Imagining India

by Dan Brook, May 28, 2020 | Destinations: India

I imagined India for so long before I finally got there, but I never quite imagined what I actually experienced there. New Delhi was hot, humid, dirty, crowded, colorful, loud, spiritual, unequal, and often aromatic from pleasant to sickening. India does not lack for sensory stimuli. 

In the Main Bazaar, my son had just finished some freshly-made street jalebi, a very sweet fried orange-colored dessert, and had some honey dripping down his arm. He held his arm up and out, so as not to get it on his clothes. At that moment, a little old saddhu (a Hindu ascetic) stopped to take a look. He was hunched over, with a bushy gray beard and wearing some orange cloth, holding a walking stick and a dirty shoulder bag. He got up close, stared at my son quizzically, looked closer still, then tilted his head, focusing carefully so as to take in this unusual scene. With all his apparent spiritual practice and life experience, it was clear he was not sure what to make of this skinny pale kid whose arm was dripping honey. The old man then pulled a cloth out of his shoulder bag, wrapped it around my son’s arm, carefully wiped my son’s arm up and down, and quietly returned the cloth to his bag. With the job apparently done, and no words exchanged, the old man went back to ambling down the cow-filled, chaotic street. Sometimes the mundane can seem miraculous.

The next day, we stopped into a little travel agency as it opened in the morning to inquire about getting to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal, and elsewhere. A man invited us to sit down. Then he grabbed a big bell, held it a little above his head, and started ringing it, vigorously shaking it back and forth. And it rang and rang and rang for a few minutes, though it felt like a clanging eternity. When he mercifully stopped, he put the bell down and matter-of-factly assured us “a few minutes for the gods and the rest of the day for business”. It somehow seemed a reasonable compromise.

I was quite taken by the Taj Mahal, and the love story behind it. I let myself get lost in its majestic albeit brutal history, the geology of its marble and jewels, the exquisite architecture of the palace and nearby red mosque, the artistry of its curves, the perfectly-proportioned calligraphy on its walls, the view of the Yamuna River behind it. Its magnificence far exceeds all photos I have seen of the Taj and all traveler tales I have ever heard about it. The Taj was built over the course of two decades in the 1600s for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, whom he referred to as Mumtaz Mahal, his Jewel of the Palace. And I, too, fell in love.

Seeing the sun rise over the Taj Mahal was one of the many magical experiences of my time in India. Seeing my son asleep on a white marble alcove of the Taj, having been woken so early, was magical in a different way.

We eagerly arrived at the Taj before it opens at 6 AM. Waiting on a very short line, I noticed some people were already inside and, with little else to do, asked a guard about this confusing situation. When he explained to me that no one was allowed inside before it opens, I showed him said people, but he responded “no people”. Mentioning that I very clearly see people inside, while pointing to them, he simply repeated “no people”. Reality is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, so there was nothing left to discuss. We patiently waited until the official opening, when we were among the first to enter the complex, or not, depending on one’s relationship with reality.

This experience was like the time I went to take a shower in a small hotel in another city, Dehradun, but no water came out. Quite disappointed, I got dressed, went down to the front desk, and explained the dry situation. The man behind the desk did a head bobble, as Indians often do, but nothing more. I pushed my case, complaining about the lack of water, and after some more head bobbling, he finally relented to send someone up.

A young employee eventually came to my room, so I brought him into the bathroom, pointed to the shower, and said “no water”. After he turned the faucets and nothing happened, he turned them back, and just looked at me. Breaking the awkward stare and silence, I said “no water”, to which he quickly responded “water”. So I tried “no water”, adding some urgent emphasis, and he just as calmly as before repeated “water”. I shook my head and he took his leave. I am sure on some level we were both correct, but I never did get my shower there.

While in Bundi, a little city in Rajasthan, I met a teenage girl named Pooja, who seemed especially interested in my slightly younger son. After generously inviting us into her blue house, and sharing some delicious food with us, she proudly showed us the Pooja room in her home (a pooja is a form of Hindu devotional worship) and in her Pooja room was a giant poster of her on the wall, larger than life, that read Pooja. There was almost nothing else in this little blue room besides some pillows on the floor, so it was essentially a shrine to herself!

Bundi is a blue city, meaning that most homes in this peaceful town are painted blue, many the same shade, inside and out. Some, however, are painted light green, occasionally bright yellow, sometimes tan. (There are a few other colored cities in Rajasthan: Jodhpur is also blue, while Jaipur is pink, and Udaipur is white.) As we were saying our goodbyes, Pooja asked me what color my city was. I unfortunately did not have a good answer at the time, fumfering something about it not having a single color, but I should have proudly declared that San Francisco is a rainbow city — though some people like to call it the cool, gray city of love.

In his post-enlightenment peripatetic days, Buddha came to Hinduism’s holiest city of Varanasi over 2500 years ago and it was already an ancient city back then. He went on to give his first sermon to five monks in Deer Park, in nearby Sarnath, where he expounded on the Four Noble Truths: there is suffering, there are causes of suffering, there is a solution to suffering, and there is a path that leads to the end of suffering. That is the basic foundation of Buddhism.

More than most places, Varanasi is about life and death. For Hindus who can afford it, getting cremated on the ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi is one of the most important events of their lives. Fires are therefore scattered along the banks of the river with ashes scattered in the river, adding to the extreme heat, pollution, and intrigue of this sacred city. 

