I knew nothing of India. The winding bazaars, the immense willpower, the unforgettable aroma, the heat, the cold, the filth, the beauty, the tragedy and the love. I’d read all about it, but I knew nothing. Some things cannot be experienced second hand – you have to throw yourself into the fire and let the flames burn. And as the plane bumped down in India’s capital, Delhi, that’s exactly what I was doing. A young, cautious, inexperienced and hopelessly British man, alone to make sense of this surreal land.
The comfort of the cool breezy airport with its steady stream of new arrivals allowed suspense to linger in my thoughts and in my stomach as I drifted uncertainly towards Exit 5. It was there I hoped I’d find my taxi driver waiting, along with the excitement and fear that any wander outside one’s comfort zone is burdened with. Except excitement was nowhere to be found. As I shook hands with the pensive driver and struggled to decipher his heavily accented English, I began to wonder if I’d be able to lay in this new bed I’d made for myself.
A long brisk walk to a nearby car park allowed the scent of ten million people, thousands of spices, incense, animal shit and burning piles of trash to flood my nostrils. Sweat began to soak through my clothes as my body, accustomed to no more than England’s occasional heat waves struggled to come to terms with the dense humidity.
A group of elderly Islamic men with matching white beards and white robes analyzed me as I loaded my suspiciously excessive bag into the back of the dated taxi. The modern bag came with many useful trinkets suitable for those lucky enough to be spending enough time away from home to need them, and I was conscious of this. This formed the first of many clashes I noticed between western excess and Indian necessity.
Time and time again I battled with the idea of ditching the tourist beacon for a smaller, less conspicuous bag. But I figured that towering above almost every Indian with pale skin was the biggest giveaway. So I went with being a visitor to this culture, deciding not to make the futile mistake many make of trying to adopt it, in vain. Indian culture is one which has developed out of ancient religious tradition and one billion people trying to live their lives in harmony. I had no real comprehension of it, and I wasn’t going to pretend I did.
With anxiety keeping a firm clench on my chest, I watched in surreal awe from the window as the taxi darted away from the airport in a scurry of swerves and honks. We drove past everything I would come to know and feed off, but in that moment, every flash of a vibrant sari, every honk of an auto-rickshaw as it casually cut in front of us, every stray dog, monkey, cow, human and everything else flooded me with fear. Nothing was familiar and I was scared. But there in that taxi, I promised myself I would overlook my mind telling me to catch the first flight back to London, and to welcome, heart first, whatever this place had in store for me.
After what seemed like an eternity, we parked up abruptly next to the barely noticeable Mystique Moments, my guest house of choice. It was nestled between a dusty shelter dug out from a cracked, decaying wall and a general store, so dark I struggled to make out what was inside. The street outside was parched, moist in patches of assorted sizes where animals and humans had relieved themselves. Groups of men sat on the pavement, which only existed because they took up the space. They were huddled around simple games I did not recognize. Other men stood proudly outside their dilapidated stores, staring at me intently as I disappeared up the steep narrow stairway to Mystique Moments, each step bouncing off the walls several times before it faded into the city’s chaotic soundscape below.
Inside, a sparsely decorated, mostly grey interior greeted me. Manu, the guest house’s owner, sat expectantly in his chair as I tip-toed into his office. Dr. Manu Malik was a retired doctor, well versed in Indian travel and keen to share his knowledge. He was a plump man who I guessed was in his early sixties. He had a lazy eye and a comforting smile that made this battle-torn building seem more inviting. In less alien circumstances, I might have felt at ease.
His assistant, muttering a mixture of Hindi and English, handed me several sheets of paper for me to fill in. My passport and visa were instantly required, along with many other personal details. This bureaucratic way of dealing with things is very common in India, and I would eventually realise exists simply as an attempt at keeping track of their millions of visitors. As I quickly filled in the forms, Manu began to advise me on scams I should avoid and things I should organise quickly.
“Many people have been drugged and robbed in Delhi, accept nothing free from strangers. Many of the tourist shops are scammers, if you agree to buy a package from them, they will swipe your card for… two hundred thousand rupee. When you take rickshaws, they will usually charge double the price, never fall for this. You should arrange an Indian mobile number also, for this you will need copies of your passport and visa, a photograph and an Indian reference.”
