1997, Bangalore Airport, Midnight. I’m a woman, an American, and I don’t speak Hindi. My introduction to the subcontinent of India was not pretty nor pleasant. Seeking an experience, I accepted a ticket and accommodations for 4 months in exchange for legal assistance/nanny duties from a law professor and his 4 children.
Over my tenure, I traveled the literal length and breadth of India. I started in Bangalore, Delhi, Mysore, Goa, Kerala, Trivandrum, The Punjab, Madras, Varanasi, and all the small hamlets and lovely green farm areas, then back to Delhi and the flat, the daily servant visits from the gardener, Saraswati, and the Toilet Woman. I lived on 12 Play, naan, sweet black carrots, tandoori chicken, and chai for 4 months. I dared not eat anything else lest I have my breath taken away by the heat. Good grief, the Indian people must have asbestos innards! There was a great Lebanese restaurant on Connaught Circle where I’d go for a treat sometimes.
Was driven everywhere, and 12 Play was my refuge. There were songs I skipped, but generally, the musicianship saved me. The grooves, the blues, the church, the old soul saved me from the detailed reality of India. I will never return there. Don’t have to. There is here now, especially the kids sleeping in the streets, families sleeping on the pavement. Pavement dwellers they were called. Families, entire communities, lived in the garbage dumps. At night, smoke rose from the dumps as people burned dung for cooking, warmth, light. Helped to fend off the mosquitos.
Then, I saw a post in my Twitter feed from Sherrilyn Ifill about how she banned R Kelly from her milieu 15 years ago because, as the Pied Piper of R & B, he was bragging about how he could steal our children. And tonight, my son asked if I was watching the 6-part docuseries, Surviving R Kelly. I read about all I want to know. I don’t want to live all the pain I know will be revealed. Good grief, R’s story is about the making of a monster and the failure to protect Black girls. Tragedy writ large.
Sad, too, because I have only one piece of music by Kelly and it is linked to indelible memories of a land to which I hope never to return. I particularly remember the green of the farmlands and of the compound in The Punjab, with its arbor, rose bushes, and a test vineyard. I remember my visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and the Sikh family with whom I visited. On our way to the Temple, my hostess offered me her lipstick saying, “We want to look our best.” Taking my own lipstick, the only makeup I wear, from my bag, I applied and appraised myself in my hand mirror. I looked my best. R. Kelly’s a part of that.