It was late morning by the time I arrived in paharganj, the backpacker ghetto at the heart of Delhi’s tourist industry, and it wasn’t long before I missed the solitude that accompanies travel to places like Ranchi and Dhaka. It is a quality of South Asian cities that are off the beaten tourist path that one can be surrounded by people and remain mostly alone. You stand out and eyes follow you everywhere, but there’s no one familiar with whom to share the experience, and the loneliness can be almost as overwhelming as the encroaching mass of people. But, another type of invisibility permeates the backpacker communities, where everyone becomes “just another tourist” seeking adventure, and all of one’s interactions with locals revolve around money: us having it and them trying to get it from us.
And so, it was with pleasure that I boarded the busy Delhi metro, once again disappearing into a sea of Indian faces, and rode to the southern terminus at HUDA City Centre, where I caught an auto-rickshaw to the Heritage School of Gurgaon. This time, familiarity predominated as I greeted Kay Jacobs, the school’s head administrator and found a middle-school teacher I recognized to spend a period in her classroom. The following day I returned to the school and spent the morning with the high school English department, talking about revision, the six writing traits, and the workshop teaching model. I spent most of my time, however, in the music rooms.
For years, I have been impressed by music’s ability to bring people together. I saw it in Cambodia when I studied there for a year; I saw it in Ranchi when I spent a week with Mukund, Kali, and the others; and I saw it with Somnath, the Heritage School’s classical music instructor and an expert classical slide guitar musician, in our limited time together. It may be that musicians share a dedication to detail and discipline; Somnath practices every night from 10 pm until 2 am, and I followed a similar practice schedule in college. Maybe it comes from music’s impact on listeners—how it transcends language—and Somnath spoke at length about how “music can purify everybody’s mind and soul.” My best guess, however, is that music is a window into a person’s identity, his self. More than most other professionals, performers reveal themselves through their art. This is why, I think, music and dance are so important to people; Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge, for instance, organized music and dance troupes even before their basic needs were met. When I showed a genuine interest in Somnath’s music, I also showed an interest in himself, in his whole being. Like numerous other musicians with whom I have worked, Somnath responded with joy and friendship; he seemed to recognize a kindred artistic spirit and opened up to me. We spent hours talking about Indian classical and folk music, sharing digital files of music, and discussing the philosophic elements of performance. I am so grateful for this opportunity to see a soul unbarred and to make a new friend.
After the final bell, we said our goodbyes, and I walked to the street to catch an auto-rickshaw to the HUDA City Centre metro stop. In an hour, I was back in paharganj amid the crowds of other tourists. I walked the main street, buying gifts for my family and friends back home; enjoyed a sweet mint tea at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant; ate dinner with a friend; packed my bags for the long journey home; and caught a taxi to the airport. Those travel logistics don’t stay with me, though; they did once, when I first started traveling internationally, but their novelty has mostly worn off. My fellowship ended when I said goodbye to the Heritage School and Somnath, and when I come back to India, he is the first person I will look forward to seeing again.