"Everything Is Possible"
how was India?"
Intense- this is what I usually say. But there is no accurate answer. Who is asking? What the hell are you talking about?
Do you mean places visited? Your states of mind? The people you met? Lessons learned? Towns or cities? Mountains, ashrams, temples or beaches...?
I don't know. I suppose I never will. I don't think anybody can answer that question honestly, unless the question asker contextualizes it properly. At the moment it is an experience and a memory. But keep asking.
In the meantime, here are 9 months of photographs.
Little has changed back home, and it feels like I never went anywhere. I'm back in the old neighborhood and back at the same job. New York is even colder than it was before I left. I've got a newspaper subscription and utility bills in my name. My books are again dusty on the shelves and the Knicks are even more embarrassing than they were last year.
I took a year off and I'm back now. Maybe this is why its so hard to write at the moment, because my mind isn't back in India, its here.
Before my flight from Delhi to San Francisco took off, an Indian man took my backpack and laptop out of the overhead bin and flung it carelessly to another bin across the aisle, where it landed with a thud, out of sight and out of mind. I soon had a screaming baby's feet in my lap. Get me out of this fucking place already, back to assigned seats and apologies and permission to move luggage, back to garbage pick-up and garbage cans and bubbly women in jeans, back to price tags and all that stuff. For the most part.
Before I left for India, I was down on America. But after 9 months, America had become a gleaming paragon of human society. Faults become highlighted with the soil under your feet, yet when something exists in your mind as a memory, a possibility, it can easily be mythologized. Perhaps I might be doing this exact thing with this entry on India, which is now a memory for me, and, of course, will always remain a possibility. And this is, subconsciously, I feel, part of the allure of traveling. While the lands you visit may be exotic and will probably change you as a person somehow, its effects sometimes don't trump the way it makes you feel about the places you left behind. Coming home can be all that and more.
But it usually doesn't last that long.
Why so long?
Since you've asked, and you have asked- Imagine a country almost as large as the United States. Imagine you have a one-way ticket to the United States with a good budget and unlimited amount of time. You'd probably go to Boston. Burlington, Vermont. Florida. Texas and Oklahoma... my God, what are those places like? And Montana... its supposed to be so beautiful, and since you want to spend a few months in California you've gotta do the Grand Canyon and all of Arizona for that matter quickly...
India isn't much different. Its almost as large as America, but with 4 times the people. Mountains, beaches, cities, national parks. All that stuff.
But, as they say, different. Mud huts. Saris. Nose rings. Hand Woven Colors. Wild Illiterate Eyes. Slums. Smells. Brown Skin. Rickshaws. Holy towns. Mustaches. Cows. Dal. Paneer. Monsoons. Loud Burping in Public. Himalayas. Coconuts. Buttery, Buttery Mangoes. Baksheesh. Tourist towns. Shiva. Vishnu.
Creaky dark blue trains. Pre-historic buses navigating scary cliffs. Taxi drivers that sleep and drive at the same time.
Squat "toilets". Bucket "showers."
So, once more, I invite you with me on a final tour, going way way way back again like we did last time, back to one year ago, sometime in early December when I landed in Delhi alone in the middle of the night. The taxi had a garbage bag for a window and the driver took short cuts through the slums off a main Delhi highway. Dozens of campfires burned in the blackness, and brown shadows emerged from plastic canopies on the side of the road (into air freshly scented with the morning's first cow dung patty) to begin another day in poverty. Or, as I suspected then, to hijack the taxi.
Its the air I remember most about my first and last days in India. Upon arrival it was something mysterious, something new to me yet old and strange. There's a haze that floats over Delhi, king of the diet-coke rust that floats over Los Angeles. Its a haze that at sunrise and sunset you can almost feel (sometimes, but not always, in the gross sooty kind of way), that obfuscates its history and muddles the present. Its a blanket over memories and tombs and billions of lives, a radar scrambler, a shroud that remains with you the whole journey, and when you see it again 9 months later its just as pre-historically old and weird and fresh as it was the first time. Maybe its the pollution, the Djinns, the history, who knows, but its there, I promise, and while your 5 senses can certainly process it its your sixth that raises the hairs on the back of your neck as you watch the tiny sun shrink over the city from the rooftop of your Pahar Ganj hotel.
It was one of those pleasant sunsets in September that accompanied me on my final cab to the airport. It was impossible to stop romanticizing or pine for something that just wasn't there or that never was going to come, as the freakish Delhi sky became muddled with the closing of a fantastic chapter in my life, where the most gigantic problems were deciding which town or beach or mountain to head to next. The Indian adventure was over, and I tried not to write journal entries in my head or try to cognize the ineffable, but I didn't know what else to do. These were my last moments... and I could do nothing but sit in a taxi and slowly inhale the rust.
