As we prepared for our sixth annual return, a friend asked me, “Why do you keep going back to India – to escape from winter?” It was a fair question that caused me to reflect. I’ve shared the personal challenges I face traveling in India. So why do I choose to return?
Well yes, it is a cheap escape…and I tell my friend about the beach in Goa – the endless stretch of white sand, constant sunshine and blissfully warm water. Comparable to any South Seas island resort and a fraction of the price! But India offers much more than a seductive beach experience. Via one of the world’s largest railway networks (71K miles of track with over 7K stations) we have traveled throughout this vast and diverse subcontinent – from the Hindu temple towns of Tamil Nadu in the south, to the cave carvings and paintings at Ellora and Ajunta, the Mogul ruins on the plains of Madhya Pradesh and imperial monuments of Calcutta. And still further north, the steep hill station retreats of Shimla and Darjeeling. The railway ends there but buses can take us further north into the foothills of the snow-capped Himalayas. A country with so much diversity – physically, economically and spiritually – continues to exert its powerful magnetism.
Indian Railways are convenient and cheap – even before applying the 50% discount for females over 62! With an estimated 25 million passengers on any given day, the problem is getting a seat. We now need to book well in advance for 2AC reservations which diminishes much of the spontaneity of travel. But we can travel huge distances for very little money. The initial prospect of a three-day journey is daunting…36 hours on a train? For sure, there’ll be dirty toilets, disruptive children, and loud snorers. But the upside is a spontaneous admittance to Indian culture. We literally live with our fellow passengers, sharing food, stories and sleeping alongside each other. Porters supply us with clean bedding and take our order for meals – soupy dhal and rice that we try to balance on our knees. And constant entertainment is provided by chai wallahs, food vendors, performing transvestites and beggars.
To say India is overcrowded and noisy is an understatement. Approximately one-third of the size of the U.S., India has three times its population. This explains some of the frustrations – the infernal delays; the dirt; the continual cacophony of car horns, barking dogs, political rallies and religious gatherings with loudspeakers. In fact the Indians love to employ loudspeakers for any and all occasions! India is the second most populous country in the world, next only to China. And with the current population growth – India is set to leave China behind by 2020 – it’s not going to get any better.
On the other hand, there is so much beauty: in the kaleidoscope of color among the travelers waiting on a grimy train station, the fragrance of jasmine embedded in a woman’s long hair, a simple act of kindness from a stranger assisting a bewildered foreigner. The warmth of a people who believe in generosity even when they have nothing to share. This is the paradox of India. I don’t just come here for the beach, but for experiences that might teach me a thing or two. India with all its confusion and corruption presents a great lesson in waiting – and ultimately acceptance. And while waiting, life can present itself: slowing down enough to be able to watch two children play with a plastic bottle, or the smile of a fellow passenger.
Indians love to talk. Gerard, who can have a conversation with a lamppost, is even outdone by the candour of the Indians who quiz him on American politics, and why everyone in the U.S, needs to own a gun. On my side, growing up in a household where conversation was awkward and impersonal (a favorite lunch topic was the weather), Indians can be direct in a way that is completely alien to the British. Initially it was quite stressful when virtual strangers would ask me: “How much money do you make?” or “Why don’t you have children?” But over time their directness has worn off on me and I find myself inching toward becoming more straightforward myself.
So much diversity within India is a continual source of fascination and often bewilderment. It’s amazing that in such a large country as India there is any semblance of unity. Among today’s 1.2 billion people, 22 major languages are spoken in as many as 1,500 dialects. But India is one nation despite many and sometimes violent separatist movements that are likely to erupt anywhere and at any time. And while India represents the largest democracy in the world it is imbued with political ineptitude and downright corruption. We encounter constant examples of this: Where are the funds supposedly appropriated several years ago to clean Dal Lake in Srinagar? Why do motorbikes continue to roar through the narrow lanes in Varanasi upsetting shopkeepers, terrorizing pilgrims and tourists? When I asked a restaurant owner, “Why don’t you all get together to pass an ordinance against loud motorcycles in the lanes?”, his eyes widened as if I was talking in a foreign tongue! “And who’s going to enforce it?” Any attempt to create a law would be nullified by a bribe. Bribery and black money are integral to doing business – to merely surviving – in India. Corrupt politicians continually walk away scot-free, and get elected yet again. They enjoy all their privileges without being held accountable for their duties, the dereliction of which goes unchecked.
