I just arrived in a place that seems to have two possible effects on people who experience it for the first time: whether it becomes a lifelong passion or a traumatic memory. From the stories told, India sounds either sticky and suffocating, or liberating and inspiring. Why the reactions are so extreme, I don't know yet. Unfortunately, and due to improvisation, I didn't prepare for my visit as recommended, and a travel guide certainly can't summarise all this complexity. But I do have a “kind-of knowledge” - I have almost no friends left who don't practice yoga (and constantly recommend it to me) for instance, wearing Indian clothes has been a trend between youngsters during my growing up, at least an Om (Aum) stitched to the purse, as a stereotyped symbol of peace. Posting Gandhi or Osho quotes on social media is still a widespread habit. For myself the connection to this kind of spirituality has been mainly hectic, in a moment of great stress, I once tried mediation, the voice telling me when and how to breathe led me to hyperventilation with consequent (first ever) panic attack.
Maybe the decontextualisation has made the recounted character of this place feel a little over the top and annoying to me… I am aware though, that these are translations, interpretations, results, digestions, thoughts of other people. I am curious about my reaction to this famous country and to find out what the confrontation with the little but important information and many clichés that I inevitably bring with me will turn into.
In Delhi it is 44 degrees, 25 degrees difference from where I just came from. In Cork, I read in the newspaper that the warmest summer ever would await for me in this corner of the world. The jet lag forces me to sleep through the afternoon in which I land. When I wake up, it's already dark, but I can't wait until the next morning to soak into those sounds! Once outside, I get the feeling that everyone who lives in Delhi, and also all those who are on visit, are out on the streets. On rickshaws, walking barefoot, sitting at altars, sleeping on transport carts.. and no one seems to be in a hurry. The cows also walk quietly, unconsciously guiding/determining the directions of the traffic. A young english student stops me on my way to discover the city, I remember being told by the perhaps nonetheless helpful guidebook, that “supposed students” suddenly expect money for the entertainment. Shortly after parting with him, a TukTuk driver convincingly suggests accompanying me wherever I want to go. I had chosen a restaurant to try and suggest 10 rupees for the way (the student said that should be the price), he tries 30. I manage to persuade him, but after pedalling for a while he tells me he doesn't know where this restaurant is, so he will take me to a tourist office.... I get out. I find my way back, eat at the restaurant on the hotel roof and realise that the apparent failure to learn something about Delhi tonight, was actually a success.
Between the many antennas at this heights horizon, other people sit and try to escape the heat. Here, where the coloured lights of the signboards blur into the darkness and shine on the sweating skin of the half-naked neighbours, it looks like another, of different substance world, above the streets that still teem as if it were noon. I've met almost only men, the last in the day, the young room waiter, asks again if I want company and I close the door to make the repeated answer clear.
In the supposedly chaotic Old Delhi market, one could discover great order and structure. It is like a city within the city, the wood quarters, the metal quarters, the sweet quarters.... I bought light clothes that will allow me to enter everywhere, long sleeves and trousers that also cover my legs. The Jama Masjid, or "mosque that looks out over the world" is the largest in India and one of the largest in the world, a frequentation rate like the mightiest malls in the West.
On the short way to the airport to fly to Rajasthan, I drank a whole litre of inevitably boiling water. The driver generously honked his horn and overtook as if we were going to win something at our destination. I tried to tell him that this was not necessary. My belt, a rag missing its most important end, the van speeds on under the midday sun without air conditioning. Both occasions I sit on an airplane in India, there is a vomiting child right next to me, and on the other side someone snoring loudly. I feel comfortable and excited, there is always so much going on everywhere!
Jaipur immediately seemed to me to be much calmer and well-kept than the capital. Where I negotiated the price well, the driver to my dinner smiled chilled and hoped aloud "maybe tomorrow?". Four young locals sit at the table nearby, barely speaking together, in this short time they have already collected a complete gallery of group selfies and continue with improved poses and combinations after quickly commenting on each picture. Dal, garlic naan and paneer butter masala distract me from the show.
