Living in India Part 1

So what is it really like for a Westerner, living in India? I conduct the experiment of sitting with a pencil and paper and writing the first words that come into my head. I finally settle on; challenging, noisy, exhilarating, surprising, spiritual, depressing, over-whelming. Let me take them one at a time and try and paint a picture for you……

Challenging. In so many ways, but I’m going to use the traffic as an example. Much has been written about the utter bedlam that is the traffic norm in every Indian city; none of it is exaggerated. Lane dividers are completely ignored unless they are two feet high and made of concrete. Vehicles ranging from motorbikes to camel carts to luxury Audi’s to rickshaws continually jockey for position and beep their horns; driving on the wrong side of the road and shooting around roundabouts the wrong way is commonplace; and weaving between oncoming vehicles to reach a destination on the opposite side of the road is perfectly acceptable. Scooters and bikes commonly carry entire families; women in saree’s perch side saddle on the pillion, long dupatta’s (scarves) flap dangerously close to rear wheels and babies are tucked under one arm asleep while older kids are squished between Mum and Dad. One often sees a three lane highway reduced to one lane because there are cows laying around chewing the cud in the other two, dogs and beggars expertly negotiate their way in and out of it all, and I’m going to mention the horns just one more time. No-one goes anywhere without beeping their horn frequently! The answer – look in every direction, and learn to cross the road like a local by following a local across a few times, remembering that a bus going the same way is the best shield against oncoming traffic. Just enjoy the ride when you are a pillion passenger on a bike or scooter – the driver doesn’t actually want to die any more than you do, and neither does that apparently reckless rickshaw driver. One hopes…

Noisily. I love the way Indian’s live, celebrating everything, enthusiastically, colourfully, explosively. I live between three temples, and if the early bus blowing its horn, or the milkman thumping crates onto the road, haven’t already woken me, the temple bells and bhajans (devotional songs) will. Diwali, the Festival of Lights and Indian new year, has been and gone and made living here insanely close to living in a war zone, with rockets and bangers exploding day and night; the nine day Navratri festival last month entailed garba music (need I add, it was loud?!)  and dancing until the wee small hours at multiple local venues; and a couple of months ago I woke at 3.30am to a river of people and traffic clogging Keshavnagar Road, singing and cheering and playing music and banging drums, and have never really fathomed out what that was all about! At any time of the day, a music cart loaded to the gills with enormous amplifiers may pass, accompanied by people beating drums, dancing and singing, and if its a wedding there may be several going full blast… and never mind that it is 6am on a Sunday morning; thats when the astrologers said it would be auspicious for the wedding to take place! I should add that my flat is exceptionally well positioned to take advantage of the full range of aural experiences available – temple bells and fireworks, vegetable cart vendors yelling their wares, random street parties passing by, always with drums, very long trains crossing the railway bridge, aeroplanes apparently attempting to land on the roof, incessant beeping horns, and buses slowing outside to allow passengers to leap on and off at a reduced speed. They don’t really stop. Worthy of special mention; the power station running a devilish machine that sounded like the end of the world was nigh from 3am to 6am for a few days recently….Keshavnagar Road, total immersion. I love it (most of the time!)

Exhilarating. See the above! Something is always happening here and it frequently involves playing loud music and dancing. Often at short notice, we volunteers find ourselves being whisked off to startlingly wonderful things, like almost front row dead centre seats at the Vibrant Gujarat Inauguration at the start of Navratri involving an exuberant one and a half hour stage performance, and refreshingly short speeches by the politicians; or a celebration of a religious festival at the Community Centre in the slum with skinny girls in sequins swirling out the latest Bollywood moves while the audience screams their appreciation. I look at the girls during these performances and think how precious it must be to feel like a princess wearing those fabulous costumes for a while when they live where they do. What a wonderful memory for them to take into their future. There are also wonderfully calm moments when you hear a gentle bell rhythmically chiming, and know it’s an elephant passing, or look out of the window to see a camel tethered to the gate, or a small procession of Jain monks and nuns heading into the temple next door dressed in homespun and carrying their red begging vessels. You never really know what to expect, which segues neatly into….

