· The Exotic Reality ·
"...a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads"
- Jaharwal Nehru, on India
It is an amazing thing to be within a country and have that culture so immersed in what you're doing that you forget about the world outside it. That feeling of having only a fleeting memory of what things are like back home, how people live, the monotony and the excess that seem to thrive there in equal measure; it is a uniquely liberating thing. You can sit in a market in the middle of India and delude yourself that that is all that there is in the world, that this is the extent of the human existence – that everything you see makes up the full gamut of the human experience – and you can revel in it. It is the contrast of two opposing dynamics, two opposing ways of life. If I can hold onto that feeling for only an instant, then I have found the experience that I want; to be removed from everything I know, the culture I hail from, and be cast asunder into another, fully immersed in it and its daily motions. I want to get home in some distant future and then feel exactly the same, as if I was delving into something I don’t recall, some unremembered past, a new culture, all over again. You know of course that the feeling won’t last – it never can – but you will at least remember the feeling long after the visceral memory has receded. It is a glorious thing.
Except, of course, when it's not...
That fucking dog. If it's not the bells that do it, it's a cacophony of hounds, invariably led by this one who you can only assume to be the ring leader. It's a low howl at first, and then others join the cry, and eventually it almost resembles a concerto, albeit a concerto without any melody. Of course, this is not the end of it. Once the dogs start, you know you have approximately eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds until the sirens, horns, voices and even the singing follow suit.
Even though I know it's coming, I still lie there waiting for it, as if my concentration could ward off the noise. Inevitably, it can’t, and I sit up as the crescendo grows, when it hits me. My stomach gives off a growl of contempt at its contents, and I am on the porcelain altar before you can say curry chicken. The best part of half an hour washes itself away in a sea of... well, let's just call it a sea. I’m pretty sure I left my colon down in that piping. I wash my hands at the basin and am greeted with water that resembles more what I just got rid of than what I would drink. Its smell matches if not surpasses the sight.
The tap on his door rears jack into a semi state of consciousness. He's sitting there as I walk in, surfing the web while toking on a large doobie made with well-practiced hands.
"The subcontinent's taken me," I proclaim. "Going down the street to get something to hold my backside together; maybe get some food. You wanna come?"
It takes Jack two further joints to get moving, but eventually we find ourselves outside, even though it now doesn’t actually feel as if we are doing anything as my lucidity dissipates from the second hand smoke. What on earth am I doing in Agra, I wonder? This all now seems so surreal
to me. I decide to man up though, because I am about to cross a street, and for this I need as many of my faculties as I can muster. I wonder how India became a country where you are faced with certain death from a thousand angry motorcycles every time you cross a road wider than 1.27 metres. At least, to me they sound angry, what with their constant honking and swerving. But it seems that this is just how they drive. Coming up on the left? HONK! Turning right? HONK! Carrying 13 dead pigs and a cage full of half-bald chickens? HONK! It’s as if an entire race of people have evolved to develop echo-location like bats or dolphins. Maybe that’s why us white folk have such big round eyes?! We need as much eyesight as we can because we haven’t honed our sense of hearing over generations of riding (and avoiding) motorcycles. Ninja's, cockfighting, dumplings, echo-location; I’m officially jealous of all Asians. Nonetheless, it seems that smack bang in the middle of the road is the best place to walk in an Indian city, whether your ears are designed for it or not.
It, of course, has rained incessantly overnight, and as such the ground is covered in a fine layer of mud and grime. This reality, combined with the flip flops that have become attached to my body since my backpacking adventure began, result in flecks of mud hitting my calves, arsehole, and on particularly special occasions the back of my neck. My attention, though, is never held for too long to get properly frustrated...