Yesterday, the sunset was a perfect red ball to look directly at…the sun is not the same everywhere after all! Now it's already a new day somewhere else.
The popular Raj Mandir cinema looks like a giant meringue, pink and azure. In the Bollywood hit of the season, the characters also take selfies all the time and every time an American slang expression is used, everything stops and they repeat it like a skit. There the rich Indians have black waitresses not treated too nicely, the Indian girls dance wildly and half naked, the plot is insistingly built around money and love.... While I feel like fallen into a surreal scene, the rest of the public made of locals is simply enthusiastic. The East follows the West and vice versa, everywhere people try to fit into and stand out in their own society.
The few tourists I meet are single women, perhaps on the 'Eat Pray Love' trail? I struggle with my prejudices, I wish to just observe, rather than to compare and criticise. What I encounter is so impressive that I usually manage not to think, but the preconceived image of India reappears every time I encounter another foreigner. It seems important to me to discern idea and reality, and to dedicate myself only to the second. I am here now, the loud colourfulness advises my head not to stand in the way of the vibrations that are conquering the cells.
I enter a Hindu temple for the first time. After a few steps the old Sadhu shouts at me and makes signs for me to leave. I run, the boy who was talking to him comes after me and explains that if I just take off my shoes, I am more than welcome. My ignorance becomes so evident… other cultures require preparation to guarantee respect and I am ashamed. At the second attempt I find myself alone with the old gentleman who’s back is bent by wisdom. He observes me still, while I marvel at the many carved figures and slowly come to the front. And there I stand, trembling for intensity, he invites me to come closer and sit by him. He paints the tikka on my forehead, and we rest comfortably in each other's eyes, not speaking a word. After a time that the clocks cannot describe or measure, we greet each other with little head bows. I leave the temple and start to cry. I have been crying for three days, for no reason or at least no specific thoughts to identify. It feels like a rupture, it doesn't hurt, it's just a new opening where suddenly so much effuses and makes room. This fresh breeze sneaking in allows me to feel a forgotten space. I overcome the temptation to block this process and let go.
During the night I slept very little, instead I laughed, cried on, thought and dreamed when possible. Perhaps the famed purging has begun, starting with finally mourning for all the dead of my life, the bond is felt.
Diary extract, Jaipur:
I don't know what is going on, I haven't done much at all yet, however, it feels strong and intense, spontaneous and natural enough to make it difficult to notice the next 'crack' before it happens. Maybe it's just the permission to be so spiritual.. I wouldn't know, and obviously it doesn't just affect me. The fact that it's unexpected makes it even more surprising… maybe it is all a bit like washing in the Ganges.
I'm so glad I've given myself the opportunity to meet my self, and it looks like the world and what I meet, want to give me a chance too.
It feels like a reciprocated love.
I feel floating, how can one be so happy? I just want to and should accept it and enjoy this life! Last night, in my struggle to fall asleep, I also wondered why I (or maybe we) get scared when feeling joy, as if something bad would have to happen? It's strange, and I wonder how our society has contributed to this.
On the way through the desert to holy Pushkar and then to Jodhpur, the blue city that is really blue, I became familiar with many things. I was blessed and robbed, fooled and spoiled. In Udaipur I met the French, the Germans, the Americans who become yoga teachers after just two to four weeks of training. But in Bundi, I was the only foreigner, 48 degrees are off-putting for most people. I wander the alleyways and, if caught peering into the courtyards, I am automatically invited in. Also ideal, as there is only one restaurant open in town, the only one run by locals. The other owners go back to their own country of origin in the low season and thus contribute to the silence in the village. I am the guest of all the residents, at Taragarh Fort families and student groups from India's south queue up to take photos with me. I am also invited for chai on the street by Mr. Satya Prakash, a music teacher with whom I have had some of the most melodious hours. Today he is still waiting for a printed photo of himself by post, this is what he wished for and he will get it.
