Novel Encounters

In 2007 Prinsen was awarded Indiana University’s Hazeltine Overseas Reporting Fellowship and spent several months in India. This piece was written during that fellowship and helped launch the School of Journalism’s blog.

I notice the old man approaching out of the corner of my eye. I’ve been sitting against a wall, reading a book while waiting for the next in an endless series of trains that has carried me dutifully around this country. I glance up and have to squint into the sun as I take the man in: his long, oily grey hair, his rich yet weathered dark skin. If you began at his torso, his garments seemed to get more and more dirty the further your eyes traveled out his once-white sleeves and down his pant legs that ended in cheap, blue plastic sandals. He is carrying an equally stained bag stitched with some sort of burlap that looks as if it has been purposely impregnated with the dust of a wanderer’s comings and goings.

He motions towards my book and says something in Hindi that I don’t understand. I look down to where it sits in my lap and then back at him with a confused expression. He has wide eyes that make it seem as if everything he is trying to communicate holds a certain importance. When he motions towards my book again, I give it to him. He takes the paperback from my hand and before looking at it makes an almost startling few seconds of eye contact with me and says “You have no fear?” posed as a question, it seems. Not knowing how or if I should answer, I simply give a slight smile and begin wondering what this odd character would do with my reading material.

He begins with the back cover and recites “An extra-ordinary novel … a work of obses-nal org-nal-ty.” He flips the book over and reads the cover: “One hundred years of …” and trails off on the word “solitude.” As he begins flipping pages, endearingly attempting to impress me with his acquired English skills by pontificating lines from the author’s dedication and publishing information page, a small crowd has begun to gather. They’re all young Indian men, wearing their modern tight, flared jeans with slick dress shirts and shoulder bags. They begin talking with each other in smiles, gesturing at the man and laughing without concealment or constraint, not more than a couple feet from where the man stands, clearly agitated and a bit embarrassed. He answers this mockery with what seems to me like words of displeasure at their presence and even puts his hand on one young man’s chest, shoving him backwards as best his meager old frame can manage. This has no effect except to increase the volume at which they laugh and the hostility with which they jeer.

“Do you need something?” I question the crowd in general, at least 15 of them at this point.

“No, we need nothing,” one of them answers with a smile that isn’t quite sure if it wants to be a smile.

“Why are you all crowding around like this then?” I ask. “Why are you all standing here?” They don’t seem to understand or react at first. One of them, seemingly the most popular in the group with uncommonly blue eyes and arms slung around the shoulders of two of his companions, asks me what I’m talking about. Searching for a way to express what I feel in a way they will understand the lack of appreciation their presence is generating, I say, in none too gentle a tone, “This is my matter, not yours.”

This they understand and most of them turn, still laughing — though now at the strange foreigner — to leave. It’s the first time I’ve spoken crossly to an Indian person, much less a whole group of them, since I arrived here almost three months ago. I’ve always been cautious and quiet, never wanting to hurt the image held of foreigners. I’m not sure what it is about this day, but today I couldn’t take the crowd, couldn’t take the lack of privacy or swallow the staring that is oh-so-common. But most of all, I couldn’t take the public jeering of this sad old man without a single person stepping forward in vocal opposition.

Likely a bit flushed and with the tunnel vision that overcomes my eyes when I get angry, I turn back to the man who, suddenly, no longer has the wide, slightly eccentric eyes he had moments before, but rather a collected and wise look of contentment. He then repeats the same words he had said before, but this time it’s different. “You have no fear,” he says, this time as a statement, as a truth not to be questioned, even by myself. And with that he hands back my book with a smile that makes his eyes twinkle and walks away, the stares from the crowd on the platform burning holes in the back of his dirty, tattered shirt.