in India.) The only time I ever saw him wear shoes was when we were hiking in the mountains, and then he twisted his ankle and was very cranky about it.

We were sitting there, just chatting about nothing in particular, and Dale looked at my feet (you have to leave your shoes outside), and said, "India's been pretty hard on your feet." I agreed, and also pointed out that it didn't seem fair that he went barefoot all the time and India didn't seem to be nearly as hard on his feet. And then he spoke the magic words: "You should try Lichensa. You can get it at the chemist. It's in an orange tube." That was followed by words I hadn't expected to hear: "The lepers say that it really helps." In Varanasi, Dale spent a lot of time at the leper colony in Sankat Mochin, not far from Assi. Some of our students volunteered there as well. I'd never had anything recommended to me on that basis before, but where my feet were concerned, I was willing to try just about anything. And really, if the lepers were in favor, who was I to argue?

So, when we were back in Delhi, I went to the chemist and bought a tube of Lichensa for 30 rupees or so and put some on my feet. Within days, the cracks on my heels began to close up, and they have never been as bad since. The lepers, it turned out, were absolutely right.

Now, every time I go back to India, I make my rounds of various chemists' shops and buy up their supply of Lichensa. (It costs the equivalent of about $1 a tube.) I start to get nervous when my stash starts to dwindle, and on occasion, I've asked friends going to bring me back some (along with my walnut bark shampoo). I have no idea why it works--the only unfamiliar ingredient is called Ichthammol (apparently a form of dark sulfonated shale oil, whatever that is). All I know is that it definitely does work (and that it's definitely not available here).

But what I'm trying to get at, in all of this, is that, at this point, after 20 years, the large ways I've become "A Person who's been to India" are too numerous to count and perhaps so crucial to who I've become in my adult life that it's hard to delineate them. But even if I don't think about it specifically, I'm reminded of it constantly, when I wash my hair or make my tea or scold my cats or rub ointment on my problematic feet before I go to bed. I couldn't undo this even if I wanted to.


austere said...

D'you suppose it is like those Brits who stayed back after 1947 in quaint homes in Kasauli or Doon, with nameplates that read "Daffodils"?

Thanks for the walnut shampoo alert.

Sue Dickman said...

Well, I don't think it's quite like that . . . (Though I was just re-reading some of City of Djinns, and he has the section where he visits two nutty British sisters in Simla who were like that.)

The walnut bark shampoo is great--it smells lovely and makes your hair feel nice all around. Try it!

Lisa said...

I'd love to be "A Person Who's Been to India," but only with you as a role model.

Strangely, I'm no longer A Person Who Has Bad Feet (or at least not as Bad as they were) because I finally bit the bullet and took the severe, potentially liver-compromising cure, and it worked. I still have my tube of lichensa, though, for emergencies.

Rumela said...

Is the foot covers/shoe removal requirement for religious reasons, or to protect the marble floor? I think it may be the latter since if it was for religious reasons you wouldn't be allowed to bring your shoes in, covered or not, would you?

green glue said...

The title is intriguing and after reading the post, it still made me wonder! Could you explain a little more? Thanks