No Chai During the Eclipse: 52 Lessons from India


I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.’ — Mary Anne Radmacher

Writing about India is like writing in wet sand. After every carefully contemplated and crafted observation, a wave will roll in and wipe it into gentle oblivion. The wave can be anything, but is always something that challenges lines of definition.

During the ten years of crafting this book, as I tried again and again to apply my thoughts about India to paper, this effect occurred on both a literal as well as a metaphorical level. I somehow managed to lose three notebooks, all packed with thoughts, ideas, observations and conversations.

Two of them disappeared in Varanasi, the holiest of Hindu cities, which rises from the Western bank of the River Ganges like a stone mirage from another epoch, gazing intentionally Eastwards, towards the rising sun. At the Burning Ghats, funeral pyres burn 24/7. Here in this giant impermanence factory, where the devout come to die, turned into ashes, and sent to moksha — spiritual liberation, where coming in and out of being seem barely distinguishable from one another.

Mother India embraces everything in her timeless arms; the good, the bad and the ugly. She accepts all differences, distinctions, and paradoxes, and ultimately dissolves them all. It makes perfect sense that she would also enfold in her vast dissolving embrace so many of my attempts to write about her.

In nine years of traveling around India in buses, trains, planes, taxis, and on foot, I never had anything stolen or lost — other than these notebooks. Even in the notes that survived, scribbled in school workbooks, between bus timetables and snippets of Hindi, India’s tentacles of impermanence and maya would softly challenge every statement, teasing out contradictions, paradoxes and exceptions, until I began to wonder if it was possible to say anything at all.

But I felt compelled to continue to try to write about her, for the simple reason that India had become my muse and a muse demands to be expressed. And so, I persevered in my search for the words and phrases with which to describe this extraordinary land and its unique and familiar people.

I know I have not succeeded in capturing the essence of the place since this essence, like all true essences, will always remain just out of reach of the effable, but I have at least succeeded in saying something, and that is some source of comfort to me.

It has been said that India is more of a state of mind than a country. But what state of mind is India, exactly? And is this state of mind something that can ever really be known by the outsider? After years of pondering this question, I would have to answer “no”. But I would also add that there is an enormous amount to be gained in trying to know it, even if one’s exploration merely ends up convincing one further of the ultimate futility of the whole endeavor.

Life in India is not boxed into neatly sealed packages as it is in the West. It spills out all over the place, often when you would prefer that it didn’t.

If there existed a measurement for life per square inch in the same way that we have measurements for density, weight, and pressure, it would be hard to find more life packed into more square inches than in India. It is not just the amount of life, but its visible, almost tangible, interdependence that makes India such a fascinating, perplexing, challenging, and rewarding environment.

Strange as it may seem, I chose a tiny semi-deserted medieval town in the middle of France in which to buy a house and ‘settle down’. Even the French people I speak to haven’t heard of the place. The streets are completely empty much of the time. Occasionally, a septuagenarian scuttles by with their shopping trolley on the way back from the supermarket. The highlight of the day is a cat licking its tummy in the middle of the road.
“It’s so quiet here,” I observed a bit mournfully to a friend a few months after I arrived.
“It’s lunchtime,” he replied, and then grinned Puckishly. “It’ll be even quieter after lunch.”

For the first few months I slept fitfully. I found the silence disconcerting. I could practically hear the blood running through my veins. I had become accustomed to the clangs of temple bells, the barking of street dogs, taxi horns and the buzz of motorbikes, the wail of the newspaper wallah, the murmur of prayer and the cacophony of commerce. I soon began to miss the chaos, colour, and liveliness of India. I even began to miss the things I had complained about. Traveling in India is demanding. Pretty much everything is less comfortable, less reliable, and decidedly stickier. There were times when I wondered why I kept coming back. But I always knew, really. It has to do with this matrix of raw experience that demands full participation and engagement. In India, there is always the invitation to connect.