Corruption exists in politics everywhere, but in the west we still believe in the democratic process: the illusion that we do have some control and can hold those we elect to represent us accountable. In spite of the odds, there is still a 10% higher turnout in elections than in the U.S. and from some of the conversations with younger people there’s a growing sense of urgency to elect a government that is actually accountable to its constituents. If they are going to compete with China in the decades to come, they know well that they have to get their house in order. It reminds us of the enthusiasm of the youth in the U.S. in the ‘60s.
India’s inherent spirituality has always been a pull for westerners who want to rediscover a personal relationship with our Source, whether we call it Higher Power, God, or science. Religion lies at the center of daily communal life. Birth, death and cremation take place on the street, constant reminders of our own immortality. We enjoy the fact that everyone is open to discussing religious issues and spirituality, whether they believe or not. And at any moment, we can wake to a combination of Hindu chanting, Islamic mosque calls and Buddhist horns and gongs. But all this diversity has worked against national unification.
Hinduism dates back at least 3,000 years and is practiced by 80% of the Indian population. It has no founder or single creed and intellectually supports tolerance toward other religions and does not try to convert. The second largest religion is Islam. Despite living side-by-side for centuries, there has been an underlying tension between the two communities that at times bubbles to the surface. Monotheistic Islam is rigid and simple; while Hinduism has literally millions of deities and a profusion of doctrines, sects and ceremonies. Moslem rulers differed in their treatment of their Hindu conquests: Akbar the Great (1542–1605) was concerned about all his citizens and abolished the special taxes other rulers had levied against non-Moslems. But the pendulum swung the other way with his great-grandson, the tyrant Arungazeb, whose message was “convert or die”. The British “divide and conquer” policy further fueled communal strife by favoring Moslems politically and placing them in higher places of .power. The British found monotheistic Islam easier to understand, while Hinduism baffled them. Consequently, when Calcutta was the seat of British imperialistic government, the British favored Moslems over the Bengali Hindus for political power.
Today, Moslems and Hindus will deliberately fuel the fire. A Hindu parade for example will go by a Mosque during prayer time with the band playing. And Moslems will slaughter a cow in eyesight of Hindus who hold the animal sacred. The friction between Hindus and Moslems is very disturbing. It seems they’ve dug themselves into a hole with no way out.
But on the other side of the coin, we’ve witnessed over and over again the welcoming nature of the Indian people not just toward visiting foreigners like ourselves but toward each other. Traveling from Varanasi to Delhi, we sat in a train compartment beside a Hindu family with two young children, and a Moslem youth on his way to school in Delhi for first time. Moved by the emotional farewell with his parents, the young mother of the Hindu family soon became his surrogate, and for the thirty-hour train ride he was absorbed into their family. In the same way, we were appointed grandparents to her two young children and were not only invited but expected to share the food they had brought.
For the most part, we choose to spend our time in country areas and small towns where we can avoid the crushing population and accompanying extremes of poverty and wealth. Hi-tech centers like Bangalore and Ahmedabad are bloated with new-found affluence manifested in high-rise office buildings, gated residential communities, glass palace shopping malls with convenient “pray-while-you-shop” temples and Styrofoam Shiva statues. But constant traffic jams, potholed roads and crumbling trash-strewn sidewalks demonstrate that city infrastructure has not kept up.
