Wednesday 20th December 2017
Lying on the warm, black tinted sands of Varkala beach, joined by a number of sun-soaked European tourists awkwardly positioned like starfish under umbrellas, I find myself thinking about Varanasi again. Sitting next to me is my new American friend Rebecca, bubbly, independent and undeniably adventurous, who has just purchased a 200 rupee fictional book, ‘The White Tiger‘. Arvavind Adiya’s book vividly details his personal trials and tribulations to provide an organic, albeit hyperbolic, perspective and narrative on life and death. Rebecca excitedly bumps me from my subconscious reflective state to read a couple of paragraphs that have profusely caught her attention… and I am equally intrigued. In her clear narrative voice, tinged with her rich Tennessee accent, she started talking about the Ganges…
~ “India is two countries in one: an India of Light and an India of Darkness. The ocean brings light to my country. Every place near the ocean is well-off. But the river brings darkness to India- the black river. Which black river am I talking of – which river of Death, whose banks are full of rich, dark, sticky mud whose grip traps everything that is planted in it, suffocating and choking it? Why, I am talking of Mother Ganga, river of illumination, protector of us all, breaker of the chain of birth and rebirth.” ~
Adiya’s metaphor about light and darkness is a similar set of ideas that I have been trying to unpack in my own thoughts on; complex dichotomies and the tapestry of chaos and order. With this metaphor in mind I began to think about the new lens of possibility, culture, history, language and culinary flavours that the south has offered. Reading Shashi Tharoor’s compelling non-fiction work, ‘India: From Midnight to the Millennium and Beyond‘, an analytically balanced and informative provocation about the future of India in the 21st Century – I have found a way to engage my polarised visions and experiences in northern and southern India. Tharoor’s theorising of India as a country of pluralism brilliantly engages and comments on India’s panorama of culture, traditions, politics, economics and social systems. Whilst I by no means intend to write a book review, by providing some transcription from his work I hope to contextualise my anecdotes and reiterate that the same challenges that are created by India’s multidimensional self, fuel its beauty and wonder.
~ “It is true that no other country in the world embraces the extraordinary mixture of ethnic groups, the profusion of mutually incomprehensible languages, the varieties of topography and climate, the diversity of religions and cultural practices, and the range of levels of economic development that India does. And yet India is more than the sum of is contradictions. It is a country held together, in the words of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “by strong but invisible threads… there is the elusive quality of a legend of long ago; some enchantment seems to have held her mind. She is a myth and an idea, a dream and a vision, and yet very real and present and pervasive.” ~
To begin, I reflected back on my last memory of Delhi, my departure day. After farewelling my British friends all morning it was my turn to embark on the next chapter of my adventure- southern India. I walked across the uprooted gravel road, stepping carefully around parked auto rickshaws, moving cyclists, a couple of expressionless cows and flea-infested dogs to my taxi. I waited quietly for my driver to finalise the arrangements, allowing me a final few minutes to collate and solidify this montage of scenes into my memory. I closed my eyes briefly to flood my senses with the sounds and smells of Delhi, taking a deep breath in to reflect on my new and informed understandings. Standing in the same place as my 6am arrival on Sunday 12th November, it was a surreal but humbling thought to think how much richer your life can be in the matter of weeks. Once a foreign capsule of exotic culinary flavours, disheartening poverty scenes, ‘differently abled’ beggars and a bustling network of human movement – India has now become a place of familiarity. To break my thoughts was a young girl, probably 4-6 years of age, tugging at a loose strap of my bag. With her rich brown eyes glaring back into my own she signalled with the touch of her mouth and the clenching of her small hands for food, money or pens. Covered in a thick layer of dust from head to toe, her soft brown sari no longer glittered like the dazzling models in the shopfronts behind me. Speaking in Hindi my driver tried to move the girl along but she persisted, and in her anguish was beginning to narrowly miss the rushing traffic behind her. To my relief the taxi driver unzipped his navy blue backpack and pulled out a bundle of bananas, which seemed to satisfy the girl who darted off into the distance.
To juxtapose with my dissatisfaction at my inability to assist this young girl, my mind jumps now to a collection of memories from the south. Scattered with a number of breathtaking ancient ruins, banana plantations, rice paddy fields, palm groves and quaint villages; Hampi offered a vast array of magnificent and unearthly landscapes. From jumping up and around boulders to summit the top of ancient ruins for a rose gold sunset, climbing 575 leg burning steps of Anjenaya Hill (monkey temple), to lake side diving and coconut rafts – my time in Hampi was picturesque and nourishing. Taking a rickshaw ride through the quiet countryside of Hampi, we stopped frequently at small blue pastel-coloured villages to give a number of curious and excitable children their long awaited pens- a sight that stops to warm your heart like no other. With smiles that spread from ear to ear and hands frantically waving goodbye, this small moment was just one precious treasure India has bestowed.
That same humid afternoon our rickshaw driver kindly and enthusiastically let us drive the rickshaws through the dirt and cobble infused roads of the countryside. Sitting next to Mr Paul (the name he prefaced), who spoke English very well, we conversed about a number of topics from the processes involved in rice plantations, schooling, life in villages and the acquisition of an Indian drivers license. As our conversation continued to flow smoothly between new ideas and questions, he softly asked: ‘Do you study back home?’ Now I have been asked this question a number of times, but depending on the English abilities of the curious individual, it has generally just ended in a kind sentiment or expression like “very good”. I responded to Mr Paul’s question with, “a high school teacher. English and History are my majors. But I am only a student, I am not qualified yet”. With a gentle nod, he responded back, “I am studying too”. To my excitement and genuine inquisitiveness I glanced at Mr Paul and said, “That is fantastic. What are you studying?”. With a small moments pause, a warm smile crinkled his cheeks and his eyes passionately lit up…’I am studying life, but I am not qualified yet. Only once my family is stable, I have seen my children grow up to fulfil their dreams and they remember me when I am gone, will I have mastered life and qualified’. His surprising philosophical ramblings were heart warming, and my eyes glistened at another precious moment that had unexpectedly unravelled.
The magic in India is that any singular moment can stretch your imagination. From interacting with small children who are helping their parents make a living from elephant printed trousers, to merely watching life pass by on the palm tree dotted backwaters of Alleppey. In India a number of your core memories arise from merely being a keen observer; sights that shock, excite, challenge and transform your understandings. There are also a number of difficult moments where the reality of navigating your travels ‘the local way’ resulted in: disputes over allocated train seats and bus route diversions that left us walking in a militaristic precision with rucksacks across a narrow bridge in simmering 30+ degree heat. Then there is the bedazzling 24/7 bombardment of photo requests, a community of stares that heighten your already apparent marginalisation, and of course the infamous Delhi belly. The silver lining within these trials is undeniably a sense of gratitude for the small fortunes that we take for granted back home. In saying that, it is these findings in India’s unique character that I have fallen in love with, a world that finds beauty, hope and a sense of mystery in its seemingly purified and formative identity. On a lighter note, these challenges also make for a unified communal bonding with travellers over the worst Indian toilets we have encountered, the frequent sharing of electrolytes and toilet rolls, to our collective laughs over the persistent and bizarre timings for photo requests and the suitability of naan for breakfast, lunch and dinner on repeat (it was literally our staple). India is a place of extremities in all facets of daily life, a spectacle that is presented unashamed, unmasked and raw before your eyes. It is a myriad of cultural traditions, stunning monuments, penetrating smells and colours and an intensity for life that will ensure whether you love it or hate it, you will never forget it.
Thankyou India, I will cherish these last 6 weeks forever. I will return.