A Dust Over India
As your plane descends upon New Delhi, a soft orange haze engulfs you, drawing you in. A cascade of shanty towns drift below, clogged arteries of traffic dividing the landscape into innumerable scattered shards of populace. If you land in the evening, the haze throbs over the country with a dull glow in the speckled city lights. If you land in the afternoon, then the haze is a giant mass of incomprehensible dust — some amalgamation of smog, smoke, dirt, and fog — and no matter how far away you go, or how far you get, you never completely escape it.
I have been to 40 different countries. Yet India made the most indelible impression of any of them. And not for all of the right reasons. Frankly, it’s not a pleasant place to be. Anyone who tells you otherwise lacks perspective. India’s full of contradictions: horrors and delights, achievements and atrocities, often on the same city-block. And despite the immense history, the monuments, the spectacular sites of human ingenuity, one can’t help but ask themselves repeatedly what they’re doing there.
The first thing that strikes you about India is how dirty it is. In a word, the place is disgusting. All of it. The entire country. Never before have I seen mountains of garbage the size of a small house stacked on the side of a road, in broad daylight, in the middle of a city, repeatedly. Dumpsters tipped over and overflowing. Mounds of trash — wrappers, cups, papers, napkins, strewn all about, mixed with sludge from the soda and urine and spit coagulated from thousands of daily passersby.
Like the dust, the garbage never ceases. And along with the garbage, there is an unending stream of humanity. It is impossible to spend a full day in the middle of a major Indian city without lobotomizing yourself trying to figure out where the hell all of the people come from. I’ve been to Hong Kong. I’ve been to Manhattan and Beijing. I’ve been to Mexico City. And the swarm of humanity crawling through India’s cities is unparalleled. There’s no comparison. Many streets more closely resemble a bee hive than a functioning human society. When I flew into Mumbai, there were homeless people sleeping on the tarmac. Take a moment for that to sink in: the city is so crowded and disgusting that people decide they’d rather sleep on the airport runway.
And that is the second thing to strike you about India. The poverty. It is legitimate, take-your-breath-away poverty. Like the kind you see on TV charity ads, but far worse. And far more real. Limbless men stewing about in their own feces. Emaciated children playing on piles of garbage. A man with his leg literally rotting off to the bone, maggots and all, lying on the curb. It’s everywhere. The amount of suffering is indescribable. And it is unceasing. After a couple days, I was excited to hire a driver to go to Agra because I figured I’d be able to see some countryside and escape the stench and horrors of the city. But no. The entire four hours between Delhi and Agra was an unending stream of people, garbage and cars, with billows of dust drafting in our wake the whole way down.
My initial reaction the first few days was pure shock. But it quickly evolved into anger. How could a place like this be allowed to exist? How could normal people walk around with a clear conscience with so much shit and squalor festering about them? I felt indignant. Where was the social accountability? Where was the charity? Where the fuck was the government?
I’m no expert. And god knows my own country has plenty of problems. I’ve been to plenty of developing countries and seen plenty of poverty. But this was something else entirely. The sheer magnitude, more than anything, wrought a deeply emotional response out of me.
For the first time in my life, I finally grasped what inspires people to drop everything and move to a dirt hole in the middle of Africa and start feeding people. When confronted with that much suffering, it seems insane not to do it. People like Mother Teresa or Princess Diana or Bill Gates didn’t seem like such foreign actors anymore. I could feel what they must have felt, even if just for a moment. With my driver taking me on a full-day trip to Agra, I watched the endless poverty scroll by like a demented video game. I had an overwhelming urge to stop at an ATM and withdraw 25,000 Rupees and start handing money out to people at random. I started doing the math in my head. That’s roughly $500. I could hand out $25 to twenty people. $25 could probably feed these people for almost a month. How much of my monthly income would I be willing to give up to feed 20 people each month? At what number would I no longer be willing to do it? At what dollar amount did my morality begin and end?
The numbers began to make my head swirl. I was calculating my personal morality. I felt pathetic. And powerless. Like Oscar Schindler at the end of Schindler’s List, sobbing that his gold ring could have saved one more Jew, self-pitying yet noble at the same time. That Big Mac I had in the airport could have saved one more Indian! Damn you, value meal!
