Four Treasured Takeaways from India

Stories about India often conjure sentiments of intrigue, wonder, and wanderlust. Reading commentary from Twain, Thoreau, and Emerson — or watching Eat, Pray, Love — easily stirs feelings of curiosity and primes the audience for an inevitable bout of fernweh. (Fun fact: the Germans have indeed, smartly, granted that feeling a name. When I looked it up, the accompanying photograph’s caption read, an Indian sunset. I rest my case.)

Many have written about India’s mystical healing powers, and the suggested ease with which you can clear your mind to experience peace and tranquility in a sort of near-nirvana. Others have described the ways India’s advanced thinking, solution seeking, study and reason are suggestive of the culture’s broad enlightenment — a heightened awareness or intelligence that brings the country one step closer to some proverbial truth.

Granted, these writers lived in a different (albeit, more flowery) era, but there’s still something uncommon about the ways they describe a place beyond the boundaries of their homelands. Words like legendary, intense, rich, breathtaking, mystical, exotic, lush, spiritual, imperial, traditional, pacifying, and brilliant easily offer a dream-like quality to an otherwise storied tradition of travel writing. But is it true?

Is it real?

How is it that one country can have so captivated the hearts of so many great minds? How did one culture spark awe, wonder, and awakening in leaders and visionaries from Messiaen to Mandela to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? Why have people, for centuries, celebrated this place with such spirit and passion? What is it that resonates so deeply in people — simultaneously triggering an almost spiritual self-awareness, an almost other-worldly sense of marvel, and an all-too-grounding reality check?

Ever a skeptic, I arrived with a bit of jadedness in my pocket. Despite my best efforts to stay aloof, remain objective, and avoid the rose-colored glasses, I left feeling that an indelible impression had been made. Last I looked, my pocket had newly been filled by a pang for a sooner-rather-than-later return. It seems I, too, must have left a small piece of me in India.

Archways inside the Amer Palace of Jaipur, India’s “Pink City”

Aside from the storied traditions and earthly beginnings of an ancient civilization (naturally intriguing to those in western cultures still going through growing pains) there’s a liveliness to life in India. You feel the intensity and the reality of the fast, brash, brown, dusty, and distracting moments. After sensitizing, those features fade into the background and a whole new reality comes into sharp focus. Brushing away the dust, you see bright colors emerge and vibrant scenes unfold. Once you push past the contrast, you remind yourself that what looks like poverty to “me” functions entirely differently in this economy. Eventually, you stop looking through your own window — and reveal a new truth.

Today, India is recognized as home to a growing population. It’s seen as a land of opportunity that offers one of the most robust democracies in the world, while simultaneously leaving tremendous untapped opportunity for new economies and entrepreneurial ventures to flourish. Diverse features shape the landscape, food, language, and practice in ways rarely acknowledged by western World History classes. The historic colonial clash lends an air of formality and sophistication to goings-on, which play out in a setting framed simultaneously by austere and pragmatic tastes — butting up against the alluring and elegant elements of a thriving culture. Ornate statues, elaborate jewelry, detailed textiles, colorful food, and frantic traffic patterns pose unapologetically in bright juxtaposition against the otherwise simple structures and fundamental functions of the community. Somehow, despite the class in contrasts, everything flows seamlessly together. It all makes sense.

Tourists and technology stand in stark contrast, against the backdrop of India’s treasured Taj Mahal
It’s important that I acknowledge: not everything is idyllic, in India (as can be said for any country or culture). I don’t mean to gloss over the harsh realities, or to portray the life and culture as flawless. As an advocate of social justice, a student of global development, and a proponent of both human rights and gender equality advocacy — I’m aware of certain challenges, complications, and consequences facing many individuals and communities in India. I’m also sensitive to, and pained by, some of the realities experienced by my own friends. Those discussions weren’t within the scope of this particular piece, which is intended only to reflect some learnings and reflections about the single slice of life I experienced on this (particularly celebratory) trip.

