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"Listen; there's a hell of a good universe next door: let's go!" 11.3.12

So, yeah. I went to India a few months ago. Honestly, I cannot think of a more daunting topic to try to summarize in a pithy post…it was the most overwhelming, constant sensory assault ever. But not only will I do just that, I will also attempt the impossible: I will ORGANIZE India for you, lucky reader. This will be no rambling, gushing rush of an attempt to describe to you the crush of sheer human volume, the urban swirling frenzy of honking and dust, the religiosity that permeates everything with the decoration of garish gods bathed in supernaturally bright colors and garlands of marigolds, the scents of rose and sandalwood doing battle against garbage and sweat, and the tastes…oh, the tastes, of a dosa fresh from the skillet, its spongey dough infused with clarified butter and slowly absorbing the spiced masala filling; of a warm, crisp varda, its rice filling hot and meaty beneath the crisp fried shell; of the tomato rasam like your old homey tomato soup but with jolts of coriander and mustard; of the…oh. Sorry. The food should maybe get its own rambling, gushing post. But other than that, prepare to navigate this gorgeously chaotic melee of sight, sound, and smell through this, my carefully controlled and outlined series of impressions. There’s hardly a need for you to go there! You can thank me later!

I. People
The thing about India that you notice first is that it’s crowded. No, actually, I take that back. The very first thing I noticed about India when I walked outside the airport in New Dehli at about 10 p.m. was the smell. I was hit with this acrid, sharp, almost biting smell that burned a little taking it in. This is the smell of India: 2 parts exhausty type gas fumes; 1 part smokey fire type scent; and 1 part garbagey type stench. It’s hard to describe (obvs). But it doesn’t take long to figure out what you’re really smelling. You’re smelling the daily living of 1.13 billion people crammed into a country 2/3rds the size of the USA. Or conversely, an additional 830 million people crammed into just about half of the continental US. Just let that run through ye olde mental calculator a few times. India is CROWDED.

I was stepping out of the New Dehli airport to take in the night air when I wasn’t supposed to even be there. Air India apparently runs on Indian standard time. Punctuality, as I soon began to understand, is not an Indian cultural norm. The flight crew was so pleasantly blasé about arriving 2 hours late that it seemed silly to even stress about it. Except that it now left me more or less stranded in New Delhi for a night with no connecting flight further south to Bangalore. So I borrowed a nice lady’s cell phone to talk to my pal, JB (who I went there to visit) and we quickly secured a room in a hotel close to the airport that conveniently also had shuttle service. Stepping onto this “shuttle” was my first mini-brush with the Indian version of dealing with crowds. It is pure survival of the fittest. As more and more people boarded the shuttle—which was reminiscent of a school bus, circa 1980, I noticed that folks were just flinging their luggage into big pile in the aisle. So that when the bus pulled up to the hotel, there was complete chaos as these same people simply began sifting through the pile to retrieve their own bags by throwing those in the way out of the way. Into seats, further up the aisle, on top of passengers, etc. Meanwhile, some well-intentioned tourists (a few Americans and Germans) tried in vain to introduce the notion of unloading all the bags out of the bus regardless of whether or not it was actually yours so the aisles could be cleared of the all the people who were clambering over each other and other people’s bags to get at their own. No dice. The whole process took about 20 minutes longer than it would have had people just nicely unpacked the pile in the first place. Nutty.

But I began to realize that India was all about doing things your way. (See: Driving = there are no standing traffic jams because drivers are constantly snaking around each other to force or find a gap for their own car; Lines = there are no lines because people just step in front of each other when they get impatient.) It kind of makes sense, once you push past your own Westernized sense of ‘wait, no, that’s not how things work,’ because it appears that’s the only way things do seem to actually work in India. It’s just too damn crowded to do it any other way.

II. Culture
I was consistently surprised by reactions people had to my telling them I was going to India. True, most responses fell into the suitably awestruck and jealous category I was hoping to elicit. But many more than I expected fell woefully short. Naturally, there was the flat-out, “Why?” So not everyone likes to hop on a jet plane just for the sheer hell of it and check out someplace, anyplace, other than where you are now. I get that—although I categorically disagree with any other approach to travel. S’ok. These are the people that probably keep the norovirus-ravaged cruise industry afloat. We won’t be crossing travel paths frequently, if at all. But then, there was also the cringey, sometimes almost sneering retort, “Oh, but it’s so dirty. It’s third world.” Yeeaah. (See above. It is.)

