Things I Learned in India that Have Nothing to Do with Yoga, Gurus, or Other Clichés

Firstly, I should make it clear that I am a self-made woman. That is to say, I am incredibly self-sufficient and independent, argumentative, educated, and quite often too audacious in my efforts to “take care of myself” as I see fit.

I just described the opposite of the ideal woman in India. In addition, it is the description of someone Indians wouldn’t be chomping-at-the-bit to have as a guest in their home.

When I first arrived as a guest of a good friend of mine, I came with the unspoken intention of taking care of myself wherever I could. This is an inherent part of my identity; it’s not something that I had ever fully considered before. In fact, in America, it is a token of pride to be able to take care of yourself. Americans love the phrase “he pulled himself up by his boot straps” to indicate a person who has found himself in the ditch and changed his own life through hard work. I did not arrive in India expecting someone to look after my every need.

But that is what I found. Not just one someone. Many, many someones.

My friend began waiting on my every unspoken need. I responded in kind by digging my heels into the ground and demanding that I help myself through anything: I wanted to carry my own bag, I wanted to pay for my own food, I wanted to cook the food as well, I wanted to make my own bed and fold my own towel and wipe my own nose. My friend, though, wanted to be the one to carry me through my day, because he could see something that I could not see: that I was not strong enough to conduct my own train through India by myself.

The first time this became clear was going to the museum in Mumbai together. I was desperately exhausted due to the time difference, but was intent on making myself stay awake in order to adjust out of jetlag. I was tired and so very, very hot.

I should point out that I am from Alaska and to enter India in April is an extraordinary shock. It was at least 40 degrees Celsius while I was in India, and many days up to 43 and 44. I found myself breathing slow and deep while trying to get enough of the hot air into my lungs. I felt exhausted by the heat from the very first day, and this stress on my body on top of my sleepiness made me somewhat irritable.

I became irritated easily at my friend trying to direct me in the museum. I found myself going the opposite way that he suggested just to prove that I didn’t have to listen to him. He kept trying to hold my hand, which annoyed me more than anything, and I fought harder. All the while, the heat was grading more and more on my body. Why was there no relief inside! I couldn’t believe that being in the shady building did not help dissipate the heat but there was no escaping it. Soon it was all I could think about. Try as I did to overcome and to think positively, I began to worry that I was going to become very sick. It was in this state that I fought for my constant independence.

When my friend and I arrived at his parents’ farm a day later, I had two more people to look after me: his parents. This was embarrassing to me. I insisted on trying to help run the household in whichever ways that I could — even the smallest contributions, such as taking my plate to the sink, felt like I was at least helping a little. I said “thank you” all the time, for every little thing. (It wasn’t until after leaving India that I learned what an insult saying “thank you” is in Indian culture).

It is true, though, to say that the heat finally broke me. I had very little energy and it was impossible to continue my fight for independence. Little by little, I allowed my hosts to take care of me. My friend’s dad made me sweet lime juice and I took it gratefully without trying to run to the kitchen to clean up after the drink preparation in order to at least contribute a little. I would be close to death on the front porch and my friend’s mom would come out and offer to make me tea. Instead of jumping up and insisting that I made tea for myself, I gratefully accepted her offer. Once I had some hot liquid in me, my body adjusted better to the heat and I was able to have a clear head again.

When the wedding preparations began for my friend’s sister, I had many, many aunties wanting to look after my every need. Again, this went against the American way, but I consented to their babying because it would be rude not to.

I learned two important lessons from going to India: 1. It is ok to ask for and to receive help. 2. I do not have to be immediately relieved of discomfort.

I believe I have elaborated on the first point enough, but to sum it up: I do not have to do everything myself. It was alright for a friend to catch me and look after me for a while. In fact, once I allowed it to happen, it was very nice.

But the second point was also important. It was a lesson of the sun. I think it is another American cultural phenomenon to not have to undergo discomfort. If you feel hungry, eat now. Don’t worry about inconvenience! That’s why there is fast food! If your head or your leg or your whatever hurts— don’t undergo pain. There are many, many over-the-counter medications readily available.

There were times that I felt that I would die from the heat, that I WANTED to die so as to not have to feel it any longer.

But I found that if I forced myself to take the discomfort, it became more bearable. If I took away the mindset that I needed to be relieved right NOW and just allowed the discomfort to be flowing over me in waves, I breathed through it.

This would be an invaluable tool for me in a few short weeks when I would start experimenting with fasting in order to achieve greater self-control. But that is a whole different post. ☺

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