Arjun is a rising junior studying Theater and Performance Studies and Symbolic Systems. He volunteered at AGN School in Tamil Nadu this summer. He wrote this moving poem about this experience and choreographed a dance which the volunteers performed for the AGN students on their last day!


Finding My Name in The Great Dance of Indian Traffic

I was shut up.

A soundscape of oddly musical honking

hugged, like the humidity,

my pounding head

as I hugged the Chennai curb,

an unseasoned body

in this country of spice

and little space.

 

Shut up!

I wanted to scream.

Unnecessary, did it all seem:

the blaring horns,

messy lines,

swerving bikes and autos

toppling

in streets grossly unclean.

 

Fearless inhabitants wandered about,

escaping death with every step,

busses staring them down,

cars crossing lanes

to take their turn

in the metallic mess

of controlled chaos.

 

How did it work?

I marveled.

How would I dance

in this environment

so different from my own?

Shut up and stop worrying.

We’ll see when we get there.

 

“In some ways, I hate introducing myself. I have grown to expect, upon me saying my name, the request for it to come a second time, accompanied by a head tilt and a concerned furrowing of the brow (to improve audition, I guess). The college environment requires frequent introductions due to the volume of new people with whom I interact on a daily basis, and so I have developed an American-tailored mnemonic. “It’s ERRR like you’re mad and then the month of June” I have always said, feeling as if I was kind of cheating myself. Two months in India showed me just how unfaithful I had been.”

 

The school was a rural escape

from the city noise.

Eager girls crowded around,

but stayed far from, the boys

to see us as we entered

their compound and home,

which quickly became ours, too.

 

“Oh Arjun! An Indian name!”

they gleefully exclaimed,

as I introduced myself

and smiled the same.

So easily did they roll the “r”

and form the vowel sounds

enemy to American tongues.

 

Meanwhile, my peers were asked

to repeat their American names

slowly, mnemonically,

for the Indian ears to grasp…

without fail…

“Arjun” remained the easiest name.

Never before, had I that comfort.

 

“As an Indian American, I have always wanted to return to my country of origin. I come from a traditional Indian household and community where, among other things, we celebrated Indian holidays with gatherings and brilliant Indian garb, ate delicious Indian food at my grandparents’ house, and danced energetically to classical Indian and popular Bollywood music. Never, though, was I afforded the opportunity to contextualize the upbringing so disparate from and foreign to my American friends. In my Ohio suburb, I only had what my parents could recreate for me, but I wanted to smell that food, to taste that hospitality, and to feel the music myself.”

 

Daily towards dinner we walked,

backed by the sky’s setting sun

spewing color and clouds

in distracted directions,

changing course without reason

as we, walking, changed course,

hailed by playing students.

 

The hostel boys lived on the campus,

and they were our window

into South Indian culture

as we were theirs

into American ways.

They accompanied us to dinner,

broken English exiting their lips

while their mess hall meal entered,

hungry to learn more.

 

Rice stuck in my nails as

feverish fingers stuffed my face

full of the foods of my grandmother’s house,

sinus-clearing, bowel-clearing,

(though not FDA regulation-clearing)

breads and lentils,

vegetables and sweets.

 

The eating process was numbing

for the food kept coming,

refilled by Rasama or Master,

whomever was faster.

They waited on us, hand and foot,

and, on our plate, they would put

whatever was lacking…

even the breads they were stacking!

 

Don’t know if I’m elated or gassy.

 

“My time in India with the students and teachers at the AGN and APPU schools taught me how to “go with the flow,” how to think on the spot, how to make five-year-olds and fifteen-year-olds alike laugh while learning; how to make myself laugh while teaching. It showed me how quickly you can find attachments in the unlikeliest of individuals and geographical locations, and why India will and should always be a proud part of me.“

 

Just as abruptly as this finishes

it was time to say goodbye.

So much happened,

but the details will not be remembered.

Except for my name.

Except for the traffic.

 

So many times,

during our time,

did we not know what next

was going to happen.

 

So many times,

during our time,

were we unsure of the time

and the reason and rhyme.

 

So, during our time

“Go with the flow”

became our motto, with,

“We’ll see when we get there,”

coming second in that helpful pair.

 

Armed with that,

I no longer marveled at the traffic:

Going with the flow was how

the people made it to work.

 

For so long had I conformed

to the rigid American traffic pattern,

altering even my name

to fit in the double-yellow line

so that it wouldn’t sound lame

in that American whine.

 

The Indian road to school inspired me

to throw my auto rickshaw

onto the uniformity

of an American street,

so that when I meet a new face

with my real name I can greet.

When rolling the “r” or forming the vowels,

I’ll remember not to cheat.

 

What is the dance of linguistic traffic

without the imposition

of forced improvisation

where the true driver comes out?

 

And what is an Indian farewell,

without a fusion dance to cap it off,

In front of two thousand students

featuring songs in English, Hindi, and Tamil…

and Dance, a language in itself

barrier-free, boundary-free

bridging all

in a great experiment of Indian traffic,

of going with the flow.

 

Shut up, Arjun.

Shut up and dance.

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