When I’ve heard India described it’s been romanticised, or demonised- always in some way dramatised. India is a big deal, a land of extremes, endless variety, the pinnacles of triumph and the pits of turmoil, the place that will make or break you.
Well after 3.5 months there I agreed, and disagreed. Even though I have been to India before, 9 years ago, I didn’t know what I would get this time around. I knew it would be completely different, and it was.
I guess when I think of the ‘image of India’, it is of a dazzling display of sequins, silk and gold, painted elephants and silver bells. Gurus who sit for hours absorbed in meditation and can contort their body into any position, who will whisk you off the streets at a moments notice to get you enlightened. Something beautiful and magical. Which it certainly is not, at least not in that way.
India is a place that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and thrusts you into the brunt of the harsh reality of life as a human being. In my 3.5 months there I saw more human poop, more humans pooping, more dead bodies, more dogs so sick and starving I cried, more sexism, racism and classism, more faith, more ritual, more tragedy and more celebration than I’ve ever seen before in my short life. I’ve been at the receiving end of stares so long Kanye West would feel uncomfortable. I’ve had conversations in a language I have no knowledge of, and yet there is complete understanding. Been offered gifts so humble and small they could so easily be tossed aside, yet are pricelessly precious.
There were days we did nothing, just lay in the heat in our underwear, with the fan turned so high it rattled and threatened to detach and consume our tiny, sweaty room in a fan blade guillotine. Days of trudging through cities and towns, feet blackened with dust, trying to get somewhere, or trying to find food that seemed edible or someone would sell us. Days that did not seem magical.
You’re just so close to life there’s no illusion anymore, things are laid out, as starkly and plainly as they are. There’s no time or energy to bother with pretense, or civility. Perhaps that’s what’s so ‘wonderful’ and ‘freeing’, one has no choice but to not give a damn! But something nags at you; that this isn’t just a funny social experiment, this isn’t a show or a theme park or a zoo. It’s the reality of life for millions of people everyday. People who are not keeping up their quaint social customs to shock and amuse us, but who are just struggling to survive. That’s not to say I haven’t been shocked, and amused. India should come with a warning, ‘Objects in mirror are closer than they appear’. These are real people and real lives, who can’t be seen through a tour bus window. And it sure isn’t easy getting up close and personal to life on the ground there.
Without romanticising, there’s plenty to learn in India, it’s true. We could learn to be so comfortable with death- so we don’t mind when someone wants to dry off after bathing in the Ganges by waving their towel and clothes over our father’s funeral pyre.
The most magical thing about India is the way it changed my mind. I really can’t describe it. But it’s legacy left me stiller, more able to cope with certain things. More understanding of people, so, more understanding of myself.
Three months on and off in Thailand is another story completely. Another story I will leave for another post, shortly.