“India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.”
Landing in India is like landing on another planet. There’s no place on Earth quite like it.
It’s the ultimate travelers test. It provokes your senses, demanding them to breach the extreme boundaries of their limitations. You smell the most horrific smells. You see the most audacious sites. You hear the most deafening noises. And, more than anything else, you feel such strong emotions that it threatens to overwhelm you.
In Don Delillo’s The Names, a local on the street asks, “Are you liking India?” “Yes,” the Westerner replies, “although I would have to say it goes beyond liking in almost every direction.”
Life in India has its own set of rules that are utterly foreign to the foreigner. Respect and privacy carry altogether different meanings. It’s easy to misunderstand it all, casting the sari-clad characters around you in a demonic light. It takes a while to get used to the pushing, the burping, and the screeching sounds emitted as your neighbors form the most gelatinous balls of spit to coat the muddy streets.
I’ve heard stories of several travelers who, after 3 days in the country, packed up their bags and caught the first plane back home. I can’t blame them. India is not for the faint of heart. It’s certainly not for the romantics. But, I could not imagine a more amazing place than India to learn about humanity. The streets of India are both an explosion and celebration of the human condition.
That said, I have to be careful not to generalize the people or the country as a whole. With 16 major languages, 1,652 dialects, 5 main religions, over 2,000 castes, thousands of Gods, and the remains of over 500 former kingdoms, India is not so easy encapsulated. India is much more diverse than most Westerners imagine. There is nothing typical about India and there is no typical Indian.
Most Westerns enter this country at Mumbai (Bombay) or New Delhi. I arrived at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata (Calcutta).
Some might describe this as being tossed directly into the fire. My taxi driver from the airport put it best. “You see this…” he paused to swerve around a cow in the middle of the road. “This is Kolkota. Welcome. Welcome to the zoo. Kolkota…” he waved his hands wildly, “India’s zoo.”
Kolkata has always lagged behind the nation’s other modernizing megacities. Mother Theresa gave the city a face, albeit the face of extreme poverty and destitution.
Entering Kolkata was like receiving the golden ticket to a traveling depression-era freak show. Yet, the excitement and utter curiosity of it all soon waned and manifest itself in an overwhelming sadness. A man crawled past on all fours, another contorted himself at the side of the street hoping for a rupee. Women shoved their babies in my face while pleading for money. Naked kids clamored up my back, demanding payment.
Further down the street, I encountered the chalk etching of a man’s body decorated with patches of crimson red. On the corner by my guesthouse, a man sat in a daze as a team of westerners prepared for an ad hoc operation on his flesh-exposed arm.
This was my introduction to the nation. Though by no means an all-encompassing generalization of my experience as a whole, it certainly set the tone and begged me to question, “Can I really spend two months in this country without going insane.”
Maybe traveling in India with a bigger budget would have made my experience more pleasurable, but I set aside a meager $10 a day, which found me in the kind of accommodation you don’t tell your folks about back home.
In Kolata, I slept on a thin brick of a mattress that was swarming with bedbugs. Fuchsia paint peeled off the cracked walls and a spout from the ceiling set a torrent of cold water down for bathing. The “western” toilet had no toilet seat, making it a hybrid western/squat.
I was photographed at intake and my details were logged into a computer from the 1980s. Each foreigner is strictly accounted for in India. You can’t log onto a computer at an Internet facility without first checking your passport with the attendant.
The streets of Kolkata were a blur of fast moving colors – the Bangladeshi women with their elaborate saris and the men in tight pants and polyester shirts of the 1970s. Amidst the chaos, the hand painted busses and street signs were all decorated in a sweet, toybox font. This widespread cuteness was unexpected and in stark contrast to the everyday realities.
The street stalls and quick eats of Kolkata were a greaseball’s glory land. Indians have a vastly different body image for the female than the west. To be plump means you can afford some luxuries in life. One Bangladeshi explained to me that Indians love their deep fried snacks and a well off woman will have “shiny hair and shiny lips.”
I spent my first days in India with a samosa sheen.
For such an unruly city, Kolkata has several areas of respite to escape from the busy streets and cacophony of horns. There are quite gardens, colonial cemeteries, and tidy aircon museums. The former capital of the British Raj, Kolkata has a jumble of colonial architectural marvels like the Victoria Memorial (which bares a striking resemblance to the White House in Washington D.C.).
I went to an actual zoo in Kolkata. It was a back alley zoo on the edge of a gated off mansion on the fringe of town. I had first to obtain a letter of permission from the tourism board to even visit the place. Surprisingly, it was the most peaceful part of the city – this zoo within the zoo.
Yet, like any peaceful place in Kolkata, a community of squatters had set up homes on the fringe of the park, washing their clothes by the monkey cage and drying them on the rocks near the pheasants.
A mansion, a zoo, and a squatter settlement.
I could hardly think of a better image to describe modern India. There are over 125,000 millionaires in the country living side by side with those who make much less in a week than the average American does in an hour. Herein lies many of the problems. Problems that would lead me to flee the riots and protests in upper West Bengal for Nepal just one week after entering India… But, I’m getting ahead of myself (and you can read about that in the coming weeks)!
I will never properly be able to describe India to someone who hasn’t been. It’s impossible. On my first call home from India, my sister said, “India. Now that’s one place I hope I never have to go,” and I don’t think she’s the only one who feels that way.
I’d have to say of all the places I’ve been in the world, India is probably my favorite. That said, I have never felt such hatred for a place in my life. Never have I struggled with simultaneous love and hate like I have in India.
Yet, India casts a spell on its visitors and, like it or not, I was knee deep in the mess and trudging towards the carnival with kaleidoscope goggles.
“Are you liking India?”
It goes beyond liking in almost every direction.