Us Americans, we constitute such a large proportion of the “Western World,” we have an unfortunate tendency to forget about all the other parts of the world. And do you want to know what’s funny? India does not care all that much about our little corner on the Western World market. Oh sure, it cares about our politics (in a slightly condescending way), it cares about our economy (in a similarly unimpressed kind of way), but it doesn’t care about our top 40 music, our movie stars, our tv shows, our styles, our crap. India has got all of this of its own making, in spades to ours, believe me, in spades. And it was a good reminder to be there and talk about the States to people and get the cringey, almost sneering retorts, on our election, our wars, our recession headlines. Not in a truly nasty way, you understand, just in a shrugging off, equally dismissive way. Almost the same way we do it so easily about places just as far off from our own little reality.

Here we are, especially in this election year, so apt to crow about our great diversity, our superior melting pot, and yet our 50 little states can barely stay on speaking terms. Meanwhile, India has 28 humongous states, each home to several dialects, multiple ethnic groups, various religions and sects, and vastly different economies. Not to mention, they’ve got a few centuries on us as a world civilization, and but a few decades under their belt as a united nation. India is behind us, true, but it is also leaps and bounds ahead in some ways. There is almost a palpable sense of strain there, particularly in the urban centers. It's a country pushing so hard to go from 3rd world to 1st, it's like they're stealing 2nd. It was invigorating, and with the usual Indian irony, pleasantly humbling.

And just a brief word on the religious nature of India. I was unprepared for the onslaught of temples, images of gods, icons, symbols, you name it that confront you everywhere. This was not vaguely amusing in the way that a trip to In N’ Out Burger used to involve a quick round of Bible verse I Spy that could take you anywhere from the menu board to a straw wrapper. Nor was it strangely unsettling in the way that I sometimes get a little case of the creepies in places like Middle America what with the crosses hanging about on anything that’s nailed down (no pun intended there). Nor was it really anything on a scale I’ve experienced here. It was literally a completely secular society going about its daily business within a completely saturated sense of spiritual awareness. And, to top that off, it is an incredible spiritual mash up. Depending where you are, there very well may be a fair number of crosses and Bible verses, but there are also sweet, baby Krishnas and sinewy Vishnus and cartoony looking Ganeshes (he’s an elephant), not to mention Koran quotes scrawled in graffiti, and Buddhist prayer flags waving from balconies. Well, of course. India happens to be the genesis of 3 out of 5 of the world’s major religions. Nice job, India.

Combined with the Indian sensibility to douse everything in brilliant color, the religiosity was so surreal, I cannot begin to tell you. (Or show you. Note to self: India is not the place to let your SLR camera slyly switch itself to black-and-white for an entire afternoon while you are causally snapping photos in blinding sunlight and dust that you don’t even bother to check out until you’ve made it inside for a cold beer and some shade much later in the day. It was only one day, but when I think about what I missed!...Bad karma must’ve got me.) Cars and trucks are blinged out with mirrored and jeweled mosaics of Hindu talismans—the brightly painted eyes on the fronts of trucks completely enchanted me, the sides of buses had neon images of the gods plastered on them, not to mention all the shopkeepers’ personal little shrines and signs. And I am not even telling you in depth about the massive Hindu temples I went to see, or the blessing of the kolam-decorated (crazy patterns drawn with rice flower) temple elephant there, or the sensation of running barefoot across searingly hot courtyard stones only to enter the most odiferous, candle shadowy, crowded, swaying, almost overwhelming in a nausea-inducing way, religious chamber I have ever set foot in.

So, from someone who kind of falls on the Marxist side of the opium:religion equation and who is repeatedly disgusted by my own country’s inability to practice what it preaches in terms of secular politics and public tolerance, my comment on the religious nature of India, oddly, is this: It was awesomely fantastic any which way you turned at any point in time anywhere you were.

III. Bureaucratic Weirdness
I just don’t know how else to classify this. It seems rude to create a category for ‘General Inefficiencies,’ although everyone else I’ve talked to who’s been to India corroborates this stereotype. There’s a reason that a country of 1.13 billion people has a nearly nonexistent rate of unemployment. It seems everyone has a job. In fact, it seems, for every given job, there are about 3 people who are employed to carry it out. There is a nationally recognized (apparently among my Indian pals at least) sense of redundancy that, while annoying, is the price to be paid for employing the masses. Coupled with the strange Indian tendency to want to fuss around with papers and forms and stamps, the whole experience of attempting to conduct any kind of business, even something as minimal as buying a few things at the grocery store, becomes an epic, bureaucratic adventure in weirdness.

