A few months later…

…the final photos.

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What do we Love?

At times it strikes me as a somewhat troublesome predicament, loving India. Specifically, being an India-loving Westerner. I cringe at the cliched implications of such a status at the same time as I rebel against it, wanting people to know that the stereotype doesn’t apply to me. Wanting, in my insecurity about unspoken condescension, very specific people, i.e. Indians who write critically about India, to know what it is I love and why. And to know that it’s not all about Me. But why this inquiet need to justify?

Perhaps, a) because there is so much not to love, to be appalled and enraged by, and b) because, inevitably, much of my response to India does stem from how it makes me feel.

It’s much easier to succinctly articulate the aspects of India that I dislike and many of which I abhor because, while each contains multiple layers of context-based difference and subtlety, the broad categories are so looming, so visible, so obvious. The poverty, the depravation, the suffering and the disturbing ignorance and neglect of those who suffer by the majority of the upwardly mobile classes; the social strictures; the corruption; the violence against, the rape of, women; the state-sponsored minority-targeting violence; the environmental disrespect and degredation; the racism; the overwhelming conservatism and sexual repression that lends a wildness to the eyes and the hands of drunken men; the denial and willful ignorance that inhibits acknowledgement and discussion of so much of the above.

And yet. These flaws, these wailing tragedies, are so easy to denounce, so unavoidably repellant. But they will never keep me away. Because they are not all.

They’re not the head-spinning, exhausting, exhilarating, inescapable, inspiring, incessant explosion of life and humanity in all its glorious, heart-swelling-heart-breaking light and noise. They are not the hospitality, the invitations to homes that follow a two-minute chat. They are not the shy smiles, the giggles, the instant sometimes transient sometimes enduring friendships. They are not the acceptance of hard work in order to achieve ambitions, or the sharing of homespun philosophies to that effect from young men and women who don’t expect life to hand them anything on a plate. They are not at worst silent resignation, at best laughter in the face of trivial daily adversity. They are not the chai-wallahs and mithai shops on every corner. They are not the unceasing life of the trains. They are not the chaos and the extraordinary sense of liberation engendered in a traveller from the West who is suddenly expected to push, to dispense with please and thank you, to let her backpack block the aisle, to share her seat with two other people but also to stand up for herself when necessary. They are not Thomas in the canteen at Varkala station insisting we share his biryani. They are not the wondrous reaction when the white girl speaks Hindi. They are not the tapping into a joyous part of myself that can perhaps only be accessed in the midst of an environment so apart from home. They are not a hundred thousand different landscapes, each with its own language, its own people, its own food, religion, music, colour. Each with its own way of being Indian, existing alongside all the other ways. 

There are huge, ugly, catastrophic problems. And for many they define daily life. Surely I do those people a disservice if I don’t acknowledge that my personal experience of India is largely, luxuriously, free of such anguish and injustice. And these are many of the same people who always want to know how does the foreigner like their India? And I sometimes wish I could give a more nuanced answer, that I could discuss my feelings with them, but then wonder if that’s purely an intellectual defense mechanism against giving such a simple response to such an unsuspectingly complex question. But that doesn’t imply that my simple answer is false, because it’s not. So I tell them that I love their India, and I tell myself that it is a love in spite of – but not entailing acceptance of – its flaws, and for so much more besides.

But I Still Miss It…

…in spite of all I said below.

It was a strange few weeks, post-India. I was in New York and immediately swept up into Abhinav’s graduation, celebrations, visits from parents and friends, the fun of being together again after so long. I expected some kind of reverse culture shock but I didn’t get any. People would often observe how strange it must have been for me to suddenly find myself in New York after three months in India. But it wasn’t really. Maybe because three months isn’t that long, even if while I was there time seemed suspended and Now became Forever.

The fact that I was in New York probably eased the transition, too; while Manhattan especially is hugely wealthy, there are areas that lend it more of a distinctly chaotic “third world” feel than any other Western city I’ve spent time in. I remember returning with Abhinav to San Francisco from my first trip to India in 2006 and wondering if we had arrived back on a public holiday, the streets seemed so quiet and deserted. That doesn’t happen in New York. You even have Indians running fruit stalls on street corners. So while it was obviously still a world away, the switch was nothing like as dramatic as it would have been had I come straight back to my gentle Wiltshire town of 12,000 people.

So I didn’t experience anything I could describe as “shock” (aside from in reaction to prices, which has only got worse – from India, to the US, to the UK – painful). But I did have two tangible and recurrent responses: one was that I temporarily lost all ability to plan ahead (both hugely liberating and mildly disconcerting as those who know me will appreciate), and the other consisted of a temporary, but crushing, sadness – replete with sob-stifling chest constriction and welling eyes – that I wasn’t in India, that such a definitive period of my life was over, coupled with an overwhelming desire to run straight back.

