Inward, Outward: 16 Hours and 15 Minutes

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Longtime townie Jeff Brunell finally returned to school just before turning thirty. He’s in southern India, completing his graduate field work and taking stock. These are his findings.Follow this link to see all the posts from his journey. The first in the series is titled, Hello Mumbai.

18/6, just after midnight

Awaiting carryout in the same chrome diner that turned me away the first night. Walking here alone, the streets too dark and bodies crumpled asleep in doorways, four different dogs barked at me as I passed. From shadows, a wrathful fifth charged my way. In complete terror, I barked back at him while stabbing my finger into the closing gap between us. My bark was saying, “No, not this: No!” Saying it frantically.

He backed off, but I’m ready to leave this city. I can’t keep anything dry here and it’s troubling my mind.

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Bollywood got us after all. I awoke grumpy, sat up in bed, and declared that, “I don’t live my life just doing things for the sake of having weird experiences,” a statement ridiculous in light of this whole endeavor. I felt as if I’d barely slept, and I hadn’t. Lena insisted that nothing but her health had changed since yesterday; we should go on without her. Michele asked, “What else would we do if not this?” Me, I’d have just slept awhile longer. From now on: I need to risk being the spoilsport, when necessary, to honor my instincts.

After days enraptured, sitting in this diner now, I don’t know that I like Mumbai so much. Really, though, it’s feeling like a tagalong that has me discouraged. And maybe I’ve been too focused on collecting a story, not alert enough to what the city’s actually willing to share. Maybe I’m just too hungry because often, that’s all it is.

Uptown by bus was the best part of the movie star bargain. The ride bouncing past the breakers along the southwestern shore felt just like Uncle Mick’s ancient motorboat, mildew and all. Boarding, I’d dropped into my seat and snarled: from the window left open, the day in dry clothes I’d imagined receded from view. But we saw a bunch of town on the way up; sort of a free highway tour leading to a backlot at the farthest edge of what might informally be called Mumbai. I started to connect some of the fragmentary pieces of my mental map, and the city felt less scary for these inroads against its infinitude. The honking horns honking at honking horns continued to scratch at my caffeine-rattled temples and damp ass.

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Arriving: The producers sat me alongside interesting strangers, but split Michele and I to opposite ends of the set. They gave her a grey jacket with shoulder pads, a glass of water, and a tiny Australian flag: tools of a known diplomat. I was assigned one nubby brown suit and a disconnected desktop computer. I was a judge, a boxing expert. I cooked up a plan for stuffing the suit into my travel bag as compensation for the stolen day. Of course: at the last second, jittery in the wardrobe stairwell, conscience or cowardice won out and I returned it to the costume staff. This brush with a compelling secondhand garment may be the dramatic apex of my short Bollywood career.

The film, based on the story of India’s most famous female boxer, featured a celebrated Bollywood actress, a former Miss World. Hilarious to me, its setting was Scranton, Pennsylvania: a place forever linked in my memory to Friendly’s Restaurants and sad country radio that crackled over mountains on interminable childhood car trips. A defeated place, I always assumed; unlikely to host the international championship of anything. Scranton, it hurts me to say this about you.

We sat at fake attention while some fifty crew members fussed to stage the decisive moments of the historic bout between the villainous Russian and heroic Mary Kom. Our job was to type feverishly while furrowing our brows in a pose of expert analysis. To my right sat an 18 year old from Wisconsin who’d recently weaned himself from World of Warcraft and said that he came here for “the spirituality.”  Next to him was a young Frenchman whom I admired for sleeping even more than I did throughout the day. When he sat up for a few minutes, he told me that mainly, he wants to be a writer. But first, he said, he’ll need to develop the necessary arrogance.

A pair of sixty-something Indian men, veteran extras resented by all present because they were making the equivalent of equity pay, sat a few seats to my right. They annoyed me with their comments about women in general, particularly their unkind and needless assessment of the film’s boxing consultant, who apparently failed their connoisseurs’ test of femaleness. Throughout the day, they repeatedly referred to me as ‘Shakespeare,’ inanely suggesting that in my sleep, I was destabilizing our flimsy platform perch. This was not the case- it was those laughing bastards shaking the ground!

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We were stuck together and in time, they were agreeable enough company; doing their part to break monotony as the largely undifferentiated hours dripped past. Between us sat a very funny Brit who was intent on traveling for as long as possible before buckling down to study international development, whatever that means to him. Probably: something moderately wicked and hugely self-congratulatory. But we all laughed, employed the dummy keyboards as percussive musical instruments, and turned in performances which grew hammier by the hour, helping to ease the shoot’s slow passage.

The best part of a sixteen hour day as an extra was finally taking time to really dig into The Politics of Experience. Again, it got me wondering whether I’m moving in a relevant and worthwhile direction with this program and my plans. The alternative which came fittingly to mind was that this could be shadowboxing: had I just picked something involved and difficult for the sake of being in-process; for the relief of having a definite plan, however flawed? Zie says that if you’re questioning your premises, that’s good. It means that you’re awake. I’ve always thought that it’s essential, especially for someone entering a helping profession, to aim for radical honesty and ongoing self-reckoning. Still, I wonder how to get that kind of reflection on the same page with traction in the real world. Typically, they’re splitting a timeshare and it seems like no one ever bothers to sweep.

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A despotic production assistant in a stupid bandana caught me taking photos between takes, not long before the crew finally wrapped. Shouting, he charged well into my breathing zone and demanded that I hand over my camera. I said that this would be impossible, and that I had innocently misunderstood the set’s policy. I had not. He backed down from the elementary school confiscation threat, but stood directly behind me while I deleted the shots. Like the disappointment with the suit soon to come, I felt that I was losing what little value the day had offered: a few fuzzy images of key grips, bored extras, and fog machines. At this point, though, I was unwilling to risk ejection from the shoot and get stuck, day wasted and paying my own bus fare the hour-plus back downtown.

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Minus a couple of Kenyans and one additional American, most of the other extras were European. Among them was an unusually pretty Russian girl, and we made eye contact several times over the course of the shoot. When we were finally released from our roles, standing in a group complaining with the others, she asked my name. I told her and she shared her own, said that they sounded nice together. Maybe I was atrophied from my day as a pretend analyst; I froze. My response was feeble and the moment passed. Her contingent invited us out and I wanted to see where it would go- see if I would let it go anywhere- but I was exhausted and didn’t want to walk back to our hotel from their party in Colaba. Michele was along and she wanted to get home; the Europeans would be getting wasted and I wasn’t in the mood to be a stick in the mud. Proffering these weak excuses for avoiding the rich and risky messiness of life, I said goodnight. Michele and I stayed on to the bus’ last stop.

Yoga classes will probably start within our first few days of reaching the exchange university, and I think that I’m in need of the practice. On the bus this morning, I had to check myself and push the manual restart before the old inexorable slide into negative territory picked up too much steam. The wheels of the day were loose from the start, and by the ride back tonight, I was seething. They held us two hours later than expected, sure. But there was no use in getting so sour trying to fight it. Our U.S. professor’s main piece of advice to us – “Surrender to India” – applies in this case and anywhere, really: when I brace myself against experience, it builds a wall that permits no connection to anything dynamic, challenging, worthwhile. And maybe that’s the idea.

Look- today can go back to hell. Back at the hotel and for tonight, I’m just tired of writing it down and feeling sleepy and feeling old and tired of the unwashed sheets on this bed in our hotel room turned sickroom. The new start tomorrow is coming right on time. We’re now four percent of the way through this trip.

I’m counting.

Jeff Brunell

Jeff is a travel writer and graduate student.