Oh, the stamping! This was easily one of the oddest things to get used to. Everything gets a stamp: receipts, tickets, you name it. The first time I navigated a sari shop’s checkout process, I felt about as spun around and lost in intricacies as the wound silk costume itself. See, first you pick out what you want and bring it to a counter. But you don’t pay for it there. You just leave it there. And the nice young man behind the counter gives you a ticket, which he firmly stamps. Then, you take that ticket and go to the next counter. This is where the ticket is taken by the nice young man who stamps it again and files it away somewhere. And then you pay. At which time, the nice young man produces a different receipt, stamps it, and sends you to the next counter. This is a different counter than the first counter, but here, you produce your stamped receipt and another nice young man procures the product you’ve just left at the first counter and bought at the second counter. And then, he of course stamps your receipt again for you. As you dizzily careen toward the front door of the shop, you are stopped by the nice young man whose job it is to sit at the door and check your receipt and…yes, stamp it, before he records something in a quaint little ledger book, and finally nods and smiles you out the door.

Now, the irony that all this inefficiency and stamping and whatnot happened to be happening to me in there in Bangalore, the IT hub of India, in the shadow of the massive downtown IBM and Accenture office complexes, was not lost on me. It was a strange juxtaposition, to be sure. And it was one of the ways in which I was forced to come face to face with that uncomfortable “3rd world” feeling that all those well-meaning agoraphobics tried to foist on me. Yes, even though this is the country that sends more kiddies to our Ivy League than we do, even though this is the country that was the brain drain (on their end) generated engine of our own dot com boom (to a large extent), it is still the country that uses dot matrix printers, seems incapable of issuing a coherent train or airline schedule (oh, hi there, Air India office!), and likes to stamp paper documents so much, I really did feel like every transaction was as touch and go as getting my letters of mark stamped by the consulate of Casablanca or something (see: Victor Laslow, circa roughly the same time period the British gave up on India but probably left the legacy of stamping the hell out of absolutely everything).

IV. Cities and Traffic
For about the first 48 hours I was in Bangalore, I kept trying to come up with witty analogies about how it compared to American cities. Like…Bangalore is like NYC…on acid. But thankfully, I soon abandoned that pursuit and just gave in to the incredible whirligig of cars and people, blended in the most fantastical colors and pandemonium of movement imaginable. Instead, I opted for standing on street corners for minutes at a time just filming the currents of cars (mostly the Indian-manufactured Maruti Suzuki, which both sounds and looks Dr. Seussian) and foot traffic and bicycles and cows and scooters frothing in a chaotic mess no matter what direction you looked. Driving is not for the faint of heart in India; nor, for that matter, is walking. We saw a handful of pedestrian accidents just in the short time I was there. So I have no regrets that each time JB teasingly offered me the wheel, I screeched a series of expletives in an unequivocal negatory. But I did observe several times on his behalf that driving in the States must have been a horribly dull and mundane thing for him.

V. Food
Hindus believe clarified butter is a food of the gods. They bathe their idols in it. They use it in their cooking with complete abandon. It does not get any better than that. What else is there to say? Also, the Indian motto apparently is the spicier or stickier or sweeter or gooier it is, the tastier it is. This is also a no-fail policy.

VI. Fashion
I got a lot of weird looks in India. No, not because I’m a Westerner or anything. It was because I could not stop ogling women. Fear not, I didn’t go there and have some sort of eatpraylovelesbian moment or something. It’s just that women’s clothes in India are…well, beautiful. There are the saris in every imaginable vivid hue and pattern, usually splashed with gold and shimmery effects. There are the more casual ensembles of kurtas (long shirts) over billowy pants; and then there was their approximation of Western fashion, which translated into nightclub attire suitable at any time of day. The shinier, showier, bedazzled-er, the better. And no one gives Indian women a run for their money in the gold jewelry department, except maybe Slick Rick, circa 1988. The only downside to the women’s fashions of India was that it left little leeway for personal style. There was no way of looking at people and deriving some sense of who they "are" or what they're all about based on their wardrobe choices the way it’s done here. Everyone just wore a different variation on the same outfit. You could only guess at their stamp on style. It was simultaneously strangely comforting and unnerving. And there was that Indian irony again: all of that incredible variety washed in a uniform sameness. But it didn’t stop me from staring and snapping surreptitious photos every chance I got.

VII. Love
Wait, there is nothing particularly Indian about love, you may be thinking. Or, you may be thinking, she is so unqualified to speak about this subject, no matter what subcontinent she may find herself on. Either way, you are clearly wrong. I am including this category because, make no mistake, I know (of) love and Indians do it better than anyone. Here’s the weird thing. In the Western world, love is all about the romance. Boy meets girl, etc. In the exotic East, the concept of love is much more…esoteric? It’s able to encompass a wide range of ‘love types.’ I remember when I was in college, this friend of mine turned me on to Rumi—you know, the Sufi Persian poet from the 13th century? Of course you do. Rumi is famous for his “love” poems—except as I started to pour over them, I quickly realized something didn’t feel quite right. Sure, they were all poems ostensibly about love—but in most of them, his version of the emotion was clearly meant for greater, more important business than trying to sweet talk the ladies. Rumi could have been the Barry White of his day—but what he really excelled at was expressing his passion for his god, his religion, his ancestry. This is very similar to the Indian way of thinking of love. Actual romantic love barely slides into home base behind those other three, if it makes it on the field at all.

