India. Its magnificence and surrealness can be ogled at on the 2D level of a book or a computer screen. But only when you’re in the midst of it, feeling the energy, blindsided by the smells, mesmerized by the sights, overwhelmed by the sounds, fascinated by the people can you get a glimpse of the place and history of the land you find yourself in.
And that – that is the draw and fascination of India. The in your face confrontation of life that at times makes you incredibly uncomfortable and jarred; the experience of extreme inequality that is entirely out of your control; the beauty and diversity of the people and culture and environment.
A point is reached where experiences are no longer something to be judged– they just are. Preconceived notions become obsolete. And you’re there in the midst, witnessing and experiencing. Because of the stimulation and variety and exuberance confronting you on a daily basis, there is no other way of being than to simply feel and perceive.
You become part of the ebb and flow that is life.
The bloated cow in the middle of the road. The sixteen-year-old beggar carrying an unconscious baby, asking for a hundred rupees, knocking on the car window. The old man in a lungi operating an antiquated human powered rickshaw with his spindly legs. The cheating and the lying, the depths of desperation.
But also the innocence, gentle smiles, and honest generosity. The magnificent architecture of thousands of years past, haunted by ghosts of battles won and lost, humans conquered and suffered. The ritzy areas of Mumbai where Bollywood elites reside, shaping the imminent culture of the nation. The children walking to school in colorful uniforms, progressing into the bright potential of the future. The extremes of climate and nature – deserts and jungles, mountains and oceans, snow and unbearable humidity. Elephants, camels and tigers.
And yet, the experience of an outsider looking in is entirely different on an individual basis. Although there are similar elements, the way the country and people make you feel, make you think, make you reflect, impact each traveller differently.
Some will visit India and have an absolutely awful time. The confrontation of life as they expect it to be, and that which they experience is overwhelming and extremely uncomfortable. They arrive for a holiday, and become blindsided by extreme feelings of discomfort and a slipping away of the way in which they perceive the world. Everything they learned. Everything they were taught and experienced as the norm is thrown out the window. It’s like a black hole where unfamiliarity becomes a bottomless abyss. Because the unexpected is scary. And uncontrollable.
And then there are those who jump in head first, initially drowning but eventually learning to swim. Grasping the way in which to navigate in an ad hoc manner, on a daily basis, on a moment-to-moment whim. Because only then can one find comfort in the uncertainty. When you allow the moment to wrap you up and guide you along to the eventual destination, not exactly sure of the details but just trusting in the process.
In total I spent four months in India. The trip was a rather last minute idea. As soon as my visa was confirmed, I quit my job and booked my flights. I knew it was a place I needed to visit for a significant period during my lifetime.
The thing about being back in Canada is that everything is measured. Constrained and muted. It’s absolutely beautiful, yes. But completely neat and tidy. Things run in a particular way. And you know what to expect. A traffic accident or a change in the weather is the highlight of the day.
There are systems and efficiencies for everything. Which is great, because, well, it makes everything more efficient.
But what’s missing is that chaos that makes you feel alive. That makes you reflect on a daily basis because you’re confronted with such extremes that you’re not sure what really is the middle ground, or the correct way to be.
The constant conversation with the self and the assumed ideologies that you’ve adopted. And a perpetual reflection on humanity and what it means to be a person operating in the world.
And it begs the question: what will you do with the life that you’re given? How do you experience life? How do you treat people? What kinds of hesitations and preconceived notions do you have that impact your interpretation of the world?
India is, and will continue to be a place westerners gravitate to. For this very reason. It’s a kind of recalibration of sorts. A way of reinterpreting what it means to be alive versus to exist. Because it’s all there at your fingertips. The extremes of humanity, society and nature. A place to confront all that has been built within, and to either challenge it and adapt, or form a wall and ignore.
The choice is yours. Incredible India.