India: The Country of Contrasts

India is a country of contrasts. After traveling throughout South India for the past three months, we have witnessed so much poverty, pollution and poetry of existence. It is a beautiful, wretched, aromatic, putrid, nourishing and soul-bleeding place. The wave of emotions evoked by our experiences has transported me to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. Amidst the chaos and dirt, India has an underlying hum, an unspoken rhythm to which you must adapt or you will not survive its intensity.

Ponticherry in an area formerly called French India.

India is like a misbehaving child who can be very upsetting, but whom you tend to forgive over and over again. The contrasts, the contradictions, the (sometimes unpleasant) surprises of life bring about a certain realization that nothing is as it seems to be. That can lead to bitter moments…and epiphanies.

The human struggle is no more apparent than in India, a subcontinent rich in spices and heat. Dust, detritus and desperation blend with a swirl of deities and the divine. What’s the fastest thing in the world? On some occasions I might have thought it would be the swiftness of a smile that disappears once an Indian merchant has gotten what he wanted: Money-driven greed borne out of the natural instinct to exist.

It is devastating to be confronted with one’s own conditioning, that girdle of courtesy keeping things in place: Be polite. Maintain eye contact. Say yes, please, thank you, only to be swallowed whole should you observe such rules in public. What else frames this experience more than a mixture of physical and emotional discomfort?

A trash heap outside our hotel window, collected daily by hand – New Delhi

Sweat pearls dropping every which way, T-shirts refusing to absorb any more moisture. The hobble of an unwashed beggar, the extended hand of a mother pushing her six-year-old child into your face, standing at an excruciating interval of time at your restaurant table’s edge as you wait for your well-rounded meal. The endless cadence of beeping, sometimes seemingly arbitrary on a clear road. An SUV from behind, declaring its majestic space as if to say, See me. I am here. I made it. And you?

The molten skin by daybreak, the buzzing of the mosquitoes nipping at their subcutaneous meal, the grime that enters under the fingernails with one scratch, leaving fingertips blackened like a pan-seared fish. The smell of steamy, stagnate river water oozing bleak vengeance on a country with no standardized understanding of environmental protection.

Cows are considered holy in India. They roam the streets as they wish – Madurai

The swish of a paper plate soaring through the air as the tourist flicks it off her hand and into the grass bank on the path to Matrimandir, a golden dome in Auroville, a community just outside of Puducherry dedicated to egoless, possessionless human unity. The bellowing of my life partner, saying “You lost something. Hey, you lost something!” And the quiet murmuring of “Sorry, sir” as her walking partner went back to retrieve her pollution crime. At least for now.

The stimulating flavor of chicken masala perforating the taste barrier in a record act of oral explosion. The comforting sound of a city going to sleep for a few hours of respite before the sweltering dawn engulfs us all again.

Skillful fingers wrapping singular flowers into a garland to adorn a temple sculpture or the jet-black hair of a young woman. The placid chewing of a golden cow, her plumes of banana-scented breath filling the air. The eternal thwapping of an ocean that once swelled so large as to cover entire villages. The lingering traces of colonialism that call for selfies and shouts of Come, Look, See, Madame, Please Sit from the darkened walls of merchants’ cells. The prodding of an old man’s cane in my butt. The hardened, exposed cock of a confused train passenger, leering with dead eyes in my direction.

A typical restaurant kitchen – Varkahla.

The sting of recognition that things change lays blank on my life partner’s face. People he has known for decades – younger than him in some cases – he discovers are no longer alive. The shock that life passes. Our lives will too.

Yes, the world has changed with time. And I do believe so have we.

In the words of Alanis Morissette: “Thank you, India.” You have taught me well.



An elephant statue in the Five Rathas in Mamallipuram.
The luxury of a five-star hotel (The Imperial) in New Delhi.

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