Things only got more surreal from there. At a security checkpoint, a kid brought up a real live cobra to my car window, scaring the living shit out of me and my fellow passengers. He then asked us for a rupee. We didn’t give him one. In another scenario, a Swedish girl in the car with us mentioned she should have given some starving boys her box of cookies. When we asked her why she didn’t, she calmly replied that little boys shouldn’t be eating cookies, that it’s bad for them.
In a Pizza Hut, every table had its own waitress. When I ordered hot wings as an appetizer my waitress duly congratulated me on making such an excellent culinary decision. Seriously. That’s what she said. As I looked around the restaurant, I saw each table occupied with fat, well-dressed Indians. I was reminded of the line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:
“He must be a king.”
“What makes you say that?”
“He doesn’t have shit all over him.”
In Pizza Hut, the Indian people did not have shit all over them, therefore I assumed they were kings. That and they all conspicuously had their Blackberry’s out for one seemingly nonchalant reason or another, silently bragging to one another across the restaurant between garlic sticks.
Meanwhile, out the window in front of the restaurant, a homeless boy (covered in shit) was attempting to pry open a boarded-up hot dog stand, presumably to find some scraps of food left inside. Stray dogs licked their open sores nearby. Trash milled about, blown by dust. And we, the fat, rich kings of Pizza Hut had our appetizers congratulated by personal staff. The mind boggled. The contradictions mounted. My cognitive dissonance flared. When the manager came by to ask me how I was enjoying my meal, my first thought was “This is fucking Pizza Hut. What’s wrong with you?” But I didn’t. I smiled and said “Fine, thanks.”
But the bizarro world of India didn’t always lead to anger. It could be charming as well. At the Taj Mahal, I was approached by an Indian guy my age who asked me to take a picture. I said sure and reached out to take his camera, assuming he wanted me to take a photo of him in front of the monument. But instead, he stepped away from me, pointed the camera at me, and as four of his friends surrounded me and draped their arms around me, snapped a photo. Minutes later, a small family of four requested the same. And then another family, but this time just me kneeling with their kids. Then a group of teenage boys who wanted a picture with my tattoo. As a tourist, I became part of the tourist attraction myself. Here we are at the Taj Mahal. And here we are with a white person. And here’s little Sandeep flexing his arm next to the big white man. Soon a crowd had gathered. Many of them hung around, nervously trying to speak English with me. Some of them simply stared for minutes on end. All of them beamed smiles of excitement.
The dust pervades every city and town, some with a smoggy golden hue, others with a gentle grey haze. It cakes the cars, the streetlights and the dead stray animals. It scratches at your throat and turns your snot black.
Indian culture itself is quite disorienting. The people can be incredibly warm and hospitable, or cold and rude depending on the context and how they know you. The conclusion I eventually came to is that if they already know you, or if they’re somehow benefiting from you, then they can be incredibly warm and open people. But if they don’t know you, or if they’re trying to get something out of you, then they are a prickly, conniving bunch.
The local I got to know the best was Sanjay, the 20-something year old who ran a hostel I stayed in. He had studied in London and been all over Europe so he was fairly westernized. He and I would stay up late together drinking cheap vodka, regaling each other with our travel stories. There was little else to do after nightfall in India but get drunk. And little felt more appropriate.
But what Sanjay told me about Indian people is bizarre but true. He said Indians will rarely, if ever, resort to violence. As a foreigner, you never have to worry about being robbed, or having a knife pulled on you, or getting beaten up by a gang of thugs and having your kidney carved out of you. And this is true. I’ve been to many shady parts of the world. But never did I once feel unsafe in India. Even late at night.
But, Sanjay said, an Indian will lie to your face. He’ll say anything to get what he wants from you. And most of them don’t see it as immoral or wrong. So on the one hand, they won’t stick a gun in your face to take your wallet. But they’ll hand you fake business cards and offer to sell you something that they don’t actually have, so that you’ll voluntarily empty your wallet to them on your own accord.
And I have to give them credit, they’re really convincing salespeople.
In Agra, our driver brought us to a handcrafted rug shop. Inside the shop I immediately knew what was coming: a “tour” of the rug factory where we would be cornered (literally) and pitched to buy one. I had seen this before in other countries and here I saw it coming a mile away. Yet the man came across as so unassuming, so genteel, so incredibly polite, it was impossible to not be won over. He showed us the individual thread counts of the rugs, how the rugs are meticulously woven by hand. He showed us how they design the patterns on elaborate grids and then translate them to their wooden weaves. He then took us downstairs, gave us beverages and launched into one of the most impressive sales pitches I’ve ever heard in my life. The man should be selling luxury cars in the United States. By the end of it, I was busy deciding which rug my mother would like the best. After some gentle bargaining, and some friendly gestures, I made the purchase and arranged to have it shipped to her in the US.
