Most people told me I wouldn’t be the same after my first trip to the Subcontinent. India changes you, they all said. Well, I’ve been now, and India was not quite the revelation I was expecting. The culture has been over-exposed. The literature, the images, and the crafts are near and far, one need not travel further than a local hippie market to get a flavor of the place. Having already visited cities like Mexico, Beijing, Athens, and Phnom Penh, India was a version of the same theme: noise, pollution, poverty, and organized chaos.
The history is unique, as are the people, but not so much so that I felt the need to jump on the “Incredible India” bandwagon. On the contrary, being there made me long for clean water, clear skies, tidy streets, and meat. After ten days, I was ready to go home. The beggars are bullies. The deafening sound of horn-blowing is relentless, unbearable even. The endless parade of men pissing on roadsides worthy of a good eye roll, and the decay. Oh, the decay. Hardly a building in site, save a few hotels, not crumbling or corroded.
I can imagine how lovers of India are reacting now. But I love India. India is so wonderful. How could you be so blind to the magic. Well, I love India too. India is wonderful, and I saw the magic. It just didn’t have a life-altering effect on me. I have always loved living in Europe or America. I will always prefer the pristine to the polluted, and I don’t believe you have to discover the lord Ganesha to remove the obstacles in your mind.
The India of today is as it has seemingly always been, poor. Furthermore, it is rife with charlatans selling spirituality to wide-eyed tourists. This is the way of the world though, isn’t it. Take care of yourself, and your own, and to hell with the rest. Not a very Christian concept mind you, but perhaps the wisest choice when confronted with so much chicanery. Generally speaking, Indians are storytellers, and swindlers. The very thought of performing an act of altruism left my body instantly upon arrival. My friend, and travel companion, on the other hand, was seduced by charitable giving, and the spiritual racket. Not surprisingly, she had a life-changing experience.
Did I miss out on something? Am I jaded, and heartless for not being moved to action? I suppose the idea that one person cannot save a billion would lead someone to suggest simply helping one person makes a difference. But who does one choose? Given the choice, I choose myself. If that makes me grotesque, the karma is my own burden to bear. Though I doubt if a nickel in a cup is going to help anyone break the chains of samsara.
As I traveled around the country, visiting sites, shopping for treasures, and getting to know the locals, I imagined myself living in India, and what I would do to make myself happy if I had to exist there. Only then was I as excited about India as I had been in anticipation of my trip. India is cheap, labor plentiful, and those in need abundant. I imagined restoring a 19th century or Art Deco building in which I would then reside. I envisioned giving life to an old factory where I would employ craftsmen to create spectacular furnishings, and other adornments. Additionally, the operation would support environmental, and community needs for education, hygiene, growth, and sustainability. The possibilities seemed magnificent, though the likelihood of my fantasies becoming a reality are slim. My life’s work is not, sadly, in India. I am not Indian. My community is Western, and my point of view is too well-defined by these traditions.
Nevertheless, I suppose India did change my perspective. The fear and anxiety that usually comes over me when I am around so many people went away. For all India’s flaws, and contradictions, Indians are warm, and unassuming, and not nearly as scary to me as Westerners. Ironically, I felt more trusting of Indians knowing they might be trying to cheat me, than of gringos dressed up as do-gooders. What I liked most about my trip was being surrounded by so many of them. Indians are elegant, and well-dressed. They have a superior sense of style, color, and perfume. Those who have spoken to me of their travels in India always remember the smells. I will too. The good ones, that is, there is so much excreta.
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