BY:Farah Moolji Nazarali
Many who travel to India come back a changed person. I set foot upon that land of contradictions for the first time many years ago, not knowing then that my life (and I) would never be the same. The power of India and its people to “break down” and “rebuild” has been experienced by so many outsiders for centuries now. I often receive essays like the one that follows from Westerners sharing their own profound Indian experiences.
I am back in Canada from a spiritual pilgrimage to India. Before going, people warned me about the smells, the garbage, the heat, the poverty, the traffic, the chaos, and the daily difficulties that most travelers face. Yet my own eyes revealed a different reality and made me realize that what most people see in India reflects their own identities.
India is a stark mirror that does not allow our conditioned ideas to survive. Traveling in India breaks down all our expectations, stripping us of our ego identities and leaving behind the only thing that cannot be taken away – our humanity.
My own fears were unmasked the very first hour on Indian soil. In the outside, covered corridor of the airport, I saw a young boy no more than 8 years old lying face down. Everybody walked passed him without a glace. Nobody stopped to ask if he was alive. Nobody cared.
I cared but I didn’t stop either and I couldn’t get him out of my mind. For days I was overcome with a sense of loneliness, my own loneliness. The stark reality of India – life and death, richness and poverty side by side, enlightenment and greed – touched my own sense of mortality and my own fears of dying alone.
This is India, the India that unmasks all that we cling to until we surrender, and in that moment of surrender, the sweetness of India is revealed in the smell of sandalwood, in the kindness of a stranger, or in the comfort of a chai on a hot, sweaty day.
Slowly in the days that followed, I began to see the effect of India on Western eyes; that some continue to hold on to their cherished ways and end up hating India, while those that open themselves up end up leaving a piece of their heart behind.
Garbage. It is probably the first thing you’ll notice and perhaps the first thing you’ll smell. In India, garbage is a fact of life, and one that is not hidden away behind doors under the kitchen sink or buried deep in landfills far away from sight, but here by your feet, and all around you.
There aren’t any public trash cans or municipal garbage collection programs; mostly families burn their garbage in small piles (sometimes by the side of the road), and the plastics that don’t burn remain. The countryside is awash with plastic litter (plastic bags, plastic plates, plastic cups).
But, those that see India as dirty are in denial because the truth is, India lives in its garbage, and if we here in North America were to live in our garbage, our country would be far uglier.
Poverty. Poverty exists alongside wealth and is an undeniable reality of life. In our gated neighborhoods and closed communities where we socialize with friends from the same social background and rarely speak about class or interact with homeless or street people, it’s easy to forget that poverty exists everywhere, even in our own cities.
Yet, in India, wherever we go, we see the destitute reality of impoverished families. It is a fact that makes most Westerns feel uncomfortable. Many of us are caught in a paradigm of poverty, always desiring more despite our material wealth and high standard of living.
I believe our discomfort lies in our inability to accept that no matter how much money or lack thereof we have in our own country in India we are considered rich. And, it’s true. Compared to the bottom billion, our ability to fly halfway across the world puts us in the top percentile of the world’s wealthiest. This seems to bring out the miserly in those that cling to their rupees and insist on never offering anything to the street children or the deformed. I was appalled at Westerns feeling cheated by having to pay insignificant amounts because locals charged tourists more.
For those that allow it, India will strip you of greed and attachment, as you realize that the people who have nothing have something that most Westerns lack.
Death. It’s a fact of life, though one that we rarely think about. In India, death seems just around the corner whether it is in the Indian-style U-turn across four lanes of traffic, or in the dire dysentery that seems to visit most foreigners. At some point during a visit to India, most people probably wonder if they will ever see home again.
In the proximity to death, India leaves her enduring mark. Few come from India unchanged. My own fears of death revived in me a desire to live and a desire to understand the ephemeral nature of our physical existence.
Chaos. For those accustomed to living in linear time, structured roads and regulations, and schedules that rarely get interrupted, India is chaotic in the best of times. Traffic includes pedestrians, road workers, bicycles, bicycle carriers, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, motorcycles carrying entire families, scooters, cars, taxis, local buses filled to double capacity, air-conditioned tourist buses, tractors, animal carts, trucks, and the king of the road – the sacred cow.
All seem to move in a harmonious rhythm. Women in saris gracefully cross four lanes of traffic without an ounce of trepidation and sit on the side of motorcycles, their neck scarves flowing in the wind behind them.
For all its garbage, poverty, death, and chaos, India has an undeniable charm. She will lure you with scents and tastes of the exotic, strip you of all your preconceived identities and ideas, and leave an indelible mark on your heart.
“When the distances between self and living again grow great, and my ego starts to flaunt itself, I return to India [and] she works her magic every time.”
-Cheryl Bentley, “Enchanted”
Farah Moolji Nazarali is a Yoga Instructor based in Vancouver, BC. You can reach her at: http://www.thesmilingyogi.com