02 March 2009

India Hit Me

There should be a question mark at the end of that sentence....

I don't always get along with India, but when I do it is a love affair that sweeps me off my feet.

I find tears of joy in my eyes nearly everyday, and sometimes my voice cracks when I am trying to describe a recent experience, no matter how mundane, to a fellow traveler. Something about the way that the ugly and the beautiful are entwined here is addictive and emotional, as how walking a filth covered street leading to a gold dipped palace makes you appreciate it with all the more rapture when you get there. The sheer amount that you have to work in India to make things happen – the amount of false information and bad directions you have to sift through to get to your final destination makes the pay off of what you came to see so much more dramatic and rewarding. If you had to slay a dragon to maneuver through the halls of the Louvre, you'd really fucking enjoy that mysterious smile.

Never have I felt as alive, yet I have become blase at even the most hair raising danger on the roads, and am no longer afraid to eat or drink things that could make me sick. It's as if the excitement and chaos surrounding you blinds you to your own mortality, and risks unimaginable at home become commonplace. A different sense of danger exists in India; a helmetless family of four on a single motorbike weaves in and out of traffic; a toddler balances on her father's handlebars for a bike around town; unskilled people work with live electrical connections to fix a short, sparks flying; young men balance precariously on the tops of crowded buses that wind their way up potholed mountain roads. At first all of these things shocked me deeply, but now as my auto rickshaw adds to the din and pollution of the roads that we zigzag across I no longer even bat an eye.

My emotions run at extreme highs and lows – its as if I have manic depression brought on by my environment. One moment I am marveling at the neem whitened grin of a bejeweled local woman, and the next I am recoiling in horror at the carelessly spit splash of red paan from someone's mouth that has landed on my bare foot. Some days I can never imagine leaving this place, but home sickness, when it hits, hits hard. We both treat each other with utter disregard at times - my love affair with India is an abusive relationship.

It is a land of paradox. I grit my teeth with frustration only to have my mouth fill with poetry.

Conversely, it is often when I am at my wits end that amazing things happen, as if all of the thirty three million Hindu Gods come sweeping in from their crowded heaven to remind me of the love that I have for this country. I may not thrive on the squalor and filth like some European backpacker types, at times I fantasize about modernity and cleanliness when I should be calmly appreciating local customs, and some days I cannot force any more masala into my tender stomach, but I am truly a different person from the girl who arrived in Delhi in late October. I love it here. I love it in a way that is made more intense by all of its problems, just like the way I love my mean, troubled cat with more passion than I do my sweet and banal cat. She's so easy to love that it seems uncomplicated and less meaningful. When Kevin (mean cat) loves me it is fierce and difficult and powerful. And, I suppose, not for everyone.

I have a tendency to dwell on the negative aspects of situations when I write – writing is my catharsis, I use it to vent all of the ugly thoughts I have when instead I should spend more time with the good ones. The past 4.5 months in India have been unbelievable, and I will always remember the way I feel – vibrantly alive, completely fearless and filled with wonder at the magic of the world. So, I'll end this with a list of some snapshots from my brain that I will carry with me forever.

*A tiny mewling “Hello!” from the mouth of a toddler in the backwaters of Kerala as I walked by, her young mum giggling at the cleverness of her painted baby.

*Rushing past a 500 year old temple in Hampi at sunset and witnessing a spontaneous marching band performance featuring pounding tabla drums, and remembering to slow down and enjoy every minute of life.

*In Mumbai, teasing begging kids in my limited Hindi and having them drop their well-oiled routine and react like giddy children, bouncing around either side of my rickshaw.

*A sadhu in Rishikesh administering a prayer ritual for which many holy men charge tourists inflated prices, and then refusing my money in the name of spirituality.

After the blessing.

*An impromptu magic show performed on a wall of the ancient Jaisalmer Fort by a brightly turbaned young boy, his enthusiasm slicing through my cynicism.

*A cooking class with a Tibetan refugee in Dharamsala when I was having a really bad day– I came away knowing more than just how to make a momo and with some perspective on my trivial troubles.

*The unpretentious welcome to eat communal food with thousands of Sikh pilgrims in the vast kitchens of Amritsar's Golden Temple.

Inside of the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple. That's A LOT of chapatis.

*Escaping the bitter cold high in the Himalayas by sitting around the indoor fire pit on a farm in Chamba, and eating the most amazing home cooked food of my life. I later commissioned the matriarch of the family to come to Canada to cook for my wedding.

*Witnessing the sheer majesty of the Taj Mahal twice, once with my love and once with my mum.

*Seeing microlending in action in the marketplaces of Rajasthan, where women use small loans to start family businesses, creating self sustaining local economies.

*The echo of men's voices singing Keralan folk songs as we canoed through the canals just past sundown.

*Emerging from the Jama Masjid and choosing the youngest cycle rickshaw driver to give us a tour of Old Delhi, his face cracking into an unimaginably infectious smile when we paid him double the agreed upon rate.

No English but a HUGE smile.

*Asking our friend Shaily, he who has confessed that he's “not very good at being Indian” how to say things in Hindi, and the exchange inevitably playing out like: “Hey Shaily, how do you say
*insert word* in Hindi?”
“Just say *word*. Everyone knows *word*.”

*The delight of eating each amazing meal in Anjuna, especially the huge stuffed omelets, homemade bread and fresh juice prepared by a Goan family in their beautiful Portuguese style home.

*Drinking beers at Leopold's Cafe mere weeks after terrorist attacks left 10 patrons dead, joining the multitudes of Mumbaikers refusing to cower at home.

*Performing nasal cleansing, sun salutations and dragon pose in the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh.

*Eating in a “Meals Ready” thali restaurant in Mysore, a dozen different dishes ladled out on a huge pile of rice set upon a banana leaf that you eat with only your right hand.

*A quiet early morning moment drinking spicy masala chai while surrounded by the craziness of the annual Pushkar Camel Fair.

His name was Mr Raju.

*Watching the Oscars live at 6am in Cochi and being amongst the first in India to find out that Slumdog Millionaire had taken 8 awards, including Best Picture.

*Being offered snacks, tea and meals by even the poorest people that we met along the way.

*A rickshaw driver insisting that Sean take the wheel one late night in Udaipur, and his peals of laughter echoing through the streets as Sean weaved unsteadily down the roads.

I know that there will be more memories that I will think of and have to add to this list. SO many many more!
I don't think I'll ever stop. India hit me, and it felt like a kiss.

For more photos like these of India (and to witness some of these moments) click here.

1 comment:

Roshni said...

Oh dear...oh dear...this post of your made me so emotional .well I am an Indian ...but I too feel the same way about India as you....I know there is a small percentage of Indians who are very corrupted,selfish and filthy but majority of us are really nice people who would treat guests as Gods...you must have even heard of the sanskrit shloka "Atithi devo Bhava" which means Guest is a God.Certain parts of India are tourism oriented for eg Rajasthan ,Uttaranchal,Madhya pradesh....and it is here that u will find those corrupted people.I wish I could have been your guide to India ...to show you our rich cultural heritage,our diverse cuisines and art forms without u having have to face any difficulty...alas ...whatever it is I like your love hate relation with my land immensely !

and that Sikh community eating is called Langar.