The plot of Chalo Dilli, a Hindi film from this year, is very close to the 1987 American film Planes Trains and Automobiles, except that Steve Martin’s character of a high-strung Chicago businessman is replaced by Lara Dutta as a high-strung Mumbai businesswoman named Mihika Banerjee. Chalo Dilli means “Let’s go to Delhi,” and the movie follows a series of misfortunes for two travelers, Mihika and Manu, who thought they’d get a quick flight between India’s two biggest airports.
Early in the movie, when it still appears to the characters that a short taxi ride will get them to Delhi in a few hours, Manu (the John Candy-surrogate) asks Mihika if she likes Bollywood songs. She says that she only listens to English music. She takes a pair of headphones out of her purse as the taxi takes them through the countryside of Rajasthan, and we hear the music, a woman singing over a lite adult-contemporary production, the style you’d hear on VH-1 around 1994. “These moments in life,” she sings, “will just pass you by.” Lara closes her eyes and smiles at the music.
The irony’s a little heavy-handed, but like many Bollywood road movies, it makes me think of my time in India. Sometimes when people ask me advice for travel, I tell them not to be afraid to bring their own music and books. You’ll spend most of every day seeing things you’ve never seen before, meeting people unlike anyone you’ve met before, stretching your comfort zone to the max. If you want to spend an hour or so every day, listening to pleasant, familiar sounds, there’s nothing wrong with that. Train rides get long, and you’ll appreciate having something to pass the time. And yet, perhaps sometimes I used my own music to let the world pass me by, to waste an opportunity to see the special scenes of Indian life.
But then I think of one train ride where I’d put in my headphones, but kept my eyes open. I listened to this song and contemplated its lyrics while I paid attention to the sights all around me.
to the prisoner inside me,
to the captive of my doubts,
who among his fantasies
harbors the dream of breaking out
and taking his chances
alive in the world….”
I thought of the doubts that hold me prisoner, the part of me that’s still afraid to take chances. Then I looked around the sleeper car, saw every other traveler on the benches with me, making our way from Benares to Bihar, each of us doing our best to be alive in the world. As Jackson Browne sang into my ears, I knew this moment would never come again, and I was alive for it.
And now that I’m home I need to bring this awareness again to Michigan, to White Lake, to Dearborn, to Detroit. If I closed my eyes in India and wished I could be home, I know that from time to time I’ll close my eyes at home and wish I could be in India. These moments in life–at the supermarket, at the gym, on the freeway, in the classroom–they’ll just pass me by if I keep my eyes closed.
At the end of “Alive in the World,” I took off my headphones. The train came to a halt at Buxar Station, and a flurry of new arrivals poured in. Children selling newspapers and bottled Pepsi came running through. A transgendered beggar came to our bench, clapped her hands and pointed to the college student next to me, who fished out a coin to give. A pilgrim came in carrying a staff decorated with red tinsel, with bottles tied onto it to collect holy water from the Ganges. He climbed to the upper berth and tried to rest the staff against the small fan on the ceiling. Its blades chopped at the tinsel with an angry sound, making a momentary rain of glitter confetti.
I thanked the gods for Sleeper Class trains. And for keeping my eyes open.