I’ve been putting off writing about India for a while. This is for two reasons; firstly, all-consuming, intense, crazy experiences, such as India, need digestion. It is only with the hindsight of a month or two that I can even begin to put into words what I saw and what I learnt. The second reason is less rational: some part of me can’t help but feel, by writing about my totally aaamazing spiritual revelations at the top of a mountain surrounded by only locals and the smell of cumin, that I’ll look a bit of a knob. But hey I just wrote a blog post about liking marshmallows so how much more of a knobbish can I appear?
I did, actually, have spiritual revelations at the top of a mountain, surrounded by locals and cumin. The first revelation was that you really shouldn’t go seeking spiritual revelations. This was our first mistake with India and it almost broke us; we arrived in Delhi, all smiles and optimism, thinking that India would embrace us with open arms like an old friend. I had naively imagined streets like a Bollywood film set, awash with smiles, saris and slick men atop motorcycles winking at girls. I envisioned people dancing in the street, probably in the rain, and laughter, laughter everywhere. But in Delhi there was no laughter. The only laughter we heard was a derisive snort when we once tried to explain that Claude and I were 21. Delhi conned and tricked as much as it could; we were given addresses of places that didn’t exist, told tourist offices had burnt down, convinced that buses didn’t run in India. By the end of the three-day skint, we were so fed up with the people, the country, the difficulty of it, that we wanted to get the first plane home.
But we managed to escape Delhi and, as we travelled further around Rajastan and towards the Himalayas, we learnt that kindness doesn’t always take the form you expect. Sure, people may not smile in the street, everyone may want to take your photo for being white, no-one talks during eating (this is an Aryveudic tradition), but there is an essential goodness there, in people that know nothing but struggle. We had rocked up with our Western ease, knowing that Barclays Telephone Baking would always pull through for us and that we were only dipping our toes in this world, with university in a handful of weeks. We knew, ultimately, this wasn’t our lives. But the poverty became our lives; the streets of Delhi are littered with bodies every night, using motorway bridges and dusty pavements as mattresses, and there is nowhere to avert your gaze. But despite the obvious poverty we saw, the culture is one of selflessness; from the religious donations given to the River Ganges, sickly sweet gulab jamul handed to us on the sleeper trains, and bowl after bowl of bland, watery red kidney beans in the home of local villagers, we experienced kindness from those with the least. Time and time again, India would surprise us with its generosity.
And somehow our negative experiences in Delhi made it all the more sweet. After Delhi every genuine smile, every caring touch, every gesture of kindness, was a small victory. So much better for having been earned, India made us fight. We fought not to be pushed out by a culture that seemed inpenetrable. It was a test of love; India showed us its grime and wanted us to run for the Hilton. For us, the fact that we didn’t flee from what we saw, that we drank the spicy chai, ate the too-hot masala paneer, found our way onto a local buses, devoured food with our hands, chose the squat over the Western toilet, and tried every bloody street food vendor in the country, was its own fight, its own Bollywood dream. Heck, it wasn’t what I imagined; it was so much more.