Diary extract, Jaipur:
Maybe India is a bit of everything and a lot of contrast, or maybe you just don't describe it, you eat it, you breathe it, you wash it out of your clothes and watch it drain down the sink. Certainly it does not leave you careless. Described by lovers (those who were here once and then came back again and again, those who came and then could never really return home), seen in countless photographs, heard in the most introspective periods of the best-loved musicians... and no one has caught it. It stings like the smell of spices, it is addictive, but if you finally let go it can not be called addiction. It does not possess but it gives, it does not command but also does not obey. If you are not "stoned" you suffer the holes in the road, if you don't discuss you miss the game, if you don't dare you are not allowed. You can't do right and you can't do wrong. Happiness costs money, faith is the only reason, no matter which. India, not being stiff, goes with everything.
On the night train to Varanasi, I met the Indian version of my grandfather. I had the top bunk this time, before I climbed up I sat in front of this elegant man who immediately spoke to me. We chatted as if we hadn't seen each other for a long time. While coming back form a stroll in the corridor, I see him put his hand on a child's cheek, from above, so round fitting the shape exactly. I could feel the warmth on my own cheek, an almost forgotten gesture that briefly took me back to childhood in southern Italy for a tender goodbye.
Diary extract, Varanasi:
I have left home since not even two months, also with the aim of reconciling myself with humanity, to care for and nurture my relationship handicaps, to let go, break from what holds me back from loving, to learn to accept being loved. It seems that this path offers me all the necessary steps. The people I meet look me in the eyes, and although nothing I do asks them for help, they choose to be on my side. Why do these unknown people listen to me? Why do they offer me food and drink? Why do they invite me into their homes and devote their time to me? What makes them feel responsible for my well-being? This is what Mr. Harish said to me this morning: "Hinduism seems complicated because many stories and symbols have been built up with the aim of making it accessible and understandable, but in the end it is very simple: you should treat all living beings like God and be able to see the value in everything.”
Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in the world, where religions are not a reason to divide but the force of attraction that brings all people together - after all, they have the same goal. What for us in the West are topics to be touched only on specific occasions, are here everyday bread. Through the many rituals, one can also confront them concretely.
For the Hindus, Varanasi is the place where one wants to die. The corpses, wrapped in coloured cloth, are laid on wood piles by the river and burned. The smell of roasting meat blends with that of sandalwood. One could imagine this as a macabre scene, but on the contrary, watching these bodies melting into the flames also dissolves the rigid way of thinking about death, one has the feeling to be watching the souls being freed and fly to the next life. That’s why the corpses are burnt, to redeem the soul. Nobody cries, to not hold back the spirit. It is a new beginning as Krishna says: "everything that is born dies, everything that dies is born". Everything has to flow. What remains materially after the fire is distributed in the river. Hundreds of people dive into that same water every morning to wash away their sins.
India has changed my consistency. A process through which I feel I have been broken from stone into sand. My education now likes to question itself and the new density allows for adaptation. I have been given permission and blessing to move on. I have let go of so much, certainly the prejudices but also my own history, which no longer alone determines who I am.
Diary extract, on the train to Delhi:
I wait for the boy who has come by several times with the chai and acted as an alarm clock for us. I can't believe that the Indian adventure has also come to an end. I can't imagine what will become of me if I shall stop moving. India has provoked a crack and I am an infant in managing what springs now.
Chai in hand, that was fair, 5 rupees. How can one stop discovering and learning? Probably this never ends.
India, I'm leaving you soon and I don't know exactly how to greet you. You still hold me close, wrapped in your scent. You knew nothing of me, though you told me my story, and that of the generations of my family too. You made me talk with those whom I had already greeted, and was too young and too protected to notice. The ones I had outstanding love for came back "if you don't give it all, the baggage weighs" you told me in a dream. "Become what you love, let it speak through you, then you don't need to memorise strangers' words. Love is not an extra.”