This onslaught of warnings with a little advice on the side went on for around ten minutes. Afterwards, I was shown to my new domain for the next few days. A room barely big enough for a single bed awaited me. The walls were white; decorated with patches of damp and occasional specks of blood just above the bed where bed bugs had been squashed. There were no windows, and as if to comfort me, Manu flicked on the fan, which swayed from side to side as it span, looking as if it might fall off at any second. After gathering my thoughts for a few minutes, I decided this was the worst place to contemplate my situation and left to go outside and get a feel for my surroundings.
I was greeted once again by a surge of humidity and a symphony of car horns. As I walked down the road, I watched as cows nonchalantly milled around amidst chaotic traffic. I watched cycle-rickshaws rattle past as the street dogs navigated the bedlam with practiced precision. They were on their way to a feast at a large dump on the other side of the street, where men stood barefoot, shoveling the trash into a rusty storage container. Searching stares from all those who passed disarmed me – I felt as if they had stared straight through to the vulnerability at my core. Within ten minutes I had returned to the guest house.
Worry had now turned into panic. I sat on the edge of the bed in my new prison cell and toyed with the idea of returning home once more. If I could not even handle ten minutes on the street, how would I survive for six months? The smallest tasks appeared to me as mammoth hurdles, unobtainable in this disorganised maze of noise and dirt. I needed a bottle of water, copies of my passport and visa, an Indian sim and mosquito repellent.
How would I find all of these items? The signs of many of the shops I had passed were in Hindi, and their darkness would require me to go inside and search, undoubtedly being assaulted with everything the shopkeeper could possibly offer me in the process. Then if he didn’t have what I wanted, I would have to leave the shop in a lingering awkwardness. This process would rotate on itself until I found the required items. The gaps in between being in the shops would be filled with stares from almost everyone, and the deafening soundtrack of life zooming past me.
Realising I was exhausted, mentally and physically, I collapsed in to a lifeless heap on the bed and curled into the fetal position to avoid my legs dangling off the end. Worries continued to dance with my thoughts and sweat continued to pour from my forehead. Eventually I fell into a light dreamless sleep – a space where I was temporarily free from pollution, inner and outer.
Around forty minutes later, I awoke to a few blissful seconds before I once again remembered where I was and how I’d been feeling before I’d fallen asleep. Realising I had a lot to organise, I fought these feelings to the back of my mind and began to unpack my things.
I had arranged to meet an Indonesian girl named Kiki before I left England, who had contacted me on Couchsurfing following a post that detailed my plans in India. She had been welcomed with kindness by the English Couchsurfing community when she was there, and wanted to return the favor to the English. She was studying at university in Delhi and was a yoga teacher in her spare time. I looked forward to having company in this alienating city. We would meet at 5pm at Rajiv Chowk metro station, slap bang in the center of Delhi, where touts are at their pushiest and poverty at its most obvious.
After several attempts at pronouncing “Kohat Enclave Metro” to cycle-rickshaw drivers, one finally wagged his head diagonally in a gesture for me to get in. The simple gesture was my first taste of how Indians communicate without words, talking with their heads and their eyes. This went hand in hand with the many other primal elements of Indian culture which I began to notice and adopt during the following weeks in India. It was the start of a painting which would eventually reveal to me order within the chaos.
Clinging tightly to my bag, I watched dizzily as we swung round corner after corner. Manu had told me earlier that the rickshaw drivers did not know Mystique Moments, and I would have to ask for temple opposite. I had forgotten the name of the temple. Beginning to lose track of where I was, I wondered how I would find my way back that evening.
After we’d arrived, a stunned expression from the driver stared back at me as I handed over the requested fifty rupees with no attempt at bargaining. As if deliberately trying to shock him, I then turned round and walked back in the opposite direction, back to Mystique Moments, to familiarize myself with the walk for later. I had basically thrown money down the drain and wasted well over an hour. I was past caring.
Two hours later after a surprisingly smooth journey on Delhi’s metro system, I emerged from the stairwell leading out of Rajiv Chowk to the hustle and bustle any city-dweller is familiar with. Except it was different, very different.
The area stretched round in a seemingly endless circle of shops and restaurants, extremely modern in design. Opposite many of these places were tiny stalls, or wallahs, as they were called in Hindi. They were selling a large variety of items, one of which was paan, India’s ubiquitous chewing tobacco that requires you to spit out a red fluid every ten seconds due to it causing damage if swallowed.
A young groomed shop assistant floated around in the Apple store, aiding customers with their expensive purchases. He would occasionally stop to look through the revolving glass door at an elderly beggar who was missing one leg opposite the store, the stump clearly visible. His cupped hands were held out in a desperate plea.
