“Billions” was given a new sense of galactic immensity by Carl Sagan and his counting of the stars when I was a child. Some twenty odd years later I yet have difficulty comprehending one billion (let alone billions), where one hundred twenty million more than this call India home.
My experience of India was unfortunately, primarily limited to airports, taxi cabs, hotels, and a variety of private and government offices in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, and Delhi. Karthik and I conducted a whirlwind tour of his country, literally flying to two or three cities each week for three weeks. This was ungrounding for us both, but necessary in order to establish the desired new relationships within time and financial budget constraints. I also enjoyed a few days at Hampi and Varanasi, which I will write about in subsequent entries.
While my passenger window view of India did not grant a great depth of experience, I proactively captured moments, freeze-frames in my mind, which when assembled are for me, now, pieces of a larger montage. I found contrast in these sometimes harsh, sometimes confusing, sometimes beautiful images. I will attempt to share them with you here, both in words and photos.
A place of contrast.
Dusty bare feet, brown with beautiful golden anklets that jingle upon each foot fall. Sarees the colors of herbs and spices, fire and water, neon green and earthen brown, both bright and faded blue. Seemingly no two alike.
One of the world’s largest slums juxtaposed to four star hotels and the Mumbai (Bombay) airport on at least two sides, plywood huts pressed against barbed wire fences. As in Kenya, the land which often holds the poorest people is worth the most. It is only a matter of time before it is fully developed, and someone, from a private or government organization will be forced to reconcile with this disparity.
Coca-cola and Sprite, chai and sweet milk, coffee late at night. Pizza Hut, Subway, and MacDonalds. Cows lying in the middle of the street, reprimanded with the sticks of rickshaw drivers to no avail, unconcerned for they know they will not find themselves between those famous sesami seed buns.
Freshly squeezed mango juice, milk, and yogurt. Samosas, breads, and spicy curries. Pastries, ice cream, watermelon juice with mint sold along every street. A vegetarian’s paradise. Bolts of fabulously colored silk and cotton lined the walls and floors of hundreds of stores. A travel agent’s glass office juxtaposed to several trinket shops, a street cart selling face paints, and an auto parts store.
Shop owners unable to talk for the amount of chewing tobacco in their lower lip, teeth stained yellow and red. Shop owners recall your name instantly, waving each time you walk by. Indians playing cowboys in modern day Bollywood westerns. Glamor magazines showcasing the clothing, jewelry, cars, and lifestyles of actors, 1950’s Hollywood but on a much larger, faster scale. But what I really want to know, When will the Indians finally kiss on the big screen?
“Where you from?! Hey! Where you from?! You Canada?”
“No, from the U.S. … America.”
“Oh! President Bush?” (smiling)
“No comment.” (smiling in return)
“Obama? Clinton? Which one will you pick?”
Old women sit in front of Nike and Jean brand retail stores, the neon signs and florescent lighting a spotlight on the imbalance of this equation in all cities, but amplified here where begging girls carry toddlers under arm. In alley ways they exchange the child as a shared commodity, counting earnings before moving out again for another round. Children tap on the glass of idle cars, pointing to their mouths and stomachs until the traffic light changes, their fingers sliding off the glass as the car rolls ahead. I stole a glance but could not maintain eye contact. Something snapped inside and I turned away, uncertain why. I have money, but not enough to feed them all. So which one? Or fifty? Or one hundred million? Overwhelmed, I froze, and did nothing.
Women in colorful sarees work construction sites, barefoot, alongside filthy men. Giant muscular men with turbines and wicked, curled black mustaches smile with illuminated eyes, bowing slightly as one enters their protected domain, a hotel, bank, or restaurant. Teenagers demonstrate independence in dress, jobs, and style. Men bathe in rivers while talking on their cell phones, an elephant spraying its master near by. And yes, monkeys really do steal bananas, from a rickshaw, your hotel room, even your hand.
Hundreds, sometimes thousands of straight-A students compete for a single position in a university. Climbing to the top requires cutting to the front of the line. Too many people to just be average, if you want more. Too many people to be just another number. An intelligence exodus unfolds when the line is too long, and other countries offer a better life, faster.
Yet this is the birthplace of yoga and so many forms of meditation, massage, and ultimate, sexual bliss. What an incredible, harsh, and beautiful contrast which I will never fully comprehend.