The inability to plan, vestiges of which I intend to hold on to for as long as I can, stemmed both from the infectious tolerance most Indians have for life’s daily struggles and from the fact that for the previous three months specific plans were few and far between. I had specific dates when I knew I had to be in a certain place, but these were always consigned to a hazy future that I trusted to arrive in its own time; day to day decisions were minimal and spontaneous and entirely up to me. And above all, I had no conception whatsoever of a future beyond India. Because everything was Here and Now. It was as if I was suddenly able to breathe with my full lung capacity – no part of me was tangled up in thoughts of What Next…I just Was. And it was wonderful.

Which is why, for at least the first month or so, I would have mornings where I woke up with a weight on my chest, knowing that I wasn’t there. Of course the ideal is to maintain such a liberated state of being wherever I am, and I feel I achieve that to a tiny degree, but as an unenlightened soul I remain heavily influenced by my environment, in every respect, and it’s this that leaves me forever pondering what it is about India.

Homecoming

How many times have I been away and come back again; back to this very spot in my house, in my room, on my bed, looking out on the garden, a verdant celebration of summer. A sufficient number of times that I don’t feel unsettled by the fact that it’s not at all unsettling to be back. It doesn’t feel strange – I’m used to coming home, and I’m enjoying the sense that perhaps this time above all others I am returning as an even greater composite of experiences; such that, although appearances suggest little changes here (except for the enormous new Sainsbury’s, whose megalithic size is disturbingly out of all proportion to the population of the town), my perspective does – evolving and shifting in light of where I’ve come from – so that Home manages to retain its comfort without being exactly the same as when I left.

But the transition has been made easier by a glorious homecoming week of folk music, dancing and sunshine, green and yellow fields, wild flowers, white chalk cliffs, turquoise-blue sea, winding country lanes with bursting hedgerows, rambling roses, (and local cider). All the things I see in my mind’s eye when I’m away and trying to convey to people the beauty of this land. Particularly when the sun shines, which it does sometimes. But even when it doesn’t, I am struck by the extraordinary natural diversity of such a small landmass – particularly having spent the last five months in two such enormous countries.

The more time I spend away, the more I return a product of other places, which entails an enormous sense of liberation and an inspiring relationship with the wider world. But alongside this is the comfort that stems from my relationship with Home – the visceral sense I have had over the last week of being enveloped by this landscape, a consciousness of how deeply ingrained it is in me and I am in it. The security of knowing that no matter how far I go or how long I go for, I can always come home and find a part of myself in this soil and in these trees.

Because there’s always more to say…

…and because I miss it. All of it. The being in India part and the writing part; the vague sense of obligation that the birth of this blog planted in me, to take the time to articulate ongoing experience – where I was and what it meant. And the unique and incomparable satisfaction of Having Written. I miss that. The dearth of public internet facilities in the States, together with a lack of internet in Abhinav’s room and no computer of my own (and, yes, a degree of inertia, no doubt) has reduced my writings over the last two months to an occasional scribble in my journal and a lot of good intention to transcribe multiple musings from head to screen as soon as the chance arises.

Which it has! Because I have a shiny new MacBook! Whose wireless capabilities, crucially, surpass those of Abhinav’s two year old model, allowing me to capture just enough signal to get online. Oh, happy day.

Coupled with this turn of events is the fact that I’m going home in a week. Going Home. Which will mean time for reflection on where I’ve been and where I’m going. And time to write. Watch this space (if any of you still do).

Surely not…

It’s my last night. Which is really strange. And although this is the final India-based post, I hope to keep the blog alive – it has been such a beneficial exercise for me and I know I will have more to say (and more pictures to post) as I continue to digest the last few months. But for the time being, this is how I’m feeling about it all:

For the last three months in India I’ve been aware of sometimes possessing an Insider/Outsider status in light of my pre-existing relationship with the country through Abhinav, his family and many of our closest friends. And there have been moments when this sense has set me slightly apart from the general traveller set, particularly those here for the first time for whom India is one enormous ongoing shock to be exhaustively dissected/puzzled over/bitched about at every possible opportunity. Or those people who are here for different reasons to mine. None of whom I judge – let every visitor to India have their own experience – but the differences have gone some way, along the road, to explaining why in many situations I have found myself much more comfortable in the company of Indians that of other travellers. And why, on a number of occasions, I have been asked if, or where, I live in India. Which is always funny because on so many levels I am so obviously foreign to this environment, and yet I do feel a significant degree of comfort here, which is perhaps what people pick up on, and which I can’t attribute to anything specific (unless you believe in reincarnation), aside from the fact that so many important people in my life are from India.