There are dozens of books written specifically on why India is a decaying civilization. Although the actual country is only 60 years old, Buddha and Krishna and Gandhi and Ramana Maharishi and Tagore and Nehru and Vivekananda and the Ramayana and the Vedas the Maharajas and the Moghuls and the Red Fort and Taj Mahal and all that, they're things of the past now, and as the country inevitably slumbers in the direction of industrial/ rational where does all this stuff fit with I.T. and nuclear power and the booming middle class?
India is dying, they say, because its only one needle away from a broken back. There are already over a billion people and the population is only swelling (an Australia is added every year). The infrastructure is a wreck, from the roads to the trains to the schools. 650 million Indians remain farmers, and 350 million live on 50 cents a day or less (thats more than the entire country of the USA). 25% of India's teachers on any given day don't show up to work.
46% of Indian kids under the age of 3 are malnourished.
Only 9% of young adults ages 17-23 even have access to higher education.
And, yeah, its pretty dirty. 95% of its capitol, Delhi, doesn't have formal trash collection, and many parts of the country would be even a moderate environmentalist's worst nightmare. The cars, rickshaws, buses, generators (for the constant electricity blackouts) and burning garbage (no garbage pickup) all blacken the lungs and throat rather quickly. Punjab, once sight of the famed Green Revolution, now boasts 80% groundwater pollution (and thats not uncommon). People litter.
And, yes, unless you're in a western oriented establishment, you do wipe with your left hand. And, no, there usually, uhm, usually isn't really any soap in the restrooms, either...
Its mindset is hellbent conservatism, not in the rally around the flag kind of way (but sometimes that too) but in culture and tradition. With the exception of Iraq, which has rather inflated numbers at the moment, India has more terrorist attacks and terror related deaths than any country on Earth. War with Pakistan is still a daily possibility, and so are border disputes with China. Corruption is rampant, from the rickshaw driver to the highest levels of government, so baksheesh has become part of every day living. Woman are severely marginalized, sometimes not even allowed to leave the house, should she be in a village or strict Muslim Purdah household.
Only 20 years ago, 95% of marriages were still arranged, and 3 of the 4 million marriages in a given year involved an under age bride. Society, especially the rural societies, are still rigidly bound by caste sex race religion. May it be noted that Indians lose their virginity later than every other country in the world, at 23!
But magically, for nobody can find any other reason, it holds together.
The Taj and the Red Fort and the River Ganga are still there. The influence of the great sages is still felt enormously, whether you're just an ignoramus tourist with a sapling for a spiritual antenna or not. Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, Buddha and his monasteries. Sometimes its hard to turn a corner without seeing a homemade mural of Vivekananda or Ramana or (cough) Sai Baba. And Gandhi... everything... shrines, effigies, requiems, are everywhere, and although the newspapers proclaim non-violence and civil disobedience dead, the debate, at least, and Gandhi's spirit, still live on. Imagine JFK, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln together (and on every single bank note), and you're almost there.
It is the world's largest secular democracy. There is a vibrant and free press (there are plenty of typos and misspellings, and sometimes sentences can run on for paragraphs and use archaic British English, or Hinglish, but hey... totally awesome reading). Its siblings, Pakistan and Bangladesh, writhe under military thumbs and gagged journalism while its larger, northern neighbor, China, lives under communist autocracy. If India's muslims had their own country, it would be the 3rd largest muslim nation on Earth. India is the second largest English-speaking nation after the United States, although nearly every state speaks a different local dialect, often in a different script. A law enacted in the early 1990's reserves 1/3 of local governmental seats for women. India elected women and minority prime ministers before the United States, and currently one million women have served at local governmental levels. The country has a 9% growth rate. Its becoming increasingly rare when a book either by an Indian writer or about India isn't on the New York Times best-seller list. Ashrams and monasteries and yoga studios are still there in the 21st century and, arguably, thriving more than ever. What other country in the world (besides North America & Europe) would offer the Dalai Lama sanctuary and support a UN-endorsed mini-nation called Auroville? What other country in the world was founded by fucking Gandhi?
Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists... and they only kill each other sometimes.
What other country in the world has restaurants that ban alcohol but provide pipes for the smoking of hashish? Where can you see a man devote his life to giving rural villagers and polio patients free health care, then almost get killed by an angry mob torching a bus on the way home? What other place can you get sloppy drunk one week and check into a 10-day meditation class the next? What other country in the world has dozens of celebrities that are actually gurus or sages?
Where else can you regularly find editorials in the nation's largest newspaper about opening your 3rd eye (Times of India- The Speaking Tree)? Where else are you greeted by a dancing cobra when you check into your guest house? Where else can you feel safe riding on the roof of a bus? Relax in a houseboat in the middle of a war zone without feeling threatened? Get to share buses and jeeps with wandering sadhus and babas and monks and other holy dudes?
