What Meets the Eye

Laughing. On a long 15-hour bus journey from Kochi to Mysore, I sat in the window seat, alternately watching the scene outside and reading Shantaram on my iPod. We were on a single-lane highway, but our bus sped up to overtake another one on the right side. I had my sunglasses on and was listening to my iPod, but had taken my eyes off the words on the screen for a moment. As we pulled up alongside the other bus, my eyes caught those of a young woman about my age. I lifted my glasses and gave her a broad smile. She returned it immediately. While our buses rode alongside each other for those few moments, our gazed remained locked and we spontaneously burst into giggles, though as far as I can tell, neither of us knew what was funny. Then my bus overtook hers, the moment passed, I replaced the glasses and let the smile slowly fade.

Crying. I was alone, sitting opposite a young woman on a 4-hour train journey from Varkala to Kochi. Her eyes were closed and head leaned up against the window in a kind of half-sleep. It was that shadowy time of day, with the sun receding behind villages of rice paddies that flickered past my eyes out the barred windows of the train. The train was dark inside and dirty, with cockroaches exploring the crevices of its long-neglected grimy corners. I had a few oranges with me, and when I peeled one for myself, I put half in front of my seatmate for when she awoke. I felt like making a friend, or at least hearing her story. An hour passed, and I half-concentrated on the rural scene silently passing outside and half reflected internally. My thoughts wandered through my trip thusfar, life at home, friendships, romances, family. The train was traveling at a moderate speed through the rice paddies, pooled with water right to their brims but not overflowing. I let my mind wade deeper into the past couple of years, and I got sad. I don’t often get sad, and it’s nothing to be concerned about. But right then, combined with the scenes of rural poverty and fading daylight, I felt sorry for myself and the world. My eyes filled to the brim with tears, mimicking the paddies outside. Had I blinked at that moment, they would have spilled over. But just then the woman stirred and opened her eyes. She noticed the orange, then looked at me and saw my watery eyes. Her face softened in some sort of intuitive understanding and she gave me a kind, soothing smile. She let the moment pass, and the tears never spilled over.

Unknowing. When I landed in northern India, I felt like I had arrived somewhere truly foreign. Every country from Russia to Nepal has been strange and unfamiliar to me in various ways, but it was especially the sight of crowds of Muslim men and women at the Taj Mahal, in the din of Delhi’s streets, in Mumbai’s markets and waiting for buses alongside the road that caught my eye. Perhaps it’s because these are the people we see on the news from the frontlines of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan–the ones whose religion is believed to be the enemy of the Western world. I’d never before been immersed in this domain, and the feeling was disconcerting and challenging. I was fascinated, especially by women who often bore the full burqa. In the stifling, oppressive heat of Delhi and Mumbai, their garb seemed not only ridiculous but cruel. Entirely wrapped in black, their only visible feature are the eyes. Many of the older women wear large wire-framed glasses, whose size often exceeds the slotted eye opening of the burqa. The effect emphasized for me their near-invisibility in the world and made me wonder what they saw, looking out from behind the wire and fabric. I was entranced by them, their silence, their inaccessibility, their eyes. When I passed a group of burqa-clad women at the Taj Mahal, I trained my eyes on theirs, waiting for one to return the glance. I was desperate for a glimpse into their thoughts, but not one returned my gaze. On the street, if I did manage to catch the eyes of a passing woman, the glance I received in return was cold and brief, lending no insight. Boarding buses, I let my eyes flicker over the rows of quiet women, hoping one would look at me in curiosity or even contempt, allowing me a narrow window into their world. None ever did.

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