For those who cannot afford a funeral pyre, there is the public crematorium. When we passed by the imposing structure, an employee came out with ashes on his clothes. In a friendly gesture, he put out his dirty hand for me to shake. I sheepishly declined, later regretting both my squeamishness and rudeness. In my defense, however, it was 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48C) in the shade — and we were standing in the sun. We made some small talk anyway and when the issue of cremation inevitably arose, he cheerfully announced “You know, burning is learning! Cremation is education!” And so it is, I suppose.

Haridwar, another holy Hindu city about four hours north of New Delhi and also on the Ganges River, is a vegetarian city by law, one of several in India (including Barsana, Palitana, Pushkar. Rishikesh, Tirupati, Vrindavan). And the food was outstanding. Absolutely no meat, eggs, or alcohol is sold or served anywhere within city limits. Although those rules were observed, many others were not.

My son wrote in his travel journal that “The streets are filled, but unfortunately not with traffic rules. There are no sidewalks, and cars are too expensive, so people just go both ways on different forms of transportation randomly in the narrow streets. Here in Haridwar, a given street (along one block) may have 50 people, 7 motorcycles, 4 rickshaws, a bicycle, an elephant, 2 horses, a couple cars, and a few food carts. I honestly don’t understand how they all fit. The Indians react unemotionally to anything in the street, from saddhus groveling in the mud to religious parades to the occasional monkey troop.” There might also be a camel cart, but it would hardly stand out, given the hustle and bustle of life there.

Down by the Ganges, during the time of a Hindu festival in Haridwar, there were many people bathing, swimming, playing, reading, snacking, cooking, hawking, and just about whatever else one can do.

I was speaking with a few Indian men when some saddhus came our way. One was wearing only a barely-there. white loincloth, some jewelry, a shoulder bag, and sporting white body paint and a bushy white beard, while a younger saddhu next to him was carrying a trident. They came over, sat down, and joined the conversation, which was no longer in English. No one seemed surprised about anything that was transpiring; no one ever was in India.

Excitedly, one of the men encouraged me to buy the old saddhu food, then another joined in, pushing me on this same issue. After briefly wondering why I should, I agreed and found someone selling fresh fruit. I bought a bunch of colorful fruit and respectfully offered it to the saddhu, a fruitarian, who accepted it nonchalantly and unceremoniously put it to the side. At this point, the very same men who urged me to buy the saddhu food chastised me for offering him food in the afternoon when he could not eat it. How rude of me, I guess.

Rishikesh, another vegetarian city an hour north of Haridwar, is known as the yoga capital of the world. So, when in Rishikesh, do as the Rishikeshians do! We stayed in a yoga ashram, where my son was only charged half price because he was “so skinny”. We were awoken by a bell at 5 AM for morning yoga. Afterward, we had an austere breakfast, sadly lacking flavor, while sitting silently on the floor, followed by a fire pooja.

Lunch was no more elaborate. We engaged in afternoon yoga, and after a differently-austere dinner, we joined an evening kirtan, or spiritual chanting session. Life in the ashram was simple, yet satisfying. Except for the food, which caused us to sneak out for tastier provisions after a couple days, including momos and delectable mango pie.

Rishikesh is also home to the ashram where the Beatles stayed in 1968, while writing most of what later came to be called the White Album, a double-album masterpiece. The Fab Four spent time with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru who popularized Transcendental Meditation, and other seekers, including Donovan and Mia Farrow. When I visited over 40 years later, the ashram was abandoned and crumbling.

We traversed the Lakshman Jhula footbridge, on which we had to negotiate lazy cows, lots of people, and motorbikes that are banned on the bridge yet ride nonetheless. We also passed thieving monkeys, who cleverly hide and occasionally jump out and shriek when they spot an unsuspecting mark, hoping to scare them into dropping whatever food they might be carrying. On the other side of the Ganges, we walked along a dirt road, where we were occasionally stopped to be included in Indian family photos, before we finally reached the Beatles Ashram. Going straight to the gate, I found it locked.

Not sure what to do after walking all that way, I thought in stunned silence for a moment, assessed the disappointing situation, and pulled on the locked gate again for good measure, as one does. Then we ambled toward the river to reflect on our plight and plot our next move. That is where I met Sethi, a saddhu who lived with a few other saddhus and a troop of monkeys amidst the trees overlooking the Ganges. The chemistry was perfect between us, so Sethi and I became fast friends, easily smiling, chatting, laughing, and putting our arms around and teasing each other. After a while, I mentioned that we came to see the ashram, at which point he cheekily took out a key, held it up, and said he would show us around.

But first, Sethi really wanted to get me as high as he was — and he had the resources to make it happen. That’s not my thing, so I tried to appeal to his religious and cultural sensibilities. “My body is a temple,” I proclaimed, “so I don’t smoke.” “My body is a temple,” Sethi immediately responded, “so I do smoke!” And we laughed some more, a lot more, as we wandered throughout the otherwise-empty ashram. Although Sethi did not smoke while he was with us, he periodically gnawed on the top end of his aromatic walking stick, as we talked and listened to the Beatles and Bob Marley onthrough our iPod.

Having visited this beguiling country, Mark Twain hyperbolically declared that “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition.”

Especially in India, things are not always as they appear and there are so many more stories to tell. I am sure I need quite a bit more than the one hot month I explored India to understand and adjust to its many cultural quirks that make India sometimes feel like a different planet, not just a different country. After doing so for so long, I am still imagining India.

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Dan Brook, PhD teaches sociology at San Jose State University, where he leads the annual Hands on Thailand program.