India’s chaos is legendary but it is actually remarkable that it functions at all. There are over nine hundred political parties and twenty-two officially recognized languages. The geography, climate and culture vary so much from region to region that the difference between Indian states is often greater than between countries. France and Spain have more in common than the Punjab and Kerala. An Indian from the Punjab in the North who visits the South Western state Kerala will find little that is familiar to him. The style of dress, food, religious and cultural traditions, climate and terrain and even the language will all make him feel like a stranger, and he will need to communicate in English to be understood.

India certainly has her problems, but in a very real sense, the India that we find is the India that we look for. If we seek out the injustices and inefficiencies these will be all that we see. While it is wrong to deny their existence, it is also wrong to focus only on the problems and to ignore the achievements.

The Western media, like the media everywhere, likes stories with high emotional impact, and India can always deliver in shock value, whether it is child labour, rape, corruption, inefficiency, power cuts or deaths caused by faulty engineering. The stories we like to read about India tend to be either condescending, horrific or bizarre, like the BBC headline ‘Snake tries to Strangle West Bengal Selfie Taker’.

We hear about the latest gruesome gang rape in Delhi, but headlines such as ‘Village in India Plants 111 Trees Every Time a Little Girl is Born’ pass us by. We read Slumdog Millionaire tales of mafia beggar gang leaders disfiguring children, but we don’t learn about the Mumbai students who crowd-funded over 400,000 dollars for prosthetic limbs for disabled in their communities.

If we are interested in learning something more about a country than the shock headlines of newspapers, more is what we will discover.

I do not wish to play down the multitude of social problems that modern India faces, but neither do I have simple answers to them. Writing about them requires another level of analysis that very few Western journalists or writers possess. Not because they are intentionally over-simplifying the issues, but because they do not (and cannot) understand the deeper levels of context out of which these issues have emerged. There is no point in me writing about them other than to point them out, and others are doing that with far more knowledge and insight than I.

What I do have are stories of encounters and experiences that in some way had a lasting impact on one person — myself. India has driven me half mad with frustration. She has tested me to my limits emotionally, physically and mentally, and made me sweat more than I thought possible. But she has also extended her hand to lift me up when I was down, made me laugh when it was easier to cry, and kindled my dwindling faith in the kindness, resilience, ingenuity, and wisdom of humanity.

India will always be both familiar and mysterious to me. Every time I go to India, I am left with an even greater knowledge of what I still don’t know. I am always reminded of a retired professor of Sanskrit who I befriended while working on writing project in Sarnath. We would often have lunch together in our guest house, where he would invariably begin his sentences with “Madam, you must be knowing….” to which I would have to admit more often than not that actually, no, madam wasn’t knowing in the least. I am indebted to this kind and patient professor, for all his recommendations of books on Indian history, and for gently encouraging me to become more educated, among other things, about the lasting and subtler impacts of British colonial rule.

I was unable to speak to as many Indian women as I would have liked. I also spent far more time in the North than in the South, and I have not traveled to every state. There are cities such as Varanasi, that turn up again and again. These are places that I came to know over time, where I formed friendships that have lasted to this day. It is hard to get more than a glimpse when one just passes through for a night here or there. You have to lay down your luggage for a while, gaze out over balconies, and drink a lot of cups of chai.

There are thousands of chais within these pages, and each one has made its own indelible contribution to the stories they hold. If journeying anywhere outside of the Hobbit Shire tugs at the coat-tails of our routine ways of thinking, a place like India threatens to shred them to pieces.

Travel keeps us open to other ways of seeing, being and doing, and trains us to break bread with paradox. I believe that travel can teach all of us to better connect with one another across our differences; to not simply tolerate, but to appreciate diverse perspectives. This is where travel and pilgrimage intersect, when pilgrimage means journeying with purpose rather than for entertainment or simply to press the pause button in our otherwise over-loaded lives. We may not have an expressed religious or spiritual goal to our journey, but like pilgrimage, travel can change us if we let it.

At its best, travel provides, not an escape from ourselves, but an invitation to go beyond our limited ideas about ourselves. In these uneasy times when the world appears so divided, it is tempting to cling ever more tightly to our stories about the way things are done, the way the world works, what is right and what is wrong, what is worth our attention and what is not.