Sitting with the scenes, and senses, and sentiments — I unpacked how I’d been enabled to remain so effortlessly present, during an intensive and immersive visit. In doing so, I uncovered four unexpected learnings that changed my window on India:

1) Storytime on Stereotyped Gender Roles

Before even touching down, I’d encountered my first surprise. As a caveat, Bollywood is as much an accurate representation of Indian life and culture, as Bye Bye Birdie is reflective of all Americans’ stories. Consider Hollywood and Broadway, mashed together into three hours of delightfully unrealistic entertainment that’s delivered by conveniently attractive triple-threat talents. Breaking out into literally breathtaking dance numbers, amid a torrid argument (usually about a wedding), would certainly lend some comic relief to any real-world family drama — and Indian weddings are truly a production. A Bollywood wedding, however, represents a completely different kind of overblown caricature that’s enthralling to watch but not wholly true to real-life matrimonies.

In many countries and cultures, these kinds of films and stories (however unrealistic) shape our lives in formative ways. They influence the way we think, the language we use, and the narratives we expect to play out for ourselves. Little girls growing up around the world are primed to be princesses, and to believe in fairytale friendships. Some would argue that those kinds of stories are inauthentic or patronizing (others would argue wistful and charming). Regardless, we’re raised surrounded by tales that teach us about true love, wish-making, having hope, and dreams come true. If you thought Disney took the cake, think again.

A soon-to-be bride displays her detailed mehndi designs, hand-drawn by artists over the course of several hours using henna paste

Bollywood takes these storylines to a new level. This enormously lucrative industry (nearly twice as prolific as Hollywood — in terms of both films produced and tickets sold, annually) is marked by dramatic fight scenes, outlandish plot twists, phenomenal dance spots, and saccharine romances — punctuated by a coy sensuality that’s hardly masked by the unabashed innuendo. It’s like a golden-age musical, treated heavily with Star Wars CG effects and processed through an Instagram filter that saturates the scene (including skin tones).

None of this offered shock and awe. What caught my attention was an emerging theme I noticed, after watching consecutive films (it’s a long flight…). Contemporary Bollywood storylines turn traditional western gender roles, on their heads. Despite the distinguishing nuances, many stories are “seen” through the eyes of a male protagonist trying to earn the love, respect, or attention of a beautiful (again, coy) girl and her family. More often than not, this male character is portrayed as nervous, silly, or sloppy; he’s either trying to get his life in order, dodging disparaging comments from his mother, or working the kinks out in his newfound confidence. Meanwhile, the object of his affection is often portrayed as strong, smart, ambitious, and unattainable — on a pedestal. Sometimes, these women do have to challenge traditional or conservative family expectations but the film (and the families) eventually celebrate this achievement. In three films I watched, one female love interest was starting her own business — too busy and ambitious to consider talking to our guy. Another was earning her doctoral degree and tutoring an uneducated man who posed as a university student, to get closer to her. The last was a long-lost love, who’d strived to secure a successful business and marketing career; meanwhile, her childhood friend had squandered away his time and money on less-than-meaningful activities. Now, he needed to regroup and prove himself.

What’s the punchline? These narratives depict approaches to relationships, and each other, that require men and women to be equally concerned about how they look or carry themselves. The films showed men talking to their friends about what to do or say, rather than girls gossiping at lockers or crying in the restroom. Instead of following the lives of the eternally awkward or “broken” Bridget Jones, or the hopelessly naïve Snow White (“I’m wishing…”) — until the moment an otherwise silent Prince Charming steps in to save the day — each film featured the story of a man clamoring for the respect and affection of an empowered woman and her loyal relatives. The stories aren’t devoid of sexuality, but they depict men (at least the men you’re supposed to fall in love with) as being lovesick for all the right reasons — instead of being power-pushing or moved by ulterior motives. They’re often eager to prove themselves, honest about their shortcomings, and still stunningly attractive.