But this pre-existing relationship with India – as I have written before – was largely second-hand; reflected and refracted through the experience of others, through literature and through received imagery. And as I reflect on the last three months I realise, gratefully, that this journey has bequeathed to me what I had hoped for – my own India; a wealth of thought, opinion, emotion, founded on intensely personal and hugely varied experience in this massive land. The confirmation of a long-held intuition that India will play a significant role in my life.

And describing this sense of affirmation that I have gained here is the best way I can find of explaining why, the night before I leave India after such an incredible journey, when my adventure is ending, it feels above all else, so very honestly, like the most exhilarating beginning from which the rest of my life will stem.

Irritants

There are three things which have threatened my sanity throughout this trip and about which I have intended to write but have never found the moment to. And now, given that it’s my last night, the energy and inclination are not there (plus, it will be more fun to shout about it all in person with the people who will understand). But they at least deserve a mention:

1) The absymal quality of English-language “journalism” in India. I don’t have enough breath in my body to fully vent my frustration/disbelief. A few months ago I felt perhaps it wasn’t my place to criticise, but now I feel that attitude is condescending and that I have every right to criticise publications that are so arrogant in their self-promotion and yet fill their pages with articles that have barely scraped through a computerised grammar check, never mind seen an editor’s desk. Do copyeditors exist here? What do they do exactly, aside from reward professional journalists for their ignorance of how to employ articles in English? The overwhelmingly juvenile nature of the press is summed up, for me, by the fact that the Indian Express awards a prize for Letter of the Week. I can’t go on, choked as I am by vitriol.

2) Rubbish, and the Indian proclivity to dropping/throwing it wherever they happen to be. Particularly when it’s middle class Indians paying to travel to some mountainous beauty spot who then proceed to throw their ice-cream wrappers/water bottles/anything and everything, down the side of said mountain, apparently oblivious to the paradox of the situation. And then today the Times of India prints an article crowing about how environmentally aware India is and how concerned the population is about effective waste disposal and recycling. Hah.

3) The particular specie of older-middle aged middle class Indian male who considers himself a conversationalist when he is actually an orator whose mindset is so miniscule there is no room for any other point of view. And who especially relishes encounters with foreign women which he uses as an opportunity to show off his dazzling command of Victorian English and to reassure himself that the world is without doubt in awe of his intellect and powers of perception, particularly when he is talking utter rubbish. In response to any foolhardy attempt I may make to converse, the response will invariably begin with, “No, but..” or “It’s not that…” An extreme case in point: Kaushal and I were having a conversation class in Mussoorie, going for our usual amble around to Lal Tibba, when aforementioned male with wife and daughter in tow comes striding around the corner. He sees me and interrupts Kaushal by stating that he had seen me that morning in the same spot, meditating. I told him that it wasn’t me, that I did sometimes meditate but not in that place and besides, at the time he mentioned, I was in a class. He proceeded unperturbed, modified the time by half an hour, when I was still in the class, and assured us that it had been me. His wife dared to suggest that since I was in a class at the time perhaps he had seen another girl. I agreed with this idea, seeing as it wasn’t me. He dismissed such a ridiculous notion, announced to the world that it had been me and marched off, declaring that he “appreciated my meditation”.

“Hari Om, Madam, Hari Om”: Rishikesh

It’s so hot tonight – there’s no hawa (wind) like on the last few nights. The air is so still that the sounds of puja a couple of miles away shimmer across the river to reach me…

‘I’ve enjoyed Rishikesh. Spending time resting up in the trees on High Bank, then venturing out in the late afternoon. Joining the throng jostling across Laxman Jhula; negotiating tourists, hawkers, jeeps, sadhus, cows, dogs, bikes and then the brief respite of leafy green peace on the way to Ram Jhula. And Ganga Aarti – the nightly puja at Parmath Niketan which is reached through a shopping arcade – a juxtaposition that characterises Rishikesh quite succintly.

It would be easy to be repelled by the extent of the commercialism here, but rather than take offense (and who are we to do so, when it is us off whom it feeds? We’re more than happy to enjoy the rare luxury of muesli and fruit salad for breakfast, yet reserve the right to be repulsed by all the shops [selling the clothes that only we, as foreign travellers, wear in India]), it’s more rewarding to view the commerce as a phenomenon in itself. And even more so to discover that in amongst the fisherman trousers and tulsi necklaces overwhelmingly peaceful religious practices are taking place in a manner unchanged for centuries. Which I find hopeful, in a certain way.

And here, as you are no doubt expecting given my recent burst of Delhi-based productivity, are some pictures!

And more…

Pictures! What a Treat!

I give you Varkala!

The Neem Tree Visit!

AND Madurai, Trichy and Tanjore! (Which actually comprise the only section of this trip I have omitted to write about. And it’s a bit late now. I hope you enjoy the pictures though!)

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