"Smoke... hash?" By now I am an old hat at this, and the seemingly insurmountable, societal induced trait of staying true to Western ideas of civility have long since collapsed under the weight of third world persistence. Despite all my years of private school propriety and manners urging every fibre in me to answer the boy politely, my twenties have taught me nothing if not to ignore a dodgy sixteen year old with a voice four octaves lower than it should be offering me an assortment of drugs. Unless, of course, I’m out of stock, in which case it's an entirely different story. However, the kid is out of luck today. If he had said "Metronidazole?” or “Imodium?", I may have at least said hello back. A perkier voice might have helped his cause also. At first, when I started to get hampered for illicit substance sales, I concluded it must be because I look like an unwashed Israeli hippy, and thus with all equity I would indeed be the first to be approached. Not so, apparently; I’m not that special. Like all good business men, these kids don’t discriminate. One day I’ll dress up as a 60 year old American woman, replete with bum bag, a t-shirt with the Indian flag on it, lash on at least thirty more kilos, and I’ll verify this statement for you.
We have somehow found the energy to be coerced to the top of a rooftop restaurant, and I am now eating breakfast four storeys above street level. The sun is just rising so the air is still cool and comfortable and Agra is spread out below me, the Taj Mahal slightly off to my right and the mass that surrounds it bustling below me. With its flat-to-the-horizon sandy blandness and boxy, clay-brick, decaying houses I could easily be in downtown Kabul. I close my eyes and secretly wish for an RPG to explode a few blocks over, just under the Vodafone sign but not close enough to the dude in the knee-length, collarless white shirt selling dhosas from a cart - out of the many disagreeable smells here in India, his is ok. He can stay. I open my eyes; no explosion, no smoke, just dozens of smelly people walking without a place to walk to, perhaps trying to find the nearest updraft to sully my food with.
A thousand times more people are already awake and active than there would ever be at 6 am in any Western city I've ever spent time in. Some are fruit sellers pushing their wooden carts, trying to find a suitable tree to shade their produce that are too bruised and imperfect for your local supermarket to ever stock but which taste infinitely better. On the roof of each house, some people are still laying asleep under blankets; too hot to sleep inside, too cool and exposed overnight to sleep outside without something to cover them. Men are standing in the shadows cast by the house next to them, bathing from bucket water, some in underwear, some naked, all with the dark, weathered skin of someone who spends seven days a week out in the elements. Women are washing saris in the shade before the sun gets too high overheard and then laying them out on the flat, tin roof to be baked stiff and dry as the day wears on. Like countless generations before them, people here work in unison with the land and the Sun.
I swear that this country is a living re-enactment of The Lord of The Flies if the boys had never been rescued and somehow managed to figure out how to breed. Without strong leadership, the people fight aimlessly amongst themselves; with strong leadership, simple rumours always seem to end with assassinations or brutal slaughter. First the Mughals, then the French, then the British and finally, after capturing their independence, they descend into chaos as they separate into three states, then over-breed and under-develop. What’s worse, with the caste system now thrown out, for a billion people it's basically come down to every man for themselves. With so many bodies trying to exist and survive in the same place at the same time, unless you're a family member or someone worth selling, you're just part of the landscape; a fleshy obstacle in the way of finding water or food. No manners, no niceties, people are maddeningly pushy over the smallest of things. Rice thrown anywhere and everywhere, as if it were an offering to Vishnu, and people openly pissing and shitting in the streets, day or night, busy or otherwise. Animals roaming everywhere, whole generations of farm animals that live and die never having seen an actual farm, grazing only on discarded plastic bottles and ghee-stained newspaper wrappings. Amongst them, dusty children and women with nose-piercings dressed impeccably in red and gold sari's trying to beat them to the good stuff. For God's sake India, your people are fucking hungry! Kill a few of the millions of dogs you allow to fester in the open sewers. Better yet, a small cow could feed an entire family for a month!
