Write about Indians said the online prompt.
1. What I Know About Indians (dot, not feather)
The left hand is used to clean oneself after using the toilet. The toilet is a basin in the bathroom floor with a footpad on either side. Waste is washed down with water from the bigger bucket. Cleaning is done with water from the small scoop. When finished, empty the scoop and hang it by its handle on the edge of the big bucket. Drip dry. Thank your God of choice (there are 330 million or so, but no man can count the gods) for loose cotton pants.
At the end of social snacks-time after the writing workshop, do not confusedly offer your left hand for a farewell shake, even if you are holding a plate of snacks and a drink in your right. The lady who gingerly takes your left wrist will be polite; you will still want to sink through the floor in shame at your foreign ignorance.
2. What I Know About Indians (salmon, not buffalo)
At the University of Alaska Campus Kick-Off, there are performances all day, jugglers and aerialists and the Traditional Heritage Club. There is only one tradition here—despite the Russian Tea Room and the excellent sushi everywhere and the tiny little Anchorage Chinatown—and that tradition is Native.
The club members wear blanket shawls and handmade shoes and demonstrate the steps to a dance. This arm is picking salmonberries. These feet are casting nets. This turn is bringing seal meat back to the village. We follow, clumsily, then getting the steps. The club officers turn on the music and call the dance through a microphone. I do it twice and then step out to watch—fifteen white people plucking salmonberries and hauling seals with focused determination and precision, Rockettes casting nets in unison, and ten Natives slopping through the steps, owning them with casual ease.
3. What I Know About Indians (huffers and thieves)
Rom—Romany—Gypsies—probably originated in India. Maybe. Who knows? Not me, with my faint memories of the National Geographic book in middle school. Now my two partners and I gypsy our way from Kosovo to Serbia, Montenegro to Macedonia, cutting through Albania each time to avoid closed borders. In every new country the locals inform us what scams to watch out for, where the Gypsies “are the worst.” In every new country, our street performer friends from Australia and New Zealand and the UK tell us the times they’ve been ripped off. We all grudgingly respect the Gypsies. They know their turf, they know their gig. Often, their gig is us.
Our gig is an aerial show. The trapeze rig is bright pink and sets up in fifteen minutes, then thirty minutes of acrobatics and fire and aerial silks, hat pass at the end after a heartfelt speech—speaking it in Albanian, in Serbian, in Macedonian impresses the audience each time, feels like the biggest trick in the show. We are in an official festival in each country—nowhere in Eastern Europe has strong enough currency to do ‘street’ shows, we need an invitation, paid-for plane tickets, and a place to stay. Then we can afford to work for fun and costs and our belief that theatre belongs to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. Then we can go to Germany and make real money before we fly home.
In Macedonia, I walk to work, to the main square in Skopje. Past Mother’s Teresa’s house, now a museum. Past the long row of coffee shops on the pedestrian promenade we are forbidden to perform on. We thought it was a permitting issue, or complaints from the cafés, but no—the owners wouldn’t kick back to Pané, who runs the annual street performer festival. No entertainment for you!
Pané has a place to put our equipment and props between shows. Two big army tents, with armed guards sitting watchfully 24-7 for the run of Buskerfest Skopje. There are hundreds of Gypsies all over downtown, all over the square, selling belts and pinwheels and plastic toys and lighters and sometimes black-market cigarettes. Across the river is the biggest Gypsy settlement in the world, Šutka, Macedonia, and every day, the Rom also commute, walking uphill while I walk down. The first two days, the kids too young to run a cheap-crap franchise run up and try to hug us, but we know their little fingers are worming in our pockets for our dinars, our credit cards, or the big score, a foreign passport. Later in the week, they mostly leave us alone, fellow workers heading into town, they’ve seen our show. I’ve learned to say “I love you” in Rom, and that and a big hug stops the teenage boys from heckling. Pané has a ‘gypsy-killer’ on staff—Elvis—and Elvis carries a stick. Elvis is also a Gypsy, he tells us, his nine-year-old daughter a little Esmeralda with a dirty face above her pink Barbie shirt. Elvis chases off the huffers sniffing glue from paper bags behind the tents, and keeps the bands of adolescent boys from breaking through our audience rings to mess with performers during shows.
There is another grubby Esmeralda, perhaps six, in the square each night, slinking around the backs of our audiences, scouting for loosely-held pocketbooks, maybe for herself, maybe for an older brother or sister’s pickings. She sidles up to Todd Various at the end of his straitjacket escape, watches him collecting post-show dinars from happy hands. He glances sidelong at her, hisses “Don’t you dare.”
She waits until he leans away from her to thank someone, “Blagodaram, hvala, blagodaram, thank you very much. Yes, I’m from Scotland.” Her tiny hands dive together into his hat, scoop up as many dinars as she can carry, and stuff them into her pants as she run-run-runs. Back at the equipment tent, Todd tells the other performers this story, laughing at her brazenness. All our white hands are counting dinars, doing sad math about how many euros or dollars or pounds they make, doing happy math about how many beers they buy. Behind Todd, Elvis gets up and leaves the tent, his stick in his hand.
4. These Are My Pronouncements (white and privileged)
You may be nodding, or gasping, or empathizing because I am like you—wealthy and industrialized and literate. Maybe you just stopped at “wealthy,” because internet access and drinkable water in your own faucet right there in your house and the ability to flush your waste without looking at it don’t feel very much like assets.
“Write about Indians.”
They are not mine to write about. I can tell you about their Indian-ness banging up against my whiteness, or my whiteness crashing into their Indian-ness. I can sell you Rom stealing from me, Inuit teaching me to dance, Punjabis and Sikhs and citizens of Bihar answering my questions and asking to take a photo with me like a rock star. I cannot sell you “Indians.”
Write what you know—but also, what you want to know. What you want to think and talk and live until you own it. But some things, even hard work cannot buy. It can buy a ticket and a passport and brunch at the Taj and salmon jerky from the market, but it cannot buy me Indians. I do not have the right to tell their stories. I will never have the right to invent their stories. Indian is a thing I cannot tell.