India is still home to one-third of the world’s poor and the largest slums in Asia. The poor live alongside the affluent, in tin roofed shacks beside rat-infested open sewers. Those who aren’t fortunate enough to occupy a slum dwelling, try to set up some semblance of home on the street or in doorways. So many people, so many families staking out their pitiful spot on the curb – some seem to be getting by, while others look like they won’t make it through the night. The family living on the street in Calcutta, in a tiny cave, once a sliver of a shop. It seemed impossible for all three to lie down in the space. But one morning, the woman sitting on her haunches looked up and gave me a wonderful smile saying “Namaste!” Poor in materials perhaps, but not in spirit. Oh, the hours I laboriously spent packing my small case with all the luxuries it was so important I bring with me and didn’t think I could do without!
Beggars are a constant presence in India and we admit to developing a thick skin to most of them. But every once in a while one is so pathetic that it’s like a stab in the heart. The grossly deformed man sitting outside our hotel in Shimla, unable to move except by crawling on his limbs supported by a wooden board, his foot stretched out in front of him, a huge swollen purple stump. But if that wasn’t enough, we realized he was also a deaf mute. Later in Hyderabad a shrunken little man, unable to do more than sit among his rags and his own filth against the wall of an alley. In the dim light he was barely visible, his brown form merging with his surroundings – as if he has grown out of the dirt. He didn’t appear to be able to walk and one hand protruded where his forearm should be. He could barely stretch it out to receive coins. Moments later, we saw a young Indian man walking his pet dog, snow-white and healthy. A stark contrast…
The children of the poor have endured more hardship in their short lives than anything I can imagine, and I’m fascinated by their innocence and resilience. Beggar children performing cartwheels between the cars in Delhi, boys swaggering along the tracks at railway stations looking for discarded treasures among the garbage and rats. I want to take their pictures, get to know them, fathom how they can find any enjoyment in so much hardship. Others fortunate enough to find work are grossly underpaid. In Hyderabad, a girl works alongside her mother repairing the highway. Both dressed in saris, they’re digging up the road by hand and carrying away the rubble in baskets on their heads. A girl sweeping the ghats in Varanasi puts down the bag of garbage she is dragging and eagerly poses for my camera. I capture her disarming smile – but my problematic camera loses the picture. (perhaps the most personally revealing of the entire trip!). Too often, I can get caught up in the minutia of life – worry and complain about the little things that don’t go my way. For a moment of time, these children help me to refocus.
Everywhere we see young children supplementing the family income or even supporting themselves independently. India is reputed to have the largest number of child laborers in the world. Despite a landmark law of 2010 that mandated all children between six and fourteen years old to attend school, an estimated 28 million are still working instead. Employed in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites; they pick cotton, sweep streets, and work in industries such as precious stone cutting and fine embroidery. Back in 1952, India’s Mines Act prohibited anyone under the age of eighteen from working in coal mines, but children continue to be the main source of labor today. With no formal schooling, there’s little hope for these children to rise above a very basic quality of living. The hi-tech revolution remains beyond their reach and the gulf between poor and rich continues to widen.
I’ve described at length many of the disturbing facets of India – so the question has to be asked again why do we keep going? To experience its totality, we must embrace both the good and the bad. And there is so much that is good – above all the strength of spirit of the Indian people demonstrated in their generosity, laughter, music and faith.
The country is full of paradoxes – luxury and poverty, dirt and beauty, gentleness and violence, modernity and antiquity. Despite the hi-tech revolution and tidal wave of consumerism engulfing modern India, its ancient mystique still lurks in the crevasses of crumbling temples, along the ghats of Varanasi, and at the Calcutta flower market under the Howrah Bridge. So much culture and history in the dust beneath our feet! We’re not alone in finding it easy to fall in love with India – during our travels we’ve met many others who like us made an initial visit, and then continue to return over and over again. To those of us who are attracted, India can become addictive. As a friend succinctly put it, “India is a state of mind.”