Posted by: Anna | April 26, 2011

Anna’s India Wrap Up

Everyone always asks, “What’s your favorite place?” And I always answer, “India!” India overstimulates all of my senses, completely engages and charms me, while simultaneously irritating me more than any place except Egypt. In total, it’s too much, which is just enough.

India glows with color and sparkle – women wear sequins and beading, every day. An entirely neon yellow outfit with sequins is great for a Tuesday. Women, except for the most Westernized in the largest cities like Mumbai and Delhi, wear traditional sarees or the tunic-pants-scarf outfit.

One of the things I love about India is how NOT American it is. India has its own culture; it is not ape-ing Western culture. They have their own pop music, their own movie stars, their own tabloid scandals, their own movies, and so on.

Tommy was less than completely enthused about going to India. Many people I talk to express surprise at how long we spent in India (6 weeks for Tommy, 8 for me). I think everyone expects it to be all Save the Children ads and Slumdog Millionaire. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect myself.

India is a full on assault to the senses; it is life lived loud and sparkly. It smells, like spices and trash and incense. It sounds like honking horns (we had a personal favorite that we called the “party horn” – it’s a little song that sounds like it should start the limbo at a skating rink), ringing bells in temples, the man walking up and down the train aisle yelling “chai, chai, chai, chai”, millions of people talking, shop owners reminding you that “looking is free! come in my shop!”, and more. It looks like a rainbow of vivid colors, animals in the road, crowds, and unexpected events – I hope I never forget the night we came upon a festival with elaborately painted elephants and a band in the street. It tastes like every spice you’ve ever tried, often in combinations that I cannot decipher; the sweets are overpoweringly sweet, the spicy food searingly hot. It feels like cashmere (from Kasmir, in the North), wool rugs, sequins, kum kum powder smeared on you during Holi, and sweat.

I like the people. Not all of them, but generally. The people we encountered were generally friendly, open, and curious. They would ask us a zillion personal questions, because they really wanted to know. It’s nice when someone wants to know you. Children in the streets yelling, “Hello!” The family on the train next to you insisting you share their homemade lunch.

I like the element of unexpected. India is a country of festivals and celebrations. A wedding procession going down the street with a band and lamps and the groom on a horse with a sword charms me because I didn’t know it was coming.

I like the food, although I got very tired of it. I find the history very interesting. The architecture is a stunning blend of Middle East, Asia, and uniquely Indian. The textiles are beautiful, and the shopping is amazing. I already rather wish I had done more.

Above all, India is a survivor. I contrast India with France. France makes laws to protect French culture and language, and in some ways, that makes France a more interesting place. India does not; India incorporates outside influence. I never stopped being surprised at hearing someone speaking Hindi, or another Indian language, and then slipping into English for an entire sentence, then seamlessly back into Hindi. All the conquerors – the Mughals, the English, etc – left their mark. But they never turned India into anything that could pass for anything other than India.

So you don’t just think this is a love letter to India, let me mention a few negative points as well. There is no trash collection outside the largest Indian cities. People have a strange culture (to me) about trash – everyone just throws it on the ground wherever they are when they are finished with it. If you live where there is no trash pickup, your only option is to burn it, which is not very environmentally sound (especially as there are tons of plastic bottles).

India is shockingly poor, although frankly we were sheltered from the worst of it. Something like 80% of Indians live on less than a dollar per day. When you realize that our daily budget was $30 per day, and we often spent more than that, if you translate that to US terms, it’s pretty shocking. The US average daily wage is $70 (I’m not 100% on that number, but it’s what I found online). If we spent 30 times that, that would mean we spent $2100 per day, a pretty generous daily budget, even in expensive America. Of course, at the top end, wealthy Indians live similarly to wealthy people anywhere. Indians look at us and think we are rich. And that is because, even if you don’t feel very rich in the US, if you are in India, you are.

The caste system in India still exerts some level of influence on people’s lives, and that is sad. I am grateful that today, in America, you wouldn’t find many people who would argue that your birth should dictate your life. It may do so, but at least we don’t believe it’s a moral imperative. It is hard for me to grasp that the caste you are born into is a reflection of your goodness or lack thereof in a past life.

Haiku to India:

Spicy, loud, dirty –

Incredible India

Worlds away from home.

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Responses

  1. I spent two weeks in India five years ago. I had nowhere near the breadth of experience you had, but your description sums up all of my feelings about that amazing country, exactly.


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