Surprising. It doesn’t matter what you have heard or read before arriving, you’ll be surprised. Because no westerner who comes here and lives and works amongst the community fails to be surprised by the warmth, generosity, and curiosity with which India instantly enfolds them. Because the kids in the slum smile so much more than western kids. Because people who have so little can give so generously – as an example, I know a wonderful soul who has a severe disability of his own, but nevertheless delivers lunch and dinner daily, rain, hail, or shine, holiday or no holiday, to elderly people whom he considers   to be worse off than him. Because someone goes to incredible lengths to return an expensive smartphone carelessly left on a vegetable cart. By me. Because when you go to the park in the afternoon with the lame puppy you are looking after and a fellow volunteer, you immediately generate a flash mob of Indians playing with the puppy and asking you ‘what is your native country?’, and they get close, really close! A common theme amongst departing volunteers is their surprise at finding that they have received more than they gave, much of this due to the warmth and love with which the Manav Sadhna family have enfolded them during their stay. Trust me, it’s surprising, but once you learn to accept with gratitude, and without the blinkers of western prejudice and suspicion, extremely uplifting.

Spiritual. India is the home of the worlds most ancient religions; she celebrates the relationship between humans and their various gods daily even in the smallest of things. There are symbols of worship everywhere; from lavish extravaganza’s like the Disney-esque Akshardham temple complex in Delhi to tiny, tiled shrines on corners in the slums. Mosques dot the city as well; It’s not all roses and there have been many instances of clashes between religious groups, but essentially worship of some sort is deeply woven into the fabric of daily life here. Is it escapism? Fatalism? Confronted with the grinding reality of life for many, perhaps for some it is, but lets not forget the comfort faith provides. Colourful idols and visible symbols serve only to give a focus; whats really important is the search for God within, the atman or divine light within us all. Hackneyed phrase but true – India opens doors within your soul you never knew existed, but only if you allow it to.

Depressing. It is, without shadow of doubt, deeply disturbing and depressing to see such blatant poverty. To drive past ranks of shanty huts with women squatting before small fires, naked children playing in the dust and rubbish, to walk home past a small band of grimy children who beg at the corner daily, the seven year old sister carting the toddler on her hip. It is more depressing to witness the yawning chasm between them and India’s wealthy, who are extremely wealthy. There is a great deal in the papers at the moment about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to erect the biggest statue in the world here in Gujarat, of Sardar Patel… its going to cost millions of rupees, every village in India is being asked to donate a used iron farm implement to be melted down and be part of it, and one cannot help but wonder what Mr Patel would have thought of this, or whether he might have considered the money better spent on improving educational facilities, or getting some decent sanitation into said villages. Modi proudly boasts that the statue will be bigger than the Statue of Liberty. Is this some kind of Freudian penis envy? Does the fact that the USA still won’t allow Modi a visa because of his alleged role during the 2002 riots play a part? Could that money be better spent? Probably. Foreign aid only trickles into India now as it’s GDP rises, and yet NGO’s are busier than ever. Perhaps the need for a gigantic statue is less urgent than the need for there to be no need for NGO’s.

Overwhelming. There is, honestly, just so much of everything, surrounding you constantly. People, poverty, problems; noise, colour, traffic; smells, love, curiosity… the list is endless, and yes, at times, life here can be completely overwhelming. When it’s hot, and it gets really, really hot, it’s overwhelming simply wearing the amount of clothing you have to wear. I have occasionally had days when I simply haven’t left the house purely because I don’t want to cope with the assault on my senses, all of them, or be stared at again as the only white face on the street, or struggle with the language barrier and a rickshaw driver. Not often though.  Wise words – treat India like a breaking ocean wave. If you fight it, you’ll get dumped; if you swim with it, you will emerge on the other side with a big smile on your face.

To summarise, living here certainly isn’t for everyone, but for me it is something I am grateful for every day. I did intend this to be a post on the practical realities of life here and have wandered a long way from that intention…..clearly there’s a Part Two in the offing!

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