Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Because of India

The past four days have contained five flights, nineteen hours in the sky, forty-seven hours in airports and one very irritating canceled flight, resulting in one rather lovely night spent in the Hilton. (See how I make lemonade?). But it was worth it. All of it.

Because of India.

Its pretty hard to put into words what it is about India that gives it that famous, potent pull that seems to draw people in from all corners of the world and then spits them out, somehow different. But there is certainly something very powerful and unique at the heart of this mysterious country. Something which is easy to hate, but even easier to love.

I've never believed in the phrase "[this or that] changed my life". It seems to suggest that life is already set out, already scheduled in some very tight diary, and that only very few profound or significant experiences can alter it. I've always felt that every moment, every decision, every experience changes your life, if in some subtle or major way. Life is fluid. It changes every second.

I would say, however, that at some fundamental level India changed me, wanky as that sounds.

India has a tendency to pull you completely out of yourself, in a way that is sometimes violent, confronting and uncomfortable. It yanks you out of the Western bubble into a world that is foreign, dirty, beautiful, and ultimately very very real. India seems to say: yes, our roads are covered in rubbish, our streets are polluted, everything is dirty, people are poor - but guess what? The world is dirty and polluted and covered in waste, and the vast, vast majority of people are poor. This is the reality of our existence, and the West likes to hide this from you by carting or keeping all that is unpleasant, smelly or confronting in the world's poorest countries. So here, here is reality on a golden platter, surrounded by incense and spices and offerings. And a lot of beauty. And a deep, spiritual sense of calm in the face of incredible chaos. Come to terms with it, and you will love it.

India pulls you out of yourself in other ways too. Outrageously friendly strangers often ask personal questions about family, work, how much you earn, why you no married? And the seeming inevitability of a dose of 'Dehli belly' insures you loose some of yourself physically, too, making you strikingly aware of your embodied mortality.

All in all, India reminds you in a sometimes shocking way, that you are, indeed, alive.

To say that India is fraught with contradiction is probably to quote the opening sentence from every guide book ever published. But it is, in so many ways. Paradox is everywhere. People throw garbage out of train windows, or burn it on the street, yet at the same time there is a sense profound respect for nature, for animals and for the balance of things; most people are vegetarian and rickshaws run on non polluting CNG fuel. Cows and goats rule the streets. Physical modesty for both women and men is important, yet women wear saris which openly expose their midriff, and men piss on street corners, completely nonplussed. Sweet things are seasoned with salt, and savoury with sugar. It's all about balance, apparently.

South India is truly a sensory paradise. Beautiful environments and colourfully adorned people, animals and vehicles constantly dance before the eyes; the scent of fragrant sandalwood oil, spices and flowers constantly fill the air; delicious, complex and rich food can be found in any direction in any city, town, or the side of any highway; Bollywood music is blasted from speakers placed on street corners and outside temples or private homes, boat paddlers sing traditional songs by the orange light of a full moon; and the rough texture of elephant skin, the cool hard touch of a deity carved from granite, or the soft ears of a wandering calf's ear constantly brush against dangling hands. Every sensory pleasure competes for supremacy in a mind-spinning kaleidoscope of colour, spice, rickshaws, offerings and dance. It's thoroughly exhausting and exhilarating all at once.

I left India with only one thought wandering through my increasingly tired head: to return. It seems that potent pull hasn't fully spat me out yet, and I feel that there is so much more of India (and myself) left to discover. I can't wait.

And I can't recommend you go enough.


Tara said...

Your photos are so beautiful.

I've wanted to go to India ever since I read Forster's 'A Passage to India', which is a book I pretty much re-read yearly. This post makes me want to go even more. Bless!

Anonymous said...

funny comment, since "Passage to India" made a critique of the British in India. Forester would be (as they say) rolling around in his grave.

I'd suggest some study of orientalism before the impending trip to India.