Just beside Pizza Hut was a mother holding a small child. Her struggle glistened in her large watery eyes and through the blackness of her pupils. In stark contrast, the young girl in her arms shone with innocence, blissfully unaware that she would grow to know her mother’s struggle. Meanwhile, India’s middle class merrily chomped on slices of pizza next door.
My attention was sharply drawn away from this clash of worlds and towards a young man who had firmly taken my hand and introduced himself with a well rehearsed compliment. “Hey man, nice beard. You look just like the Indian man. Where going?” I was instantly thrown off balance by his sinister presence. An aura of unnatural confidence oozed from the twist of his crooked smile and from his firm grip. It was a confidence developed only to lead people astray.
I battled through the small talk as he asked questions I now have rehearsed answers for, silently anticipating what it was he wanted to sell me. I consistently walked two paces in front of him, communicating non-verbally that I was not interested in his company. Having told him I was meeting Kiki at Starbucks, he eagerly guided me there, still holding back on his attempt at selling me hashish, or charas as it is known in India, until we reached Starbucks, where I politely declined and quickly walked through the doors. I knew he wouldn’t follow me through this vortex into the western world.
I immediately felt uncomfortable in here after what I had witnessed previously. Groups of young fashionable Indians gathered around circular tables, sipping on various lattes and other overpriced drinks. One man with square-framed glasses and precisely gelled hair threw a cursory glance at me. I had not yet realised that this kind of apathy towards the poverty on their doorstep was not a choice for them, but a collective acceptance that the problem was so vast it was out of their control. But in that moment, I was confused and unsettled by the blatant carelessness that surrounded me.
Staring out the window, I began to wonder how my meeting with Kiki would go. I had little experience socialising with people who did not speak English as a native language. As an aspiring writer, I am sadly heavily invested in the English language as a means of expressing myself, and simplifying everything I said is a skill I had to hone throughout the following months.
But at the time, I was hopelessly British, in attitude and in mindset. Cynical, reserved and sarcastic. Back then I had no other culture with which to compare and recognize these traits. It quickly dawned on me that these traits were not only impractical for travel in India, but totally separate from the Indian consciousness. Cynicism is a characteristic developed by those with enough time to think, reservations spring from self-consciousness in our culture of unrealistic expectations, and sarcasm goes hand in hand with both, protecting the ego’s vulnerabilities with a veneer of carelessness.
It was time to drop these protective measures and surrender to any situation I found myself in. To not run from fears, but to run towards them and observe them objectively. Although easier said than done, I was taking my first step towards this goal as Kiki drew my attention back to the present with a light tap on my shoulder.
She was small in height, with a quiet yet confident presence. Towering above her I began awkwardly practicing my slow, simplified English on her. She seemed as uneasy in the situation as I was, although I suspected our reasons for being so were different. We quickly left Starbucks to find something to eat, and began to break the ice with light small talk whilst we walked. It was the kind of small talk where everything that was said felt like the end of the conversation.
Once we’d found a cool breezy restaurant to eat in and had ordered dosas, we both began to relax. Telling her a little about me and my earnest reasons for being in India, she laughed and said, ‘Oh, so you’re on your gap year?” The tone of this question poked fun at my idealism and how it’d all been done before. It was cynical and it was the kind of joke I’d come to expect only from westerners – this kind of humor is born from the freedom to think. This was where I realised how many of the divisions in society come down to the idea of freedom vs. repression.
Being a university student, Kiki had been granted freedom to think for a period of time, as had I. Not only students are granted this however, and sometimes it is far less temporary. Prisoners, monks, squatters, the homeless, the excessively wealthy and anyone else whose situation, out of choice or necessity, has placed them outside of the normal society, are also granted this freedom. Others conform to society’s expectations, again out of choice or necessity, and continue to live without questioning anything, falling time and time again for the tricks of those above them. This is considered to be repression.
With this supposed freedom, we begin to ask questions about things we previously took as gospel. What do I want? Do I really have to work five days a week? Who’s really in charge of us? Is there anyone in charge of us? Why do we always want more? What truly makes us happy? What is the truth? The questions go deeper and deeper with the progression of thought and experience. Suitably, these are the kind of questions that lead many people to India.