Our stories are valuable, no doubt. They offer us a road map in an uncertain world. But a different kind of journey can begin when we take the time to listen to another story — a journey that can help to open up our minds and hearts to new ways of being in the world. And if there was ever a time when we needed to take that journey, it is now.

Lesson One

The holy now

Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. I was happily tucking into one of my favourite Indian breakfasts — poha (cracked rice that cooks in under three minutes) blended with spices and fresh peanuts, served with a side of mint chutney and plain yoghurt, when I spotted the sign hanging on the wall opposite. I had noted a few of these proverbs over the years from walls across India. Call on God, but row away from the rocks on a poster in a roadside bookstall in Kolkata. In a tree that you can’t climb there are always a thousand fruits from graffiti scrawled in chalk on a wall above a sleeping beggar in Allepey, Kerala. A problem is solved when it gets tougher on a framed hand-written piece of paper hung inside an electrical shop in Hubli, Karnataka. I always imagined how impressive it would be to be able pull up a pithy proverb to perfectly match certain key moments in my life. The thing about key moments, though, is that proverbs are generally the last thing to leap come to mind. Putting aside the obvious cheesiness Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, it seemed oddly familiar. I later learned that it is actually a line from the wise turtle Oogway in Kung Fu Panda (one of my favourite movies) although he adds the kicker, “that’s why they call it the present”. Had the writer of the film been inspired by the sign in that Rishikesh restaurant, or had the restaurant owner seen the movie? Either way, cheesy or not, those words above my breakfast were onto something; something that had taken me a while to notice because its manifestations were so subtle and so myriad. I lived more in the present when I was in India than in the States or in Europe.

It’s not something that I could ever begin to try to prove. But the more time I spend here, the more I seem to experience time differently. My thoughts are less inclined to scramble off into future what ifs or to rake over the past why sos. Occasionally, certain places themselves such as temples or even whole towns seem to have the power to catapult me headlong into what I call the ‘holy now’ where events move more like a dance than a sequence of discrete moments.

As I walk down an Indian street, within the space of fifty metres, a vast drama appears to unfold, as epic as any creation myth ever told, as if the entire universe is coming and going from being to oblivion. A large white cow gently tips over a rubbish bin with its nose, as a female monkey, baby clinging to her tummy, scampers over to snatch up an apple core, then leaps up onto the lintel of a temple doorway where a saffron-robed priest sits cross-legged on the steps reading the morning paper. A street dog barks and chases the scooter of the newspaper seller who tries to swat it away with a rolled up copy of the Hindustan Times, and a policemen sitting at the chai stall laughs as the chai wallah stirs his pot and calls out a gusty “Chai! Chai! Garam chai!” (“Tea! Tea! Hot tea!”) in my general direction. There is something so fluid about the way such scenes play out, with every actor in the drama, both human and animal, playing an integral part of the ‘now’ that is simultaneously constant and ever changing.

Ironically, this shift into the present moment seems more likely to occur while I’m forging the turmoil of a crowded railway platform than when sitting peacefully alone half way up a mountain. It tends to happen when my survival instincts are triggered into high alert. I am drawn into this state of presence for a very simple reason. If I am anywhere else but the present in a crowded railway platform or on the average Indian street, I am more likely to make an error of judgment. There are so many things to trip over or bump into — scooters swerving around monkeys, monkeys swerving around school children, saddhus swerving around potholes, and everyone swerving around cows and vegetable carts, that a certain level of mindfulness is more than a handy self-help tip. It’s a survival imperative.

If my mind begins to wander from what is right in front of me, even for an instant, some sudden event will inevitably grab it back to what is in front of my nose. A memorable, albeit mildly terrifying, example of this occurred one afternoon as I was ambling along a narrow path on the stretch of the Ganges River between Ram Jhula and Laxman Jhula; Rishikesh’s two suspension bridges that sit in stately repose about twenty minutes walk from each other.