Let me not suggest that this directly translates into lived experience. Not every relationship is loving, respectful or straight out of a movie. India, like many countries, continues to struggle with patriarchal norms and persistent gender-based violence. That said, I do respect that this industry offers some storylines that could help shape the internal narratives people use to govern their real behaviors and attitudes.

In my opinion, this at least offers a welcome nod to mutual respect and a balance of power that’s worth wishing for.

2) Clothes, Comfort, and Confidence

While watching these films, I hadn’t much noticed that (even on-screen) conversations about clothing and body image took a different form than I’m used to. Someone from the U.S. remarked, after seeing photos early on in the trip, that I looked happy — relaxed, relieved, and radiant. Other than the somewhat warmer weather and the luxury of paid time off, I couldn’t imagine what had made such a marked and apparently visible difference in my outlook (and my look, I guess?). Eventually I realized that, because I felt assured in the clothes I was in, I also felt comfortable in my own skin. While trying on a series of garments unlike my regular garb, with some much needed help, I was asked about fit and style. People’s questions focused on whether I felt comfortable and confident. Sure to be appropriately respectful, I knew certain parts of me had to be covered in a way that didn’t require figure flattery. Instead of focusing on body shape or size, we kept it simple.

Small, medium, large? Short or long sleeves? What’s your favorite color? How do you feel? Do you like it?

Sari shopping on Commercial Street in Bangalore: before and after*

Of course, I was a tourist on a short-term trip looking for special event attire. This is undoubtedly atypical of the average shopping experience or objective. That said, it felt freeing. Instead of worrying about my body, I got to enjoy projecting my more natural self. I ended up feeling bright and present, instead of being distracted by the internal monologue of self-consciousness that many of us contend with every day. I found I was colorful enough, in my own skin with my own story, that I didn’t feel exposed or vulnerable without my typical attire, cosmetics, or status symbols.

This didn’t just pertain to me. Women of all ages wore saris; traditionally, the 9-yard sari often worn for weddings or major events is made of silk. This material doesn’t breathe much, lending it some discomfort, but it can be draped in a series of ways to best accommodate women’s individual body shapes, sizes, and preferences — religious practices or levels of conservatism. During ceremonies, in the way of usual special event pleasantries, I heard people comment on each other’s beautiful outfits: gorgeous color, interesting design, lovely jewelry.

At no point did I hear a woman comment about her body, let alone anyone else’s — even during behind-the-scenes preparations.

Again, I’m certain that my momentary experience can’t possibly capture everyday opinions or attitudes; I certainly don’t want to suggest that body or image concerns aren’t just as prevalent or damaging in India as they are, anywhere else. I can say that, as an observer, the contours of the clothing (and the dialogue in response) offered a welcome and important pivot — redirecting focus away from people’s insecurities and toward their preferences, personalities, and personal histories. That was a present, of its own.

3) Food and Feeling Full

I was fairly well-studied for the trip, but I wasn’t too shy about expecting some shock. Truthfully, my sole moment for pause came when I sat down to eat my first meal. I was fully aware of the age-old tradition of eating without utensils, but my first physical experience doing so was definitely one of learning. The practice of hand-to-mouth eating (customary throughout regions of Asia, Africa and the middle East) is rooted in several historic traditions including the belief that eating is a sensual practice, which — beyond taste — should involve other senses of touch, smell, sight, etc. In some parts of India, meals are presented on a washed banana leaf or as part of a thali offering a sampling of foods that are thoughtfully balanced in flavor and composition. There’s a fine art and technique to using your hands as utensils, which often doubles as an opportunity to test the temperature before tasting. Historically, though, the practice was adopted for the sake of hygiene — guaranteeing a few degrees of separation between the hand you used to wash yourself (left) and the hand you used to feed yourself (right).

A traditional South Indian meal, featuring foods of diverse flavors and textures, eaten using the right hand and served on a cleaned banana leaf

After giving my hands a thorough cleaning, I took my seat. Beginning to eat, I noticed that the experience of actually touching and feeling my food forced me to focus. In and around the experience of eating, there was no opportunity to let your thoughts wander off because you were always rooted to the present via at least one tactile or sensory channel. Further, the full physical and mental presence of the family indicated that this time was for feeding, fellowship, and nothing else. The food itself was capable of claiming attention. Enjoying diverse items at each meal made room for mixing flavors, textures, and temperatures in ways that rendered every bite a bit different.

