How India Changed Us

By Morgan Hartley and Chris Walker

How India Changed Us

A few months before arriving in India, we read an article from Post Masculine’s website called “A Dust Over India.” It was terrifying. It talked about the scams, the poverty, and the sometimes unbelievably messed up, inhumane things like forced child beggars that a Western traveler can encounter about the country. The article’s title was a reference to the fact that everywhere you go, a fine, musty brown haze appears to float over the land, obscuring both the horizon line and your sense of reality. We braced ourselves; this place sounded intense. We knew very little else about India. Our only other points of reference were Slumdog Millionaire, the Taj Mahal, and yoga.

No sooner had we landed then we were riding our bikes through the center of Mumbai. Not in our wildest expectations could we have anticipated what was waiting for us. When we touched down in Mumbai, it felt like the assault on Omaha Beach. The chaos was immediate, overwhelming. It pressed from every direction! Boys danced friskily in drum circles around bright, ceramic idols of Hindu gods; colorfully clad woman pushed past each other among seas of roadside stalls emitting wonderful and awful smells; rickshaw drivers swerved inches around us, hell bent upon making it through the intersection before the guy next to them; and beggars pleaded for a rupee, a tea, a roti — anything, sir! The onslaught was extraordinary. We buckled down under the fire. We were determined to make it to our couchsurfer’s place in the south of the city. We foolishly thought the easiest way to do this would be to put our bikes on the train.

“But sir! You can’t do that!!!” We shrugged off the brown arms trying to hold us back, and strained to lift our 45 kilo bikes up the steps into the train compartment reserved for elderly and disabled on Mumbai’s Western Express Line. The beggar seated near the open door literally screamed when she saw our loaded bikes towering over her. There was more shouting, more pushing! Get off — people were yelling at us — you’re not allowed to be here. But our exit was being blocked by more men scrambling into the compartment behind us, now leaning out the doors because there wasn’t enough space to fit everyone inside.

The train lurched forward.

Then…it was completely calm. The metal handholds on the ceiling swayed silently from side to side, and people instantly assumed that detached, forlorn expression universal among riders of every public transit system in the world. It was if all the jostling and chaos of the past 2 minutes had never happened.

“Is this your first time in India?” an old man asked us with a toothless grin. He knew we had not yet learned to ride the beast.

India is a beast. It is an animated, forceful, powerful beast that has an energy and will of its own.

Over five months it took us for a ride. The beast showed us a land, a people, and a culture as diverse and varied as its own legend. Importantly, the beast showed us that there is no easily-defined, unified concept known as ‘India.’

India is as much extreme poverty as India is immense wealth. India is Hinduism, and Islam, and Jainism, and Sikhs. India is North and India is South. The situations we could find ourselves in during a single day were extraordinary — from walking through a slum in the morning to having dinner with the vice president of India’s richest conglomerate that night. Other things we had previously thought of as single ideas, like ‘Hinduism’, or the ‘caste system’, turned out to mean very different things depending on which person you talked to. After hearing so many personalized explanations, we’re more confused on what they mean now than we were before we arrived.

The only unifying theme we found in India is a sense of anything goes. Anything is possible, good or bad, or at the right price. Someone could barge into our hotel room at any moment because they wanted our autograph, a poor Catholic congregation in the middle of the cotton fields could hold an offering for us, or a case of Delhi-belly could strike our bowels with any ill-fated bite of street food. Life was completely unpredictable; plans lasted as long as it took you to step out the door.

One of the greatest misconceptions we had before entering the country is that we could shape our experiences there. That we could choose to take India in doses, as was comfortable, retreating back when things got too heavy. We didn’t appreciate India as the all or nothing experience it truly is. In trying to hold on to shreds of life of the West, to aspire to those standards of space or commerce or time, you’ll never be comfortable in India. In trying to predict anything, you’ll be stressed. Constantly.

The Post Masculine writer jokes that some travelers respond to this by drinking every night, soaking their livers in blissful numbness. It’s true. You can see them, washed out in the bars along the Goan coast, or Delhi’s Parharganj district. More than a few times we succumbed ourselves, latching the hotel door to keep India outside, and sinking back into a faded evening of the local 8% beer.

You also see it in the granola travelers, the dreadlocked hippies who stick out like sore thumbs at the foreigner reservation windows in India’s train stations, still fresh off their spiritual highs from a jaunt up to the Himalayas with their yogi. They’re also trying way too hard to shape their experiences; they also aren’t riding the beast. After cycling through 13 states in India, we can tell you that yoga barely exists outside the tourist market. If we were to show up in deadlocks, start meditating, and do yoga out in the cotton fields of central India, the farmers we met there would have no idea what we were doing.