India is the home of a spiritual culture that has been largely preserved even through its development. It is a culture that flourished long before we were directed away from these important questions with distractions, and it is in India where many believe they can gain answers. It has become a cliche that many ridicule, but things become cliche for a reason, and maybe many of the answers reside here, pumping through the veins of one of the largest yet most peaceful populations.
Having asked all these questions and taken a flight to India myself, when I arrived, it seemed to me unbelievable that someone could work twelve hours a day, seven days a week without obeying the urge to rebel. Yet in India, this is what was happening in the very restaurant I was eating in, and there was no urge to rebel.
Traditionally, although now not always the case, an Indian is born into a rigid system whereby they work from a young age in whatever job they are given, have their marriage arranged for them and then pass this system on to their children. Without knowing the freedom to choose their job or their partner, they do not experience the emotional fog and confusion that can arise from us being given this freedom in the west. To most of us westerners, this seems like repression. But repression only exists in our minds because it is opposed to our idea of freedom. But our idea of freedom is not freedom itself, because freedom cannot be defined within the constraints of language.
So when we dismiss our ideas of freedom and repression, we see the supposedly repressed system in India is actually one that, more so than the west, looks to the future of the next generation and is survival-minded. In the west the focus is less on surviving as a whole, and more on how we can survive better as individuals.
Although I would not suggest India is perfect for a second – there are many flaws. As I drifted out of this wander with my thoughts, my attention fell onto the streets just beyond the polished glass of the restaurant Kiki and I were sat in. I looked once again at the beggars, just as the shop assistant did from the Apple store, and realised that they were only there in that situation thanks to the greed of the wealthy. They were also heavily invested in the greed they were the victims of, and if someone were to give them money, they would inevitably want more and more. It is a viscous cycle that has rapidly poisoned society.
Greed, in my understanding, has been allowed to flourish along with an increasing investment in material objects, and it is mainly a flaw that took root as society became increasingly more civilized and hierarchy-based. Naturally the rate at which greed flourished was faster in the developed world, and with India becoming increasingly more developed and influenced by the west, greed has also infected this originally pure culture.
Deciding that I was in a thought-loop I wanted to explore no further, I dismissively concluded that everything bad in India is the western worlds fault and India would be amazing without it. My brain was tried and I had not talked to Kiki for over ten minutes.
This chain of thoughts had happened in the silence that exists between two people eating. It’s a silence that is never uncomfortable, but comes from pure, animal satisfaction. Finishing off my dosa, I looked up at Kiki and asked her how she had coped with the poverty in Delhi for the three years she’d been studying there. “You learn to ignore it”, she said bluntly.
After leaving the restaurant, Kiki and I wandered around the loop of shops where she helped me arrange an Indian mobile number, find mosquito repellent and all the other things I’d been too cautious to sort out by myself. As we walked, I watched her reactions to the rough and tumble of the streets and began to feel more confident. She effortlessly screened out anyone approaching her with offers, when she needed directions she asked people with simple direct Hindi and whilst doing these things she would explain why she had done them.
One man had been following us for over ten minutes, directing his toy snake sales pitch at me. The conversation had been oscillating between the same question and answer throughout. “How much you pay?”, “I don’t want it”, “How much you pay?” “I don’t want it.” As my answers became shorter and shorter, I began to lose my patience and stopped and told him I would never be interested in his toy snake, pointing in the opposite direction in a gesture for him to leave us alone. Kiki laughed. “You’ll get used to it soon. The best thing to do is walk and ignore. The minute you stop or make eye contact, you seem like you are interested and they will feed off it.”
For me at the time, this seemed like a harsh way of dealing with things. But the coming days in Delhi would teach me very quickly why this is your only choice as a foreigner in India.
We said goodbye at the station at around 8pm, I thanked her for more than she was aware of and we arranged to go for a day of sightseeing the next day. I barely even noticed the journey home and thanks to my caution earlier in the day, I walked back to Mystique Moments with ease. The noise and heat relented late into the evening, but I was too exhausted for it to bother me.
My room was far less daunting after the past few hours spent navigating Delhi’s chaos, and I was simply glad to have a quiet space to rest my head. Blocking out the buzz of a nearby mosquito in my room, I closed my eyes and observed images from the past twenty four hours swirl around in my mind’s eye. I had made eye contact with hundreds of Indians that day, and I saw all of their eyes staring at me at once. I fell this time into a deep sleep, comforted by what I had achieved in the day and all the things that were to come. It was then I knew I had made the right choice. I had surrendered, and I was finally excited to be in India.