Even in a more contemporary restaurant, using utensils, Indian cuisine has a way of capturing the hearts of all kinds of eaters. The food is colorful and flavorful — featuring rich sauces, and nuanced combinations of spices and textures. It’s not uncommon that multiple moments in a meal will catch you off guard, or make you survey the landscape of your plate with newfound appreciation. You can count me among spicy-food fans, but plenty of others can still relish in the perfectly balanced blend of foods that are tangy, savory, buttery, or fresh. One meal can simultaneously deliver the exoticism of an unknown place, and the warming calm of comfort food. It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the crunch of a samosa, the crisp of street chaat — the richness of blended spinach and perky paneer (cheese) in saag, or the spiced and fluffy filling of a masala dosa. There are no sweeter sweets than Indian treats, and those will carry you right away — when all is said, and done, and eaten.

You will be full, but you’ll also feel full because, if you notice, eating with your hands means something else. It means you can’t do anything else with your hands. Nothing. No cell phones, no laptops, no books, no crossword puzzles, no newspaper. The conversation is more fulfilling, because people’s focus is where it should be — on the food, family, and finer points of sharing time together. Clearly this isn’t the case during every meal, but it was definitely a punctuating part of my trip.

Mealtime during the wedding was especially poignant, because it gave me a window on family dynamics that extend beyond typical dinner-times. In days leading up to the actual ceremony, the two families shared several preparatory meals and activities. Traditionally, in arranged marriages, the bride and groom might not meet or talk until the day of their nuptials. In order to help prime everyone for the final festivities, and to give the families an opportunity to get acclimated, several notable events happen prior to the wedding ceremonies; even at contemporary weddings, the schedule and structure of events pays homage to past practices. I noticed, during these precursor events, that everyone had a role to play. The rituals were designed to honor or involve key relatives in meaningful, sometimes symbolic, ways. This companionship and commitment was also reflected, at mealtime.

I quickly observed that the families took turns “hosting” meals. Meals were served at long tables to ease the efficiency of delivering food en masse, while accommodating large numbers of family and friends. During each serving, an informal host (often a close family member) would take responsibility for walking up and down the aisles, making light conversation and keeping everyone generally full and happy. This person was on call and at hand, throughout the meal, but also responsible for setting the social tone to keep everyone relaxed. During the first wave of dining, one such host family member would eat early with the rest of the guests. Once guests had gone and the immediate families finally sat to eat, this person would now sit out and take a turn at playing host.

This honored guests, by inviting them to eat first. It supported the immediate families, by demanding little of their personal oversight during mealtimes. It also offered opportunities for them to truly relax, when the time was right, so they could focus on all the important parts of celebrating a new marriage. It was beautiful to see how family members effortlessly adopted their expected characters, and took ownership for many of the millions of intricate arrangements for each ceremony — gathering symbolic items, preparing ornate sets, positioning decorative costumes, tying elaborate garments, or securing everything needed for a single ritual.

Pictures from the Pandakal — a ceremonial opportunity for the family to prepare and mark the home as one that’s in celebration. During this event, married women in the community are asked to essentially leave their “mark” of support and blessing.

I was struck by how gracefully many people came together to orchestrate a very full and — potentially frantic — series of events. In his or her own way, each seemed silently proud to be helpful and involved. All took admirable ownership of the event’s success; they were genuinely committed to representing the family well, and ensuring the bride and groom a happy start to their marriage.

The intimacies of each event, and the experience of flavorful and fulfilling eating, exposed some truly lovely and loving aspects of Indian culture. They say food is the quickest way to the heart, and I do admit that the meals added meaning to my understanding of life and love in India.

