🌿 Unfamiliar Worlds: India, Pt. 1 🇮🇳
In the last three weeks, India has swept me off my feet. Sometimes, this sweeping-up was graceful, beautiful even. But much of it was jarring. I pieced together journalled fragments around three words: flow, the feeling of dynamic, shifting unity; grounding, steadying myself and finding my place within that whirlpool; and incongruence, the contradictions I still haven’t resolved.
Many friends, including Cansbridge alumni who had interned in Bangalore, warn me that India will be incredibly tough; they urge me towards ‘easier’ destinations like Tokyo or Macau. I choose Bangalore because it feels right. I am too busy while on exchange to let their warnings really sink in; I finish my last paper on 2 hours of sleep while on a 90 minute layover in New Delhi. I realize only on that last leg of the flight to Bangalore that I am here. There is no turning back, and no one to turn to. I am terrified, suddenly evaluating myself and how I must appear, in my mind’s eye: a foreign female teenager with no local money (fiat is tightly controlled in India; you can only obtain rupees inside the country) and no SIM card.
The first few days in India are incredibly hard. I vividly recall the first time I step outside. I have no idea where to walk since streets here have no sidewalks and, seemingly, no rules.
Traffic here appears suddenly and announces itself with loud horns. I dart back and forth across the street in an effort to avoid stray animals, dirt, rickshaws, motorcycles, and cars. I paste myself to roadside walls, fearing for my life, and watch schoolchildren casually cross 4-lane roads in concern and awe. Pollution burns my eyes and throat. Walking is slow and smelly, but I know I’d be taking the easy way out if I take the (incredibly cheap) rideshare services everywhere. India is a country to explore on foot, up close. I return home every night for the first week completely drained and defeated. The pollution and traffic makes every journey outside feel like a small battle for survival. The battle is made doubly hard because, for the first time in my life, I feel like an alien. It is my first time living in a homogenous society where no one looks like me or speaks my language, and going outside means being consumed by the eyes of all strangers who walk by me. All of this makes it hard to face the city.
Traffic here is a useful metaphor for daily life here. The rhythm of traffic here is different from in North America. There are no rules; lights and signage are very rare and, if present, not always followed. It is chaotic, but it flows; drivers and pedestrians react languidly but almost never stop. We fashion a discordant but functional coexistence through continuous adjustments to other people on the road. Everyone is acutely attuned to each other. Once I realize this, the horns slowly started to sound less like violent threats and more like lines in a confusingly dynamic symphony, one that composes itself. But music, nonetheless.
I settle in. I make friends. I buy clothes so I don’t stick out quite so much. I find a leafy cafe, that crucial third place, ground myself in my work and familiar habits. Our ancestors have done this for millennia, this making of a strange place into a familiar place and, eventually, a home. Home is in the habits, I think. I feel less alien, partly because I have learned about the culture here through daily osmosis, and partly because I’ve given up being self-conscious about mistakes. I’ve lived in Canada my entire life until this year. When a cultural shift is so drastic, you surrender or drown.
Once my feet are planted firmly on the ground, and the day no longer sweeps me off my feet, my focus turns outward. I look around at India without fear and find great beauty in its difference from my home. Lives here are lived in public. People transact, laugh, converse in public. In Canada, so much of life is going to buildings between whose walls we work and play. And even in that brief engagement with the world, the segment of our day where we interact with the raw, uncontrolled commons, many of us are protected and veiled by the mobile walls of a vehicle. Here, public spaces teem with life, and I am constantly exposed to chance moments in strangers’ lives: an expensive transaction in a three-walled sweets shop, a young girl airing her laundry, an argument about change between a street hawker and a customer. All this, because we walk.
In Canada, the few times I’d see the public, the real public that is composed of chance strangers, was when it was uniformly united in the wait for public transit, and at time-blocked events. Zoning laws are partially to blame for this; residential and commercial zones in Canada are often separated by unwalkable distances. Here, in India, all the different parts of urban life are blended together; cafes besides grocery stores beside banks behind hawkers below family apartments. This is the first time I see people working, playing, living. And for the first time I, also, am seen. This complete transparency and visibility sustains a sense of unity amidst the chaos of it all. We are in it, together. We are living, together, even for those of us, like me, who are here alone. There is real life force in this unity.
This vitality extends to the food. Eating is an incredible sensory experience. I take my very first meal in India with my shoes off. My feet pressed to the earth, I tear apart naan with my fingers and gorge until I am satisfied, revelling in the creamy textures and potent spices. I feel incredibly connected when I eat Indian food; the very act of eating makes me feel raw, grounded, and human. Utensils feel in some way like artifice, artifacts.
When I don’t walk, I prefer to take rickshaws, called tuktuks, in order to support the local economy. They’re toy-like structures that cost around $3000 USD and which I doubt would pass muster with North American safety regulations, but it is thrilling and comforting to feel the vibration under my feet. I feel the engine working, and again, I feel connected. There is honesty in the work that is done here. Those who work in the public — the people whose work I see -work out of necessity, but also with honesty and pride.
I’ve been here for a month, and I’m still learning every day. India is a country of contradictions that I haven’t quite yet reconciled. The wealth disparity here is massive, but I’ve witnessed similar disparities in China as my family, as recently as my own parents growing up, made a living as subsistence farmers. But in China, socioeconomic divides are delineated by geographies, and I feel this is true for most of the world. It’s the first country I’ve lived in where the lives of the poor and rich are tightly integrated.
A friend who grew up in the slums and is now a Research Fellow at MSR proposed that such a world can exist because the poor still vote. Unlike the American poor, whose faith in democracy had been tested and broken (as proxied by voter turnout), the Indian poor, still believe, and participate in democracy. India’s poor vote at higher rates than the middle class and the rich. It’s true that India suffers from widespread corruption, from bribery to tax evasion. It’s true that much of India’s physical and digital infrastructure is lacking. And it’s true that, like in many countries, reforms are ineffective. The much-publicized 2016 demonetization, an attempt to tackle India’s shadow economy, is still controversial two years later. But people still believe. That even India’s poorest have enough hope to engage in reimagining their country’s collective future fills me, a Canadian, with hope.
Thanks for reading! :)