But still, in perhaps one of the best ironies ever, the Indians have offered us the cheesiest, most totally overboard take on love known to humanity: Bollywood romance. Despite Air India’s lack of punctuality, I heartily recommend it to travelers because their in-flight movie selection offers the most exhaustive catalog of Bollywood chick flicks ever. You want your sappy Bollywood from the 70’s? No problem. Now? It’s there. From a particular region of India? It’s all sorted for you. The flight from here to India is 22 hours long, but with all that entertainment at your fingertips, who cares? I didn’t.

Which meant that I landed in India sporting my best, besotted, over-romanticized love goggles. And what I saw through them did not disappoint. Wait, you may be thinking, she’s got it all wrong. India is the Las Vegas of arranged marriage. People in India don’t get into the idea of lovey dovey love. In one sense, this is true. I was treated to many stories of the arranged marriage industry by JB’s pals. There are highly paid matchmakers, internet portfolios of hopeful wives-to-be, astrological charts, and family decisions to be made. One guy told me he had a choice of three women, each of whom he was able to speak with for about 15 minutes before having to take the plunge and pop the question. And, yes, there were some heartbreaking stories of true “love matches” that weren’t able to hold up in the face of centuries of tradition and parental pressure. But I also got an earful of some of the best love stories ever—very similar, actually, to the kind that people here tell—about meeting someone (who cares if they were pre-selected for you) and knowing in a time span of minutes or hours or days that yes, this is the person who makes the cut for lifetime companion. Whether you’re in Bangalore or Baltimore, those stories always make immediate, perfect sense. (I mean they do for the people who are telling them. I find myself as intractably dubious of that type of thing as ever.)

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include a little tale of my visit to the Taj Mahal here. This must-see on any Indian itinerary involved a wacky road trip to Agra from Delhi, a monsoon, and a hilarious lunch with Japanese tourists. But despite having to wade through knee-high standing water at the security checkpoint and a weird interlude with what was explained to me as the Indian tour guide mafia (no, really!), I made it. And I joined the typical throngs in wandering the grounds and marveling at the symmetry and trying to take the perfect photo of the most perfect architectural testament to love. Oh, that’s right. Yes, the Taj is just about the best posthumous trinket a girl could hope to receive, right? It IS breathtaking. And it IS perfection in marble. Except…all that marble? Is really slippery in the rain. And you have to be in bare feet inside since it’s a Muslim mausoleum and all. (Not to mention, the power was out, and it is DARK under that dome.) So, I spent my time in the world’s greatest monument to love sliding on slick white marble and praying I didn’t fall. Heavy-handed irony or trite, cheap symbolism? You be the judge.

Well, on that note. So much for pithy, right? Maybe India really can’t be all tidied up in a few nutshell stories and impressions. And I didn’t even bother telling you all the little personal nuggets—like the long, meandering, boozy conversations with just about the best friend ever and his friends, or the helmetless scooter ride through the hills of coffee plantations, or the fun of a family jaunt through a jungle preserve secreting elephants and tigers, or the welcoming comfort of a family dinner where I watched little cousins huddle, giggling uncontrollably in the very same way I used to with mine, or JB's and my own road trip through mountain hut villages where we stopped for hot coffees before hopping back in the car to dodge cattle and weave around bamboo laden trucks and talk and talk and talk, all over the soundtrack of retro-Bollywood ballads—but that’s not what was promised here, right? Right.

India was a tremendous, unequalable type of trip to a tremendous, unequalable type of place. I was not left awestruck for a second. Right up to my last few minutes in India. Yes, by the end, it was a little exhausting. All the people and colors and foods and smells and stuff to see. And I was dragging a little as I trundled up to my last Indian line at the airport customs counter. As you can now appreciate, this line was one more of a gradual pushing and shifting position rather than actual waiting. While I was standing there, the older Indian man behind me quickly reached his waiting expiration, and gradually sidled around me so that he was ahead of me. I sighed. I may have rolled my eyes. He turned around and smiled at me. “Do not worry,” he said in that wonderfully sing-song Indian English, “I am behind you.” I had to smile back but joke, “Then why are you in front of me?” He laughed and gave me the Indian nod—which, by the way, is bobbling your head from side to side the way we would to express a ‘eh, who knows?’ type sentiment. And then he shuffled along as the line moved up. Right then, I knew I wanted to be back here at some point in the future. It is pushy, it is pleasant, it is confusing, and it is always, always steeped in irony, catching you in the same bizarre intersection between what you know and what you want to believe. Thanks, India. You are the best.

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