But no, of course you can't eat a cow! That's blasphemy! For a country that is so obstinately religious though, India’s pious foundations are decidedly unstable. Depend mainly on which cultural identity is in favour at the time, it seems, it will swing wildly between Buddhism, Muslim and Hindu. Right now it's Hindu, but that was not before they annexed an entire section of the continent and made all non-Hindu's go live somewhere in an ugly, blood drenched divorce. Random gods and deities seem to be made up and altered as time goes on; gods with elephant heads, snake tongues, blue skin, a monkey god who controls an army of other monkeys, an overwhelming array of arms – they certainly keep it colourful. And despite the fact that the mythology is so contradictory, people worship these cartoon characters on a constant, daily basis, decorating their houses and businesses and giving what little food they have to any one of the billions of shrines they set up to try and appease them. Not unlike every other third world country you go to, it seems the poorer they are, the harder they pray and the more food they leave! Look around people... you're living in filth, you're starving, you have little future prospects, YOU'RE FUCKED!
These hideous monstrosities are not helping! In fact, time and time again they're dooming your very existence. For example, in the 16th century, somehow, in true Hindu-style (nobody knows exactly), you made one god so irate that he brought forth a plague, and so the rats of India thrived. People began to die en masse, but instead of trying to look at the matter logically – filth brings rats, rats bring plague, plague brings death – you assume your now deceased families have been reincarnated as the rats that now proliferate and as such you build them a temple.
There are no words.
Wait. It doesn’t end there. People then come here and pray and bring food, food which could easily feed their own hungry living family, to give to the rats. Finally, despite the fact the temple is covered in the piss and shit of a million rats, they insist everyone has to enter barefoot. And then they bemoan the onset of disease. If ever there was a misappropriation of human resources, India was it. If only their gold standard in this discipline could feed them.
On the subject of re-calibrating Indian culture, for god’s sake, get some air-conditioning and reliable electricity while you're at it. As it is, I had to lay in bed for at least four minutes without even a ceiling fan to keep me cool until the emergency power kicked in. Even now I can’t hear anything over the sound of the diesel generator a few storey's below me. This is just not up to one star standard. I paid you an extortionate five dollars US for this room, and I was still smarting at the lack of champagne on arrival to my room. Look, I’ll even pay you an extra fee to get the damn thing fixed permanently. What's that? You don't have change for my 100 rupee note? How the fuck is this country supposed to function when no one can conduct commerce? I’m not even kidding, there seems to be more banks in this country than there are 50 rupee notes. That is one Australian dollar people. What are you doing India? Am I missing something? Have I just not seen the bank where they hand a goat over to the teller and he send a hindquarter back?
It's one thing to immerse yourself in a culture, mixing with the people and eating at street stalls, but occasionally you need to take a break and find somewhere above the maddening crowds, scam-artists, beggars and all the children robotically & silently mimicking a sad face while bringing their putrid hand up to their even more putrid mouth like slum-charades. Once you get high enough and look down, it's almost like you're at the zoo. One of those wild game parks where you're safe and can look down and observe the wildlife in their natural habitat. My feelings towards India are largely contradictory. Of course I love it - any backpacker would – but I hate it for the same reasons. I love that the food, even though it’ll probably induce diarrhea. I love how cheap it is, but not the cost it comes at (floundering electricity, no drinking water, the overall poverty, etc.). I love bargaining, but tire of it often. I love how incessantly interesting it is religiously and spiritually, but cannot understand the idiosyncrasies it engenders in their practical lives (and thus often mine). I love the deregulated nature of the country, but get frustrated by its upper echelon bureaucracy which would be pointless in the face of its easy going people if it weren’t for the corruption. I love being in a culture so entirely different, but am disgusted by its elements which refuse to learn from history and circumstance. You get the idea.
From my safari-lookout, the rising sun glistens off the silverware I'm eating my continental breakfast with and the women and children look up from laying out their freshly washed clothes and notice me. I raise my hand so as to, you know, try and let them know that I'm totally on their level and at one with humanity. I can see a fleeting look on their faces, an irrepressible, visceral and moving hopefulness that I‘ll throw them down some scraps, until they realize I'm just waving.
These might be the stalest cornflakes I've ever eaten and the most horrendous tea I've ever tasted but I paid a good 65c for this breakfast. Go buy your own cornflakes.