I had walked this route dozens of times, and since it was too narrow for cars (although not for motorbikes, sadly) I could allow myself a lower level of vigilance than usual and would often fall into some reverie or other. On this particular day, I was mulling over something I’d heard my teacher say in that morning’s yoga session, something about the function of the breath and the different ‘winds’ that yogic philosophers envisioned coursing the subtler fields of the physical body, when my internal dialogue was suddenly interrupted by a loud rhythmic thudding sound that I instantly mentally labeled as the sound of a galloping horse. I was approaching an intersection where a wider path veered sharply off to my right, the trajectory being concealed around a corner of shrubbery. But instead of a runaway horse, what came bounding towards me from around the bend was a huge Grey Langur monkey. He was about three feet high. His fantastic tail, as long as his entire body, shot straight out behind him parallel to the ground with a slight question mark curve at the end. He swept past me, inches from my nose. The effect of the raw power of this animal tingled up my spine as a whoosh of air from his momentum hit my face in a hot musky wave.

The shock of this encounter whallopped me into complete stillness where everything, including myself, seemed to dissolve into silent slow motion. He mounted a ten-foot high stone temple wall in a single casual leap, then paused for a second, glanced casually in my direction, and disappeared over the side. A couple of steps later and we may well have collided. Two lads on motorbikes looked at me as if to say, that was close! I was back in the present in pretty nifty fashion after that.

I must admit that even after coming here for over a decade, I still have moments when I feel like I’ve just stepped off the boat. The following incident is a case in point. I had just landed at Delhi international airport from Paris and was in line at the pre-paid taxi stand directly outside the entrance. As usual I ignored the taxi touts who tried to coax foreigners out of the queue so they could charge them exorbitant rates, and firmly maintained my place in line against the constant incursions of bumptious Indian men who seem to lose all social graces when it comes to anyone in front of them apart from other bumptious Indian men.

When I reached the counter I told the teller that I wanted to go to East of Kailash, a journey of about fifty minutes. He asked for 450 rupees, which from previous visits I knew to be the correct fare. I handed him a 500-rupee note (a few days later, along with the 1000 note, these would no longer be legal tender due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonitization scheme that aimed to rid India of undeclared “black” money). The teller then asked me for my name. This was also standard procedure, but I noticed that he held my gaze a little longer than necessary. He made some joke that I didn’t understand and I felt momentarily disoriented. When I looked down, instead of the 500-rupee-note, lying on the counter between us was a 50-rupee-note. ‘You made a mistake, madam,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear from behind the glass.

Yes, I had. I had made the mistake of losing concentration, just enough for him to make the exchange. I knew that I had given him a 500, but there was no way that I could prove it. It was useless to argue. I grudgingly handed him another 500 note, and he gave me the fifty with a victorious grin. Someone behind me began poking at my heels with their luggage trolley. There was nothing to be done, and I walked away more embarrassed than annoyed. Even heavily jet-lagged, an Indian would never fall for such a blatant trick. I had to admit I was a bit impressed. The hand had been well played. I had committed the worst error possible — I had allowed myself to become distracted. I have found time and again, that most situations in life can be resolved, at least to some extent, by paying a little more attention. It is attention that keeps us in the now, and the now is where everything happens. We will never lose by doing so, and we might have a lot more than 450 rupees to gain.

It was over dinner in New Delhi’s Connaught Place that someone asked the question that helped me to unpack this equation of presence and attention. The restaurant was an unapologetically well-tended memorial of the colonial era. During the Raj, The Coffee House had become renowned as one of the few eateries where the ‘Britishers’ and Indians would rub shoulders. Its decor is still firmly ensconced in Victoria’s England, with ornate plaster walls, studded leather benches, imperious chandeliers and plenty of dark serious wood. It’s a bustling place, filled clattering tableware and smartly dressed quick-paced waiters serving reliably tasty North Indian food. Although it is almost always busy, you never have to wait long to be seated, since tables are cleaned and reset and bills distributed relentlessly, as soon as the last fork hits the place. Its two floors are filled with multi-generational Indian families, earnest NGO types modeling the latest lines from Urban Outfitters, middle-aged foreign diplomats, local businessmen and well-heeled backpackers, their pristine copies of Lonely Planet India nestled between copper-plated tureens of aloo gobi and tarka daal testifying to their recent arrival.