We found that to get anything out of India, it wasn’t until we accepted that we go with the flow, that we ride the beast rather than tame it, that we could relax enough to take in everything that was going on around us. It was accepting the beast would take us through many stressful moments, like screaming beggars and jostling men on Mumbai’s trains, but that if we could just hold on, and not get bucked off, everything would be okay; we just had to stick it out until the train started moving. Once we started doing that — stopped forcing our way with India and got absorbed within its unpredictability — we allowed ourselves to grow and be challenged, to overcome our fears, our weaknesses, our faults, and our prejudices. It was only after we learned to ride the beast — and not to fight it — that we discovered some truly impactful values and life lessons, and that was what India was ultimately about. Here are the three biggest lessons.

The rarity of opportunity: We are the 1%

How India Changed Us

If it is a cliché that India is rife with poverty, it is also true. The poverty is real and omnipresent. It is there the moment one steps out the door, whether it be girls sifting the gutter for trash or the cycle rickshaw drivers curling up in their back seats to sleep for the night. Interactions with poverty are so constant that we didn’t have enough energy to exude kindness or concern or even pity for the poor. They simply became others on the street, the masses on the lowest rungs of a very tall ladder. Sometimes we caught ourselves seeing right through them, as if the outstretched hands or the children defecating on the sidewalks did not exist
What struck us deeply were not the daily discomforts the poor endured, which were terrible but abstract to us. It was the absence of opportunity. For many, ambitions were limited to eating better, or dreaming of a permanent home. Even in the lower middle class, there was little financial or social support for pursuits outside of engineering degrees or a job as a clerk at a multinational. Few believed the dream that they could make it to the top, and few could even fathom the alternative lifestyles that we and so many others in our American generation are pursuing.

We have always been ambitious kids, and much of the joy in our life has been rooted in the adventure and the drama of our ascension. The money and infrastructure of opportunity had just been there, and we were so focused on seizing it that we took the blue skies over our dreams for granted. This was not true for a vast majority of Indians.

The majority of Indians struggled for everything they had. They fought not just the absence of resources, but in a crowded and diverse country, they fought each other. In India you could literally see how the rich stood on the backs of the poor, with mansions across the street from the slums of those that serviced them. More poignant was watching the poor stand on the backs of the poorer. One waiter would take your order, but he would not take your dishes — that was for another worker of a lower caste. In the rural villages of Andhra Pradesh, wives might commit suicide rather than face the unrelenting gossip after a financial disaster or the affair of a husband. Widows, rather than being supported by the community, were outcasts.

India was a dog eat dog culture; there was just too much competition for resources. Watching the struggle made us rethink what had given us so many chances in life, and it made us feel incredibly lucky. We had won the birth lottery, born with the world at our fingertips.

That feeling of luckiness lingered. It visited us most mornings when we sipped our coffee, when we rode past beautiful vistas, when we scored a fascinating interview. Appreciating the rarity of the journey lent us a sense of urgency, made us want to go further and learn more sooner. It made us decide to go off the beaten path more often, to stay longer in the villages, to penetrate deeper into strange communities like the transgenders of New Delhi. It made us appreciate the adventure itself, which was not a means to an end but a privileged chance to seize some wisdom.

Finally, the feeling of luckiness made us meditate on what made Postulate One possible. There was, of course, the social and family support, which we discussed above. But there were also $40,000 worth of checks that came from people who gave for no other reason than that they wanted to pay it forward.

Those checks came in big amounts and in small amounts, but they all came from people who already knew the lesson that we had to go India to learn.

They knew that opportunity comes largely from the sacrifice of those who have already had it, and that every time it is seized it should be repaid by extending a hand to another. India taught us the duty of paying it forward. Whether it be by helping other travelers, supporting friends in the quest for their own dreams, sharing the lessons and joy of this journey on this blog, or just sitting down with locals who want to know more about us, we’ll be paying this adventure forward for the rest of our lives.

The Value of the Individual

We had never seen as strong a family culture as exists in India. Across the country, family was invariably the single most important aspect of a person’s identity. With it came a system of honor and respect, a hierarchy of obligations. A person’s value was derived by upholding the expectations of the parents and strength of the family name, while failure to do so brought shame. If you’ve ever wondered why India has so many engineers, it’s largely because mom and dad force their kids into it. Few question the imperative.

“In India, you aren’t your own man.” said Deep. “You’re your fathers’ son.”

