There’s nowhere like India.
If it could be said that I lost my heart in Africa then it must be said that I found my soul in India. Now I know at least one of my friends will be puking into their screen on reading that sentence, disgusted that I’ve returned from India “spouting all that spiritual shite” but hold on to your lunch while I explain my self…
If evil was a tangible thing you could reach out and grasp I could have sworn I felt it in the few days before I left for Bombay. It took me 3 weeks to realize that I was mistaken and that what I had been feeling was pure, blind, fear. My travels in Asia and particularly India, being first on the list, put me face to face with the one great fear I didn’t even know I had: that of being by myself. For the first time in my life I was utterly and irreconcilably alone. So strong was the bond with home that I didn’t even realize I’d left for those first 3 months in Africa. Of course you always meet other travellers but essentially you’re on your own. It took a while to get used to and I’d still prefer to have a constant companion but I know I can go it alone now and that’s a very empowering thing. It is perhaps a rather hilarious irony that I learned how to be alone and even to enjoy it in the world’s most populous country.
But what of India? God there are so many things to say, but one word that immediately comes to mind is unique; India is a thoroughly unique place. I started off being scared of it, then being able to manage it, then hating it and finally beginning to appreciate and like the place. Its too huge to quantify especially when I only saw a tiny fraction but the overall impression is of a place about to collapse under its own weight, somewhere hanging in there – just about. The crowds are the hardest thing to get used to, I mean the place is teeming. It struck me when I got to Nepal, itself not exactly empty, that it had been some time since I’d been on a street where there was room to swing a kitten.
While trying to write this retrospective I realize the futility of attempting to make generalizations on India. Its like trying to look at an elephant through a mouse hole, no matter how hard you try to its just to big and you can only see a little piece at a time. I remember things like the many Indians I saw wearing T-shirts proclaiming “A billion is enough”. Or how someone once told me the reason that Hindi music is blasted at just below ear splitting volume on buses is that it helps folks sleep. Or the time this beggar approached my cab at the traffic lights in Bombay in those early days. He had a hideously disfigured hand and what I was thinking at the time was “Nice deformity, if I give you 5 rupees will you stop showing it to me?”. Or the kid with elephantiasis begging his way through the trains; or the woman half of whose face was unbelievably stretched and hanging almost to her navel like a trunk – a sight so gruesome it surely could only have been created by a Hollywood horror artist, couldn’t it?
Other random images include the cow in Pushkar with an extra leg growing out of its hump and the chai seller there with unfeasibly large eyeballs and a computer like voice. Not to mention the sight of people performing their daily ablutions in the muddy water which collected in the cracks of the pavement concrete of Calcutta – or more disturbingly cleaning their teeth in it. The sheer weirdness of these sights has impressed them upon my memory but I must not neglect the wonderful by concentrating solely on the distressing sights there are in India. From the vast expanse of the Bombay skyline as the sun sets, to the vivid colour of the Rajastani people against their monochrome desert backdrop, the intricate sandstone balconies of Jaisalmer to the sparkling saris of the woman in the paddy fields of the south, there is beauty in abundance.
It occurs to me that what I miss most about India are the very things that sometimes drove me mental while I was there; the crowds, the sales mantras of the hawkers on the trains…the marvelous awfulness of it all. And the Indians themselves? Well you just have to admire their resourcefulness. In Pahar Ganj I saw a guy flogging nice maps of India to tourists – maps which are available free at any government tourist office. Or the taxi guy in Bombay who tried to charge us over 4 times the correct fare when he saw we were getting out at the most expensive hotel in town. We made him produce the fare chart and the look on his face was pure classic. A scolding smile on my part had a produced mischievous but totally crooked “fair cop” glint in his eye. Can’t blame a guy for trying I guess and there was no hard feelings on either side. No one can fail to notice how very hard people have to work for so very little. India is truly the ultimate free market economy as no matter how skilled you are there are at least a million others who can do the same job. And when you get to meet real Indians (as opposed to traders who are invariably trying to rip you off) they are intensely curious about and protective of their foreign visitors. They seem to have a real hunger for information on other countries and for the opinions of outsiders. One quite disconcerting aspect of the people, especially traders and big city dwellers, is how scarily good they are at reading other people, particularly hapless western tourists. One hell of a sales tool!
Travelling in India can be a harrowing as its rewarding – or vice versa I’m not sure which is more appropriate. Certainly I found myself many times giving thanks to whatever or whoever was watching over me and had delivered me to my destination intact mentally and whole every bit as much as physically. It remains only for me to share a few helpful cultural tips for prospective travellers.
Traffic and Transport:
1) Vehicles with loud horns have right of way – road signs are not a higher authority in this matter.
2) The bus stop is wherever the bus stops.
3) The number of people holding tickets in a 2nd class compartment is 8. The number of people sitting there is, on average, 28.
4) There is always room for one more regardless of crowds, especially if they are carrying large bags of smelly fish.
1) The toilet is anywhere (if you’re a guy) and almost anywhere (if you’re a woman)
2) Rubbish bins are everywhere in India but known by a different name in the west viz “the ground”
On a final note it must be said that India is insidiously infectious; you think you hate the place and before you know it you’ll be singing along with the Hindi movie favorites and wiggling your head on replies!