When people ask me what it’s like to live in India, I can only respond that it’s the best of times and the worst of times. How else can you describe an experience of such polarities as living with drivers and servants while seeing starving children begging in the street?
I just booked my return to New Delhi for the end of the month, my seventh trip in three years to India, which amounts to nearly a year spent there. It’s hard to explain the love that I have for India, the deep connection I feel to its people and its soul. With all the money spent on travel and hours contorted on an airplane, I could have chosen anywhere in the world to spend as much time, but the fact of the matter is that India chose me.
My first visit was with an American friend who had a home there. I had been living in New York for four years and was ready for a fundamental change of perspective. When she offered to let me stay with her I gave up my apartment and sold all my furniture, packing the rest of my possessions into two suitcases. I didn’t know what I expected to find in India, but whatever it was seemed more promising and exciting than the predictable reality I’d come to know.
My first impression of India was that it was post-apocalyptic. It was a hundred and ten degrees during the day. There were areas that stunk of the most rancid sewage imaginable and children so poor they didn’t have clothes playing among garbage heaps on the side of the road.
One day I wandered into a temple on a busy city street, led by a preternatural curiosity and the sound of puja prayers being sung inside. I took off my shoes and stepped inside a carpeted enclave where men and women swayed to the soul-lifting chant of “Om Sai Namo Namah,” and folded their hands in devotion before a marble statue of Sai Baba adorned in roses. Tears rolled down my face as I felt something awaken in my dormant heart. I cried out of gratitude, out of humility, and the feeling that something profound was occurring.
Over the next two months, I did little other than smoke hash and go to parties at peoples’ houses. My friend there lived like a native; she had a servant who brought her all her meals in bed and she only left the house in the evenings when the temperature had cooled to a modest 90 degrees. It was a unique window into life in Delhi, far from the typical tourist experience of visiting the Taj Mahal and shopping for baubles in Jaipur.
I met both expats and Indians and formed friendships that would be the basis both of my social life and business on subsequent visits. Among the expats, there was bond formed by the shared experience of trading life in the first world for the third. It’s a rebellious choice. It’s dangerous: you can get dengue fever, chased by a monkey, and stranded in monsoon rains.
Most Americans aren’t equipped to handle India. They haven’t experienced extreme poverty, extreme pollution, extreme over-population and are overwhelmed by the intensity of it all as soon as they step out of the airport. Most of the country is not an exotic vacation destination. It’s a place to go if you want to be slapped in the face and awakened to life.
Life in India is a daily battle. It’s a struggle to be understood (even among Indians) and to get anything accomplished. Getting from one part of town to another inevitably involves sitting in hours of traffic while car horns blare in a continuous cacophony. When you walk anywhere, cars honk at you, an aggressive shout to get out of the way. People push and shove with no concept of personal space. It forces you to find an inner peace amid the storm.
You don’t go to India looking for spirituality, you go to India because you are already spiritual. There is no place to seek, the seeking is within yourself only. There is no ashram that can impart wisdom or inner peace. India is simply a catalyst for self-examination – why were these people born into such abject poverty while I was born into a life of privilege? How can I ever want for material things again when some people have only a wool blanket and tin pot as their sole possessions? If my aspirations are no longer material in nature, then what are they? It is at this point that India wakes you up from your Western reverie and knocks you on your feet.
The India I know is a place of close-knit families, of warm-hearted people who invite you into their home for a family meal with an endless stream of fresh roti. It’s also an India of bottomless champagne brunches in 5 star hotels, drug-filled mansion parties, and servants preparing chai on demand.
India is changing rapidly and its desires are increasingly Western in nature. The young middle class don’t practice yoga and study philosophy, they eat at Subway and watch Cricket on TV. It is less Eat, Pray, Love and more The Hunger Games.
I have friends who think that they’ll arrive in India, kiss the ground and wake up enlightened. What is more likely is that they’ll get there and get intensely sick, spend four days hovering over the toilet and then contend with either Hellish heat or plague-like mosquito infestations while getting ripped off left and right as they search for authenticity.
India is beautiful, magical and fascinating but it’s also mean, melodramatic and abusive. It’s the kind of place where you fight with a rickshaw driver over 25 cents just because you’re sick of being taken advantage of. But it’s also a place that can surprise you when a taxi driver who earns less than $200 a month returns the bag you left in his car with all your cash, credit cards and passport untouched. It is all these things at once – and it’s incredible.