Deep was a call center trainer who we interviewed for our piece on Bangalore’s IT boom. He had gotten swept up in the call center craze of the early 2000’s, and lost himself in the darker side of the industry – a world of cheap thrills, drugs, and alcohol made possible with city life, new freedom, and disposable income. The world distanced him from his family, first emotionally and then physically when he moved from Kolkata to Bangalore. Deep carries an immense sense of guilt about it. Things have never been the same with his parents.

What was interesting for us was that we identified with Deep. Sure, it was a shame he fell into drugs, but he seemed to represent the tenets of individualism that we value so strongly in the United States. He had taken a risk for himself. He had gone out on his own, flown high, and then crashed hard. But he did it all solo, paid the price, and had no qualms about who was responsible. Himself.

In larger cities, there are definitely some people in India who think this way, but we were surprised to learn just how many are willing to sacrifice personal paths and dreams for ones directed by their parents. One example we ran into was Rahul.

“Hey guys! Wanna smoke hookah in my room?!?” he had shouted at us after knocking on our hotel door.

Rahul had been ecstatic to see us. The immense, stocky 22 year old was the owner of a hotel we were staying at in a dirty, working man’s town called Biaora. About two years earlier, Rahul had inherited his father’s business empire — a list of holdings which included about half the stores and apartments in town. At 22, Rahul was Biora’s kingpin. He hated it.

Rahul told us he had spent years studying at expensive boarding schools in New Delhi, and had loved the comforts, opportunities, and the social atmosphere of fast-paced city life. Back in dusty-laned Biora, he had few friends, or people who could connect with his cosmopolitanism. He was intensely lonely. That’s why when he found out two young foreigners had shown up to his hotel on bikes, he couldn’t wait to hang out with us. He was desperate for friendship.

Still, it surprised us to learn that he wouldn’t question staying in Biaora for the rest of his life. This was a kid who had enough money to go anywhere in the world and start out on his own there. Yet he felt the need to uphold his family’s name and run his father’s legacy, even if it meant being lonely and unhappy. He told us he was awaiting news from his mother about his upcoming arranged marriage.

“How could you guys leave your family?” he asked us. We heard that the same question all over India.

The experiences have really reinforced our appreciation of individualism. They cemented our belief in the ideal of the self-made man — that you should be kicked out the front door at adulthood, forced to struggle for your identity, and stand on your own two feet to create something for yourself. Through foil, it made us understand one of the core values of our own culture.

By the same token, it has made us thankful of the support and independence granted us by our parents, mentors, and family friends. The greatest gift they ever gave us was giving us the confidence and carte-blanch to pursue our dreams, even if they seemed misguided, or totally, and completely crazy.

Choosing our Battles

How India Changed Us

Dealing with conflict has been a theme of this journey from the moment we left Paris, when Morgan got a bag strap caught in his gears 15 minutes into the first ride. The experiences of Postulate One have put us in the face of small conflicts almost every day: negotiating with vendors who are overcharging us, dealing with equipment failures, getting a little more information out of an interview than the source wants to give. From Paris to our departure for India from Tblisi, we learned to become comfortable with these small, everyday conflicts, to not be afraid to create tensions and lean in to fight when we had to.

India took this to another level. There was conflict everywhere. Vendors charged ludicrous tourist taxes, people would come sit at our table and watch us eat uninvited, onlookers would try and take our bikes for a ride while we had a morning tea. Trying to get anything done would take four times as long as it needed to. Our favorite was when Indians would kindly advise us to jam ourselves a little further into the corner of the train so they could take our more comfortable position at the handholds. Small conflicts came a dozen times a day or more.

At the beginning, we fought everything. We fought every rupee of overcharge, sometimes walking out of restaurants after paying only what we thought we should. We berated attendants at mobile phone stores and hotels who made us made wait on Indian time schedules. “Just five more minutes sir!” Many of the Indians, in turn, dealt with us in the brisk and standoffish way that they normally do business, which could be so far off western norms of politeness that it left us outraged. All this fighting added up to a lot of stress. It made India more uncomfortable than it had to be.

Learning to ride the beast changed that. A lot of what this meant was setting margins on what we were willing to tolerate. In prices, we simply accepted that we would always pay more than locals. We were pretty much okay paying 25 percent more than the locals. If we were overcharged, we only negotiated down to the margin, not the real price. We learned to let people touch our bikes, as long they didn’t mount them or start playing with the gear shifters. We learned that it takes as long for Indians as for us to do about anything, so while we’re waiting “just five more minutes” we might as well go grab a chai and enjoy the chaos of the street. As for the people on trains, we dealt with it the way Indians do: we smiled kindly at them and nodded our heads and didn’t move a muscle.

India was a lesson in picking our battles, and it was when learned to choose them and ride the beast that we really came to enjoy the country. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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