If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India!
~~~ Romaine Rolland Vie de Vivekananda (The Life of Vivekananda), 1930
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that there are humans in my life, not close friends, mind you, but peripheral people, who are more than a little surprised that I am surviving India. And that’s on both sides of the Atlantic, mind you. I am 100% certain that there are some people who met me within my first few months of living in Mumbai (or even, like, three weeks ago) who look at me and think, I give this girl a month. Maybe two, if she really likes paneer. Spoiler alert, I sure don’t.
But regardless of that, I am, in fact, figuring India out, slowly but surely and to the best of my limited abilities. And nothing makes you consider your time in a place more than some time away from it. The contrast is always fascinating, between where you’ve been and where you are, and the most surreal aspect is always recognizing that not much has changed, except, of course, for you.
Returning back to the United States a few weeks ago for a trip has allowed me to revel in bread (oh my god I’ve missed bread so much) and good wine and excellent non-Indian foods like dim sum and bread (oh my god I’ve missed bread so much) and tacos and craft cocktails and bread (oh my god I’ve missed bread so much) and Greek food and salads, just in general, all the salads, and great coffee and bread (OH MY GOD I’VE MISSED BREAD SO MUCH). It has allowed me to remember things like sidewalks, and the fact that people use them, personal space, and why it’s wonderful, and how great black is as a color and why we should all just commit to wearing black all the time and never wear anything else ever again. (Because that Diana Vreeland quote is so damn true, “Pink is the navy blue of India”, and that switches from delightful to eye-searing and back on a minute to minute basis.)
Being back here has also given me the chance to describe India to a lot of people. But frankly, that’s proved a difficult challenge in more ways than one. Because how do you describe an entire country and your experience within it in a way that feels fair? First, there is India, as I know it. More specifically, Mumbai, because that’s where I live and it’s not like I can comment on most of the giant sub-continent, although I TOTALLY have, because, don’t we all do that sometimes? But I’m trying not to do so so loudly and drunkenly. Daily. Gotta have goals.
Then there is my experience, individually, which is its own situation. How do I describe the daily sensory overload coupled with a distinctly comfortable lifestyle? How do I talk about how inherently bizarre it is to live in a place that is simultaneous the highest and lowest tech place I’ve ever seen? What do I say about the rickshaws, the domestic help, the bats that fly out at dusk? Actually, no one has asked me about the bats, I gotta start leading with those so people know they are an option (and AWESOME, they are AWESOME! Bats! Magnificent!)
It is, I realize, surprisingly hard to talk about India without resorting to the kinds of descriptions that could make 18th century British noblemen jealous, complete with monkeys, peacocks, and goats. I don’t want to be giving Prester John a run for his money in some of these conversations, but I also don’t want to undersell how extreme Mumbai can be. So how do you talk about a place like India without going full on East India Company matron? You know, all oh my goodness, ’tis both exotic and odd, with heat that dazzles the mind and sights that confound the soul! Of course, ’tis awfully strange, but the spices tingle the mouth and the sights are divine! Of course, an ACTUAL East India Company matron would be a lot more free and easy with the racism, but I’m sure you get the point.
The one book I’ve found that sounds amazing on this actual subject of non-Indians traveling through India is the diary of a woman named Fanny Parks, who traveled through India alone, spoke multiple languages, and spent a lot of time meeting native ladies in their harems. Parks was, apparently, deeply critical of the way the British East India company changed in the 1700s from a company that was impressed and respectful of Indian culture and society to a rigid structure interested in creating a new social hierarchy which put all non-white people in the position of lower-class citizens. It’s actually sort of an amazing transition, well detailed in this excellent novel.
Yes, it’s a tricky line to walk, but I’m doing my best, just like always, tripping down that road and hoping there is some decent booze at the end. So in the spirit of spiel, that is, for those of you not fluent in Yiddish, the routine thing you say to a repeated question, here are a few of mine, with regards to the exotic sub-continent:
- So, what’s it like? Is it, like, crazy? Yes. It is absolutely crazy. It is also a normal place where millions of people live. But mostly, based solely on traffic, casual livestock, and my lack of Hindi comprehension, it is, indeed, crazy.
- So, do you totally understand Hinduism now? I understand Hinduism 1000% less than I did before I went to India. I think the only time I really understood Hinduism was when I studied it in 9th grade for World History Class and got a 10 out of 10 on our weekly quiz. It’s all been downhill from there.
- So, how is it for women? It’s got it’s challenges, but so far, so good. The truth is, I’m isolated from a lot because I’m a white person and that puts me in a different category, so I see a lot of negative things, but Mumbai is a safe city in many ways.
- So, do you get sick a lot? Not so far, although obviously that just paves the way for something terrible, so, THANKS FOR ASKING.
- So, how’s the food? Jesus, do you not read my BLOG?
Of course, there are others, but hey, I don’t want to give all the answers away, although don’t be surprised if I refer you to one of these sometime in the future…