My dinner companion was a talented travel photographer. He is never someone I plan on meeting, but every couple of years our trajectories intersect somewhere on the subcontinent. Marco has travelled throughout the remotest regions of Tibet and has documented some of the most beautifully authentic expressions of this ancient culture that is fast being Disneyfied in the infrastructure of the spiritual materialism of modern-day China. In spite of rarely seeing one another, whenever we do get together the conversation always uncovers something unexpected, and this meeting was no exception. It began with a question that he asked me. ‘What do you think travel does to the mind?’ It was a serious question, and he expected a serious answer, though he grinned at me as he asked it, because of course he already knew the answer. I took a sip of masala chai and said something along the lines of the following:

‘Our minds are vast storehouses of data. When we’re young this storehouse is filled with “firsts”. Our first bike ride, our first interaction with a dog, our first chocolate ice cream. And all these firsts become part of our programming. On our first trip to the ocean, for example, we become keenly aware of the smell of salt in the air, the feel of wet sand between our toes, the curl of the waves up the shoreline. Our second trip to the ocean loses some of that immediacy because we are already filtering it through the archives stored from our previous experience.’
Marco had a wry smile on his face. I knew that everything I was saying, he had grocked ten times over. But he was getting me to say it, and that was the point.
‘So we might get to a place where the only thing we actually experience is the archive of the ocean.’
‘Right. The real ocean isn’t even getting a look in.’

‘But don’t we need the data storehouse? Without it we would have to keep relearning everything. Nothing would stick.’

‘Of course, you’re right. But the problem occurs when we just plug the present perception into the program of perceptual memory. We start living in the matrix. We stop showing up to our own lived experience.’

‘So you’re saying that travel interrupts the routine?’
‘Yes. But what is routine apart from doing the same thing again and again, operating from the same old inputs? It’s only when something unusual happens that we pay any real attention. Otherwise, the days simply roll into one, to the point where at the end of the week we are hard pressed to distinguish one day from the other. Perhaps the reason that time appears to speed up as we age is because we stop paying attention to life. We become too good at knowing what to expect. As children, we found it all so utterly fascinating; from rolled up bits of tin foil to the way toilet rolls unravel down the stairs. But over time, tin foil and toilet rolls lose their remarkableness. When we are immersed in novelty, on the other hand, we can recall the minutest details; the taste of an exotic fruit, the way the light glints on a river, or the sound of an instrument we’ve never heard before.’

‘So you’re saying that travel affects our level of attention and refreshes our experience.’

‘Yes! When we enter a completely new environment, a new culture, we come into contact with a whole new library of sights, smells, sounds, sensations and ways of thinking. We can’t match what we are experiencing to the old records anymore, and so we have to pay more attention in order to process it all.’

‘Can you can say it in a way that can fit on the back of a postcard?’ He was laughing at me, but it was all in good fun.

We parted ways and I went back to my hotel. Lying under the fan I ran over the same thoughts, juggling them into difference positions. Novelty. Novelty was key. India offers novelty by the bucket load. I thought about the first time I tried the Indian snack, Kurkure. It’s like the Indian equivalent of Cheetos but with a massive amount of spice. My first reaction was to laugh. It was so spicy it was actually funny! I thought my taste buds would blow up. I became obsessed with Kurkure for a while. Not because I liked it so much, not even because it’s named after the swords carried by Gurkha warriors from the hills of Nepal, but because it was so completely and utterly different from anything I had ever tasted before.

Could I fit all this on the back of a postcard? I took out a mental postcard and wrote the following.

Dear Marco,
Travel takes us to an intersection of novelty, attention and presence. Time expands or contracts depending upon our level of attention and presence that we bring to what is going on, and novelty takes us into the present because it bypasses memory. This is what travel does to the mind. It turns us into that child running on its first beach, wriggling its toes in the sand for the very first time — again.

Wish you were here
Rebecca xx

Rebecca Novick
18 min
3 cards

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