4) Pace and Facing the World

Having grown up in the northeast, I’m fairly used to a full and fast lifestyle. It’s rare for me to relax on a vacation, let alone to enjoy relaxing. More often, I opt for active / adventurous / over-booked. While I recognize this isn’t always prudent or healthy (or even fully enjoyable) it provides a kind of energy and learning that I thrive on. It also provides a steady stream of stress.

Scenes from Indian streets in Agra, Jaipur, and Bangalore

Changing the scenery offered an important jolt and dose of perspective. In and around the sights and sounds and smells of the city — or the real remoteness of rural areas — you learn to find your own sense of calm. Once you accept that so much is beyond your control, you unconsciously begin to make peace with the symphony of the street and to welcome the air of authenticity around you. Suddenly, inconveniences seem smaller in the grand scheme of things. Momentarily, missed opportunities (or missed turns…) don’t generate such a sizable swell of frustration or concern. You and I both know that we’ll get turned around, somehow, so why worry? Enjoy the journey. Again, I don’t underestimate the reality that I was traveling on my days off — literally half the world away from my responsibilities and accountability. This feeling, though, was more penetrating. Worthy of more than a passing nod…

I’ve been told it’s possible — with practice — to adopt this posture, anywhere. I hear that mindfulness and meditation (though patience is not my virtue) can help you learn to be more naturally present, reflective, and responsive — rather than reactive — even when facing hectic or disquieting situations. Here, though, I almost felt as though the lifestyle requested and required my presence. I didn’t seem to have an option. Something about the place and pace and approach opened me up to the idea of letting little disturbances go; it was almost as if the need to make way for new brainspace, so as to fully capture every last element of the experience, required cutting ties with some little corner of my mind that was filling itself with generally useless worry. Most interestingly, this effect wasn’t as geographically, culturally, or temporally confined as I expected.

A statue of Ganesha stares off into the morning sun

Once back, people remarked for weeks that I seemed sunny, calm, grateful, curious, patient, and unfazed. In the face of frustrations, I felt free to let things slip away if they weren’t of true consequence. I found myself making — rather than taking — time to pause and breathe in my surroundings. I became more conscious of the world around me, and the ways I fit into it. In truth, that awareness and assurance (now 2 months later) has begun fading back into the woodwork. But something worked… and wouldn’t it be nice if we all enjoyed a piece of that mindset, now and again?

It might change the way we think about people, and the way we feel about ourselves. It could shape the way we build relationships, apply our talents, and enter our environment. If we were all truly present, maybe we would realize we’re making mountains out of molehills — when there are already plenty of mountains to climb.

Maybe those mountains are significant, because they stand as a looming reminder that we’re not really so big. Maybe the hum of the city is humbling, in a healthy way. Maybe dry, dusty, dirty areas remind us that there’s something real and rewarding and raw about remembering that not everyone has the luxury of worry — in the ways that can trip us up, every day. It could be that the bustle of big crowds and busy streets becomes a subtle way of saying,

“Look at all these people. Look at how little you know about so many lives, and how much you have yet to learn about so many stories. Look at how much body the world has, beyond you.

Suddenly you seem very small, and you see your corner of the world very differently. You realize that your slice of reality has its limits, and so do you. You also realize that the consequences of your actions are similarly limited. You can take a risk, or a wrong turn, and still course correct. You’re not going to knock the world off its axis by missing an email or making space for a meaningful conversation. Certainly, you shouldn’t lose focus, but we can probably all learn to focus on what really matters — and to stop wasting energy waiting for things to be perfect. Sometimes, there’s beauty in the bumpy rides and broken things.

Bringing it home, I guess I brought home that same sense of wonder that so many have pondered and promised before. Whether I knew it at the time, a little intrigue had snuck its way into my suitcase — only to be unpacked once I began to reflect. It seems I’ll have to go on wondering, until I can enjoy another rich and rewarding ride through truly incredible India.

All photos by Rachel Dungan, except for those indicated*

Please feel free to share questions and comments, or to contact me via email: racheledungan@gmail.com

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