We’ve been in India for about a week and a half now, and what’s been surprising is how quickly we’ve (re)adapted to the patterns of daily life here. It’s like we’ve picked up exactly where we left off; well, except minus the fatigue, frustration and sheer exhaustion that had us racing aboard our decontaminated Swiss Air flight that late Mumbai night in July 2013, after three months here.
I guess it’s true what they say: time has a way of layering rose-tinted glasses over our memories, smoothing out the roughest of edges so only dreamy nostalgia remains at the surface. Dig deeper, however…
Our flight from Sri Lanka was a short hop. Getting into and out of the respective airports on both sides took far, far longer than the 1hr 20m flight. The flight was, though, long enough to unleash waves of both excitement and anxiety coursing through my electro-impulses: excitement because I knew the contact high that was awaiting us, its intoxicating masala; anxiety because I equally knew all the ways that the next two months were going to test every fibre of patience in my being, of having to accept that things would not necessarily pan out in ways you would expect.
The flabbergastingly bureaucratic and illogical check-out of Sri Lanka and check-in to India were thus a great early lesson in patience and just taking life as it is here. At least that’s what I told myself.
The upshot, though, was rather than an afternoon of leisurely acclimatisation before hitting the ground running for a two-day race through Chennai, it was nearer 6pm by the time we rode the city’s impressive new Metro to Egmore, where we were staying, checked in to our accommodation, and were finally ready to get intoxicated.
Food is a great way to make everything all right with the world (conversely, for me, a bad meal while travelling tends to make me mourn a missed opportunity). So, making all right with the world became priority numero uno. Fortunately, I had already thought ahead – I must have known – and managed to work out that a Chennai institution, Hotel Saravana Bhavan, now located in many global cities, was mere minutes walk away.
And oh what a reintroduction: the cauliflower patty smothered in tangy tomato-y curry, the thick lentil sambar, the creamy coconut sambal, the vege curry with mint, the doughy paratha to swoop it all up; all the flavours and nuances that you just don’t get anywhere but here, in close proximity to the ingredient sources.
Afterwards, walking around the streets, I noticed that both excitement and anxiety had evaporated, replaced instead with a reassuring kind of familiarity: we were back in urban India, and I know this place, I know how it works.
I know how to navigate footpaths that are part missing concrete blocks, part broken concrete blocks, part darting around piles of dirt and/or rubbish, and part walking on the road itself. I know how to cross roads that don’t have actual lanes, but are instead comprised of manically weaving motorbikes, cars, tuk-tuks, buses, and trucks, all beeping incessantly to let you know both that they’re there and that they see you.
The stares? Meh, hardly even register them anymore, although the first few requests for photos did catch me off guard. I’d forgotten about the apparent novelty appeal of selfies with goris (white people) for some young men here. I wonder if I’ve gone viral without me knowing?
And, beyond navigation, this sense of familiarity and confidence extended to the sights and smells, both good and bad. The wonderfully chaotic marketplaces that come alive at night, where street food walas hustle alongside piles of fruit and vegetables and stalls selling all manner of small household items, jewellery, and phone accessories, outside of shops selling the same service clustered together, so you go to this street for fabrics, and this street for photo frames and gaudy neon-lit Hindu deities (that I low-key love).
The eateries fronted by men hotplating rotis, or stretching out naan dough, the food, the incense, the jasmine, the urine, the pungent smell of slightly rotting food, the stagnant water that contains some kind of fecal matter, the marginalised people who you know probably have literally nothing, the beggars, the children being used as props for begging, whether truthfully or not…
They’re all ingredients of life in contemporary India, and when you come here as a backpacker, you sign up for it (you can, of course, sign up for a completely different kind of India experience, avoiding all of this reality, a kind of Narnia India, if you really wanted to).
A wise woman once told me, upon her coming to India almost overwhelming her, that to survive here, you cannot try to change it, nor impose a Western (or outsider’s) judgements, moral or otherwise. You can spend your money wisely, of course, or otherwise make a good impact through your choices and behaviour, but you just have to accept life as it is. And if you cannot, then you need to go somewhere else, because it will consume you and you will drown.
I remember the first time we came to India, on our second or third day in Delhi, we’d gone to the train reservation office to book some tickets (the real one, not the fake one(s)). Inside, a poor American lass, travelling solo, was having a meltdown. She’d been duped by the many and varied con artists that swarm around the Old Delhi train station, ground zero hunting grounds for fresh meat tourists.
In between her sobs and dramatics, she was saying such ludicrous things as, “I came to India with an open heart”, and “how can people treat me like this?”. You poor, stupid bitch, we thought. I know that probably sounds harsh, but really, you come to India with that sort of unrealistic attitude, you kinda deserve it.
India is not a mystical, mythical utopian wonderland, lying in wait for you to come and discover, do some yoga, make some temple offerings, give yourself freely to the grateful natives, and find enlightenment. It’s a colossal giant of nation: 1.36 billion people of multiple cultures, multiple religions, multiple castes, creeds and belief systems; a collection of separate and vastly different states thrust together as the British made a hasty and ill-informed exit, and somehow shunted into being as the world’s largest democracy.
India is infinitely complex, with nuances and social structures I doubt you could ever learn, no matter how long you lived here. On top of this, life is hard for many. You hustle; you hustle hard. If you don’t, you don’t eat. Simple as that. For many staying afloat is success; achieving social mobility beyond the edge of reason. People don’t have time for your Eat, Pray, Love-isms; they’re busy with their own lives.
I’m reading a book at the moment, about one journalist’s attempt to live here and learn to speak Hindi. In it, she talks about India having a circular conception of time, something I’ve written about in a completely different context. Unlike a Western linear sense, the past lying behind us as we move ever forward along future’s line, in one sense, there is no past and no future here, only an all encompassing now that contains all (remembering that a belief in reincarnation means life is infinitely circular; it also might explain why, in a Western sense, the past is always so present here).
I’m grossly oversimplifying, of course, but perhaps it is this sense of the now that gives India its unique ceaseless, restless, industrious energy. If there is only the now, then the now must be lived.
No India is not for the faint-hearted, or the open-hearted. You come here with your A-game ready! (or you buy a package tour)
To be continued…
(where I’ll start talking about all the truly magical things that make India so colossally fascinating and wonderful, as well as frustrating and anguishing, all at the same time!)