Where else could you spend 9 months and never have a conversation with a local woman!?! Ha!
Where else do you find entire towns that are vegetarian, and witness meat-eaters awkwardly reading restaurant menus?
Where else do you prep yourself for battle just to claim your seat on a train?
There's no place like it, man. Its just crazy, and crazy keeps you on your toes.
My first day in India I had never been so disoriented or seen such novel chaos. I fell for the touts that just wanted to "make friends." I was nervous and lonely and paranoid. My last days in Pahar Ganj, Delhi's main bazar, 9 months later, it was still chaos, but lovely and organized, unique to India and its decaying capitol. Telephone wires and electricity chords dangled over the narrow streets like silly string chaos chandeliers, flies in the tourist restaurants, weather so hot and humid it cakes your skin, mud dirt cows and maybe even elephants. Once again there were the touts so acute in identifying a fresh fish just by a glance, and me now, so acute at identifying the touts, telling them with a hard-earned smile to go fuck themselves.
A hiccup, a dream, a whatever you wanna call it, whatever I can call it, is done, forever, for good, and another chapter morphs into the rest, congeals into the past. Soon it may remain only in verbal platitudes and mental snapshots, not of actual memories but of memories of blog entries or photographs frozen in a long outdated version of iPhoto on my desktop. But, until then...
I'm out now, I'm out of gas, and I feel I have nothing left to write regarding this trip. I've transcribed my last journal entry of the 9 months, written the night before I left for America. It was Krishna's birthday, and there was a huge parade throughout the city and Pahar Ganj:
Thanks for reading.
Ah, just when you think you're gonna saunter down the street for a lonely beer and write in your journal (because its your last full day in India, India for Gods sake, and you feel like you have to ), you stumble out of your cheap hotel into a full fledged parade on the main bazar, Pahar Ganj, honoring the birth of Krishna, incarnation of Holy Truind-ite Vishnu, with marching bands, tricked out lorries, dancers, priests floats and flair, of course, done unlike anywhere else in the world, generators lighting chandeliers and loudspeakers towed by Bihari dark-skinned slaves Krishna would, being a God, sure show mercy upon, vans full of dressed up kids with painted on mustaches, prasad dispensing Brahmins, political sloganeers and the many white tourists like myself gawking or tolerating in bewilderment or jadedness, depending on whether you're just arriving or exiting the country, street kids still in action, some w/ crazed eyes from glue sniffing and others with burnt faces, all in the main bazar in the oppressive humidity, so thick its hopeless, and those Biharis, some young teenagers, pulling those spurting and puffing and loud generators manually as they take each inch earned in life as the generators spit and blast their hot dirty air, these poor souls in the middle of a parade but, in truth, in reality, further from it than anything in the world.
Ah, India I'll miss you and your maddening and well documented contradictions, even as I lose half my body weight in sweat and that shower I took only an hour ago becomes a distant memory. I ducked into the cool bar across the street for a cold beer, perhaps my last on your soil.
A great sleep after watching re-runs of Entourage on the tv. Coffee at the same CCD on Connaught Place, then metro; sacred, fast, cheap, AC'd metro, to Chandni Chowk and Old Delhi Shahjahanbad. The Red Fort is closed on Mondays, unfortunately, as I would've liked to see it again now that I know what it is I'm looking at. I bought a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan mp3 and wandered Chandni Chowk for an hour or so, sometimes meandering down those dark and dirty and incredible side streets...
So, amazingly, this might be it til' an airport or American soil. I'll leave in a taxi around 6 or 6:30 to Indira Gandhi International Airport tomorrow evening, but the heat and humidity might get the best of my mind where writing might be too hard, too nostalgic. I'm excited more than anything, to be honest. I'm tired but not exhausted. I do still have some juice left, and when Jason & Nevada talk about Goa and the upcoming season I suddenly have lots of energy and everything just seems totally awesome again... but I know its time to head home, and, I know, probably more strongly than I'll admit to anyone, that I'll be back, sooner rather than later. If I wasn't leaving tomorrow I would probably, definitely, feel differently, but I'm not sick of India. I could go on and on, to the Goa beach season and the Himalayan summer and back again as no life or girlfriend or even a city awaits me back home. Ah, but here I go, its happening, right now, here it comes, from my stomach up to my heart, that subtle feeling is beginning, the feeling of, yes, it could, it could only be sentimentality, maybe excitement or nervousness or anticipation or regret or wistful thinking, but its there, its here, its filtering up to the brain and visions and dreams are being created and memories just as well, here it is, that acceptance, the calm and compassionate smile of inevitability, its here its in my body and my face and in the brain like always, like clockwork, and since I'm defenseless, since I actually kind of enjoy it, it shall be it shall be it shall be, at this bar off this bazar in this city in this year, remembered, cherished, embraced loved.