There’s that moment in any relationship where idealism and fascination turn into reality and pragmatism. Habits are chiseled and chipped at. Awkward getting-to-know-you activities adapt into smooth, shared rituals. Those funny little quirks endear and annoy. Deeper questions beyond love and admiration arise. Prickles of opinion start to swirl with warm gazes.
Over the past month, I’ve wide-eyed everything in India from the cows that punctuate the traffic as stop lights, to the women in their brightly-colored saris who hack and lug across scrub and sand, and the expanse and intricacy of the Maharaja marvels. It’s been wonder, amazement, confusion and curiosity. And now, probably a little later than most, India and I have had our first tiff.
It started as the autorickshaw puttered into Jodhpur, the chaotic haze and noise of city life beginning to envelope me. There weren’t doors or windows to mute the honking, de-rail the zig-zagging bikes full of waving boys, or dull the odors of roadside life. We beeped through small roads, criss-crossed and side-swiped cows, scooters, bicycles and people. We jutted into four way intersections, with traffic from all directions crashing around us, like water would reshape itself over a rock. A feeling of fear and panic subsided into relaxation and a smile — there was nothing else to do but let the streets pound over me, watch and listen and wave at young children.
On the way home from dinner, passing cows and dogs rifling for dinner through the trash-strewn streets, seeing a mother touting a scruffy baby in one arm and holding an outstretched palm with the other, and imbibing sewer stink after exhaust cloud, I found it hard to imagine this as a constant ritual without the buffer of a secluded homestay or the respite of a roof-top restaurant. I started to get a little bit mad at India, and the reality of her daily life for many millions.
It escalated over the next 24 hours, as the space, silence and opulence of the fort and royal palace juxtaposed the heat-beaten, teeming and piercing rumble of street bazaars and food vendors.
“You need to stop thinking like a Westerner,” a friendly fabric hawker told me. “It’s time to start acting like an Indian. Don’t tell shop-boys the truth when they ask you questions. You live in Dehli, have worked for the American Embassy for three years, and don’t remember what hotel you’re staying at, okay? And you’re in town for a few weeks, and will surely return to the store and tell all your friends if they rip you off, okay?” I nodded, feeling wily with my newfound knowledge, but disappointed to need dishonesty to get an honest answer.
I continued to a famed street stand with what are rumored to be the best samosas in India. The friendly owner invited me to sit with him and enjoy my freshly fried delight. I took this as a great chance to chat with a street samosa heir, see how the place worked and get some insider food recos. One delectable samosa led to a free kachoori, a chai and a samosa for my driver. We parted ways with a handshake and then: a creepy scratch on my palm. I felt naive and duped.
After many a hand washing, it was time to head to the palace for a sunset drink, before meeting some lovely Australian ladies for dinner in town. “You’re not allowed unless you’re a guest of the palace hotel,” my innkeeper told me. “But maybe if you have a political connection?” Again, in through the back door.
As I sat gazing over royal lawn, blooming with flowers and peppered with peacocks, there was nothing but silence (except for those weirdly meow-ing peacocks.) Pure echo in a city of millions of conversations. Mirror-like marble floors above sandy, trodden and strewn streets. Lush, blooming gardens in a desert. And again, we descended down into the city, back into the dusty bustle, past the creepy samosa prince’s closed stall, beyond groups of squatting men and sari-ed women lugging everything from pots to babies. Experiencing such extremes within a span of ten minutes is enough to race the mind of even the most yogic of gurus.
“The biggest problem in India is corruption,” a brilliant young girl whom I met in the desert told me. “So I changed my studies to civil engineering so that I can work in the government. It’s a difficult situation and it needs to change. How? I don’t know, but I’m going to be very careful to make sure I don’t get corrupted.”
Very little is straight forward here, and it’s difficult to take anything for granted. Now, India and I are not going through a rough patch, but the reality behind the amazement is setting in and bigger questions that extend beyond India are rising up. How do these two extremes co-exist? How does one live past the age of 30, nourished on dust, exhaust and chemicals? Why are ladies always lugging and tugging, and why are village girls often discouraged from school? If holy cows are munching street-side refuse, what are growing street kids eating? How does one ever get ahead when just a tiny sliver of the population is employed in the formal sector and employment laws make it difficult for companies to take on the burden of hiring? How is a heavily-layered government ever going to keep up with the needs of a fast-growing population? How do you know who to trust… and how do you even begin to evaluate what that trust means in an under-the-table world? (I do realize that I’m examining the extremes, likely with a layer of Western judgement.)
A few weeks ago in Goa, the incredible Bina noted that by now I must have been “bitten by India’s seductive soul.” I thought she just meant the art and culture, but after yesterday, I feel like I have been pulled into a new layer, which can still only just be the surface. I see magic in the chaos and intrigue in the contradictions. Every outside seems an inner-working to get lost in. I’m horrified one moment and heart-warmed the next. I’m enamored and overwhelmed. I’m endlessly fascinated and constantly asked to rethink how I look at myself and the world.
I will leave and return, bitten and seduced, each time, I imagine, with more questions and deeper feelings than I arrived with. Life begins after the honeymoon, right?