Wednesday, 25 October 2017

An Indian Odyssey

We’ve been back from our trip to India for more than a week. Seven days to gather my thoughts and put them into appropriately organised bits and bytes on my blog for you to read. But where does one even begin? India is a truly extraordinary place. Specifically, Delhi. Agra, Ranthambore, Jaipur and Udaipur – the destinations we visited. Words cannot do them justice. But I will try. Perhaps a little brainstorming would help, to try and come up with the right adjectives?

India is vibrant. Bright. Polluted. Colourful. Noisy. Tranquil. Misogynistic. Welcoming. Cruel. Alive. Depressing. Extravagant. Neglected. Bustling. Delicious. Dirty. Diverse. Historic. Relentless. Dusty. Hospitable. Dangerous. Poverty-stricken. Capitalist. Decaying. Functional. Edgy. Stinky. Spicy. Choking. Cheerful. Exhausted. Indomitable. Brutal. Brilliant. Ugly.

These are all great words to describe India. And whilst it is true that you could apply them to virtually any country, India is perhaps the only country to truly define them. But adjectives alone cannot tell the story. I will have to add some verbs and nouns to the mix. The problem I am having in putting my experience down on to this bit of virtual paper, is that the story comes in two parts. They are conflicting parts that occured simultaneously. In fact, they are not really parts, but two independent stories. Two stories – that’s a better way to look at it.

Let me start with the bad story. To describe India as challenging is to be polite. For me, the single worst aspect of the country was the pollution. It’s choking. Motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars and brightly decorated Tata trucks race insanely across barely paved streets, chucking out fumes and stirring up colossal clouds of dust and dirt. Visitors flock to the Taj Mahal at sunrise and sunset, promised that there’s no better time of day to see the, now official, wonder of the world. Only to discover it is a scam. The sun is barely visible behind the thick gravy brown skies, and tourists must make do with smogrise and smogset.

For the first week, we were revolted by the locals and their constant gagging, rasping coughs and spat out bits of lung that are an inevitable by-product of such badly polluted skies. It’s one of the prevailant sounds of Delhi, along with the never ending beeping of horns and the whiny engines of the countless scooters and tuk tuks. By week two, you have sympathy. Not least because you are, by then, a co-sufferer.

Mrs P and I roamed Delhi and Agra as extensively as we dared for the limited time we had available. Mostly by tuk tuk, but we made use of the occasional taxi too. We were pleasantly surprised by the modern metro system too, which ran very efficiently. It’s a busy and crowded city, as you would expect. Hordes of people charging about in a most industrious manner. But whether one is prepared for the crowds or not, the sheer number of people can still be a little overwhelming. They overwhelm their own terrain too. Wherever we went, we encountered vast quantities of litter, earth and general debris where you might hope instead to see paved sidewalks.

It saddened me, for this is a gaping, self inflicted wound that scarred every city, every town, every neighbourhood, every street that we passed through. It’s unnecessary. What passes as a posh area in Delhi would be labelled a dump elsewhere in the world. I came to the rather unscientific conclusion that posh areas in India can be identified by the sight of rubbish gathered into huge piles for the cows, stray dogs and wild pigs to feast from. For in these towns, there does at least exist some type of refuse disposal system.

There were other things that saddened me. The women we saw who have had their faces melted by acid. The disfigured, handicapped and tortured souls left by society to try and eek a miserable survival in the gutters. The general lack of maintenance of everything, that proves that the old sayings of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ and ‘mend and make do’ can indeed be taken too far. And so much more. There are plenty of Dorothy moments, where you wish you could tap your little red slippers together three times and be whisked home. But you get the picture. Let’s not dwell too long on the negative.

There’s another story to be told about India though. About a country so rich in history that all the bank vaults on the planet would not be enough to contain this cultural treasure trove. There are protected national parks that burst into view like a Rudyard Kipling novel that’s come to life. Beyond their obvious flaws are a people who are kind and generous. There are beautiful, albeit worn, temples that must be explored. There is life in India which is intoxicating. You might feel trapped there at times, but it’s almost impossible not to go down with a bout of Stockholm Syndrome. India isn’t a holiday. It’s an experience. It is an experience that one perhaps grows fonder of once it is over.

So, for all the negativity of this post, India has a certain something that wins over the heart. At the risk of overdoing the analogies – if life is a box of chocolates, then India is a can of Coca Cola. You know the ingredients are just a bunch of poisons that’ll rot you from the inside. But that secret ‘Ingredient X’ just keeps you coming back for more of it’s delicious, intoxicating and indulgent magic. I’ve more to write about India. I’ll try and tell that second story I referred to earlier – the good part. Perhaps at some stage I’ll be able to put my finger on that elusive magic. But I suspect it’ll remain, like the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world.