After two weeks back on the Indian subcontinent, I feel I have my bearings. It’s a strange thing, leaving New York City, one of the most modern and developed places on the planet, and being dropped, or rather splattered into Delhi, the perplexing antithesis to every familiarity that you just left. In an imperceptible instant the heat, humidity, noise, commotion, and crowds stir your senses with a swift slap in the face. As much as I initially complain and ask myself WHY THE HELL I am sitting in 42 degree heat without electricity, the fact is that year after year, with conviction and excitement, I make the choice to return to this fabulously frustrating land.
Why do I love India? Others ask me and I often ask myself the same question, specifically while under the frequent and intense, yet brief moments of trivial first world problem brat-fests that seems to diminish in frequency at the warp-speed crawl that is the nature of time in India. It’s a difficult thing to explain, this love, and it’s a ubiquitous truth that you simply have to experience it to understand the appeal. Certainly not everyone will share the same amorous esteem for this land of contradiction and extremes. India must be loved as a whole, in spite of its frustrations, shortcomings, and polarities in perspective to your own. But what is this whole that draws so many travellers with its intangible allure? Perhaps a better avenue of explaining why I love India would be to ask “what is India”, at least to me?
I turn to the genius of Mark Twain to help me articulate how exactly it is, this indefinable land. In 1897, he wrote ‘Following the Equator’ and of the plethora of quotations I could extract and repeat, one of my favorites reads as this:
“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined”.
Though written over a century ago, his words capture an essence of India that, as proven by decades and centuries of literature, transcends both time and experience. India is empires and civilizations in a constant play of decay, resurrection, and transformation. It’s the clash of a distant past with its own future, of antiquity and tradition with an almost obtrusive modernity, with each era sharing the stage of a single city block. India fills you with a heartbreaking nostalgia for an indefinite time that you’ve never actually known; the meaning of time disappearing with each step through the bazaar of spice vendors and wallahs cooking up the same aromatic recipes as passed down for decades. Immaculate Raj-Colonial palaces sit alongside dilapidated relics of so many dynasties past, offering even strangers a reminiscence of all that these lands have seen. Here, one needn’t visit museums and historical sights to experience this feeling, for it surrounds you with each step down the dusty street, as the horns of luxury cars carrying dapper suits meet the horns of oxen pulling carts, and auto rickshaws carting silk, saris, jeans, and rags vie for the single lane against thin men pedalling cycle rickshaws around complacent cows and playful children.
India is the world’s most ancient civilization and one of its youngest nations. This antiquity carries the scars, sorrows, and wisdom of its great history, while its youth manifests in one of the happiest and most beautiful cultures the world has known. The average Indian bazaar is more crowded, filled with colour, vitality, smells, sounds, and energy than any carnival on earth. It is a place where everything is magnified, from the lavish wealth and excess to the wretched poverty of the slums that span beyond imagination. It is a place that, despite such realities, remains one of the warmest and most hospitable environments I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Those with little more than food will invite you into their home and offer what they have, with unassuming generosity, simply for the pleasure of sharing.
It’s a difficult place for the Western mind to understand, for in many ways India is a place of illusions. Superficial similarities in language and outward appearance are simply exteriors; facades of a culture so complex that we haven’t a chance at “getting it”. Perhaps that is the draw of India, the ineffable fascination of a place which seduces travellers today as it did the dynastic conquerors and colonizers who fought for centuries over her sultry hand. Seduced by her beauty and wisdom, no visitor can leave completely unscathed by that hand. No canvas, camera, or pen can capture the essence of this nation of wisdom and naivety, beauty and sorrow, mountains and valleys, and unity and fragmentation that is India.
To be placed somewhere that reaches so far beyond your familiar is to challenge your nerve, stamina, perspective, and mind. You will grow to know yourself through the lens of the foreign, learning from a culture, people, land, and lifestyle that can’t be found or taught at home. I don’t believe you can go to India and return completely the same. What that means for each person will be his or her own story, when Mother India is seated in front of you, looking through your eyes and into your soul. In her eyes you will find a mirror that shows you everything in yourself that you did or didn’t want to see. Her people will remind you of the resiliency and strength of the human spirit, bringing your complacent perspectives into harsh focus. Like her holy river, India bubbles with life, changing but ever the same, polluted and pure, calm and vengeful, sweeping passersby into her current without discrimination, and carrying them along her meandering path of transformation. This is indeed India, mother of civilization, of language, of religion- of life.