Tuesday, January 09, 2007

India: First Thoughts

Ed: For those of you who don't know, I am in India to celebrate Minal's brother's wedding. The decision came last minute and the confirmation that I could go (in the form of a visa and later plane tickets) came even later, so if the fact that I am in India comes as a surprise to you, don't feel bad, it still comes as a bit of a surprise to me.

It is no wonder that Hindus and therefore the overwhelming majority of Indians believe in reincarnation and concern themselves with finding harmony, because to experience India is to experience life. Not life of the individual, as we so readily picture in the west. Not the single path of our existence moving via our own decisions from birth towards death. But all of life, humanity, paths overlapping. In an instant both life and death and everything in harmony.

It isn't that I am in a highly philosophical mood. It is not that I believe in reincarnation, I don't. It is the fact that to be aware at all while in India is to come face to face with all stratus of life and points in them.

To only show you a piece of the larger whole, as I tried to piece that last sentence in my mind, there was a servant mopping the floor at my feet, very probably not literate, while I sat formulating words to print on a computer screen for you to read.

That illustrates a bit of the closeness of life in India, but to try and illustrate the layers I will try to say something of the depth. We are by no means staying with one of the richest families in India and our servants are by no means make up the poorest. To say that someone is not literate in Canada places them at the very bottom of our social hierarchy, in India the hierarchy expands further. I do not know the back story of the cleaning boy, but as Steve and I took a walk during our first day he shared with me a story about the cook. The road we were on was paved, but a good portion of the sides were made up of fresh gravel. As we walked, we would pass by workers, entire families of them. The work was divided by ability, grandmothers pushing carts with tar and younger members doing more of the physical work itself along the shoulder. On either of side of the road were residential apartment buildings, exactly like the ones we were staying in, but at one point a gap of bare ground appeared and in that spot was an entire village camped out. It was the worker's camp and amongst the makeshift tents (a tarp and two sticks) children played. This type of life was apparently the kind our cook had come from. Saved from carrying heavy loads on her head to construction sites by the relative luxury of cooking someone else's diner.

I am describing my experience using broad strokes, but to add finer details I will try to describe the drive we went on through the city on our first night. Describing driving in India is an interesting endeavour, because it is quite different than anything you might encounter in our very regimented West. Perhaps the simplest way to imagine it is to imagine people walking through a crowd. The navigation is seemingly complex, there are no direct paths and specified directions of movement and yet our brain handles the navigation process easily, seemingly without thought. This is very similar to driving on the streets, except for in addition to people walking, you have cars, people pushing tables with various goods to sell, large buses, many scooters, bikes, motorcycles and three wheeled taxis, the occasional camel driven cart, goat herder and goats, wandering cows and maybe even a cripple crab-walking across the street. Now add the sound of constant honking, because this is how vehicles communicate their presence, and you begin to have an idea of what it is like. Driving at night through busy portions of the city, as I did on my first night, intensifies this experience. As we drove, the sights whipping past, the people weaving through, it began to pick up a rhythm. Much like the music of India, seemingly disjoint at first but as the layers built, fitting together and fitting inside each other naturally. The stories of life mimicked this pattern. Couples on scooters and motorbikes, the man staring forward concentrating, the woman relaxed on the back, leaning against the man, sari colourful and swaying in the breeze of their curved and darting trajectory through the gaps in traffic. Sometimes families, the same as the couples, but as the scooter pulls even just before the pass, the glimpse of a young child straddled in the middle, secure between its parents. Here life is full, young and filled with expectation. To the side of the road, store fronts different in colour and wares, some for the very rich, some just a cart sitting on the shoulder. These passed in a regular pattern, constant but changing, but interleaved were occasional fires, warmth in the cool night for those without homes, nearby children grouped, engaged in the various universal activities of childhood. Here life, still full, is connected through a thinner thread. These juxtapositions continued as we travelled and as the parts began to blur in their repetition, India began to take shape. The glimpses of individual lives began to add up into a larger picture of life as a whole.

2 comments:

Cuser said...

Wow. Very poetic description. I feel compelled to comment, as some someone the other day asked if I didn't realize that you had gone to India, since apparently there's a note on your blog to that effect addressed to specifically to me. But I suppose that's a pitfall of having a name that can be the shortened form of "editor" (I presume)

Well, I suppose I'll get back to wondering why I've been eating pizza pops for the last week and a half...

"Ed"

Master Epp said...

Any Second thoughts?