It was about an hour later in the car when I realized what had just happened. The elaborate setup. The way packages with American addresses had been set out just right for us to see. The pictures of “satisfied customers.” I knew what they were, and they were good. My stomach dropped. I’d been had. My mother would never see that rug.
But with only a couple hundred dollars lost, I got away fairly unscathed. An 18-year-old Canadian kid staying in our hostel got taken for thousands of dollars. A couple of Indians stopped him on the street, and with perfect English convinced him they worked for a travel agency. They then led him to their “office,” where they handed him “brochures” and “planned” out over a month’s worth of traveling and lodging, telling him the entire time that they were getting him the best deals and that they would pre-arrange every relevant tour. By the end of the hour, he had spent close to $2,000 and felt good about it. By the time he got back to the hostel his face was white. He realized what happened. He asked Sanjay about it and Sanjay told him to immediately call his bank in Canada and cancel the card. Tell them it had been stolen. There was no trip. No lodging. No travel agency. Just two Indian guys with silver tongues.
The travel scams aren’t limited to high-end tourist items either. Pirated DVD’s that don’t work. Taxis that let you off at the wrong place. Hotels that add suspicious “fees” at the last minute. You get harassed constantly on the streets: vendors following you for half a block trying to hock their useless shit to you. Luckily, I learned long ago the perfect remedy to street touts: iPod + sunglasses. Crank that shit up to 10 and just keep walking. What you can’t hear or see can’t bother you. Would-be harassers and hagglers bounce off you like flies.
But, to be fair, many Indians will go out of their way to be honest with you. There were multiple times where I thought the guy had asked for 50 Rupees when he had actually said something else, and instead of taking the extra money, he gave it back. Or like the time a taxi driver offered to show me a famous Minaret for free, for no other reason than because he was Muslim and thought I should see it. Or the kid in Gaya who rode me all the way back to my hotel on the back of his bike, for no other reason than he was excited to practice English with me. Or Sanjay, who on our third night drinking together, surprised me with an entire home-cooked meal made especially for me. Or my tour driver, who after dutifully driving us around for over 13 hours straight, teared up and hugged me when I gave him a 50% tip.
Like anywhere else, Indians aren’t all good or all bad. You simply get more of each social extreme. It’s unpredictable. Not to mention emotionally draining. The constant need to be on-guard is taxing on one’s psyche.
In Bangalore, I snapped. My taxi driver from the airport “forgot” to turn on the meter. Realizing this, I watched his odometer and counted the 30 kilometers we traveled. When we arrived, he tried to charge me for 50 kilometers. A shouting match ensued. I threw the money for 30km at him, grabbed my bag and walked into my hotel. He followed. He began pleading to the hotel clerk that I had refused to pay and that his price was the appropriate price. Now, with four people watching, I pulled out my laptop, connected to the wireless network, loaded Google Maps, and showed him that it was, in fact 30 kilometers from the airport to the hotel. My hands were shaking with anger by the time it finished loading. Luckily, he took my money and sulked off. At the door he turned around and said, “But you need to sign the receipt.” I shouted back, “Go fuck yourself.”
I moped into my room, frazzled and bitter. After almost three weeks of dealing with such nonsense, I was reaching my wit’s end. I would not be surprised if I ended up punching someone over something menial soon. I lost it with the taxi driver. And when I did the math in my head, it was just $4. I freaked out over $4.
Luckily I was leaving soon, heading to Singapore in a few days, back to civilization. I laid out on my bed, took a deep breath and opened my laptop. In the inbox was an email from my mom: “Thanks for the rug, I love it!”
In the northern foothills of the Himalayas, the dust morphs into an awkward haze. It sticks to the horizon. Trash still permeates the small villages, although in smaller heaps, many of them charred from their daily burnings. The beggars seem less down-trodden. Cows sprinkle the roadways in between tuk-tuks and overflowing caravans. For the most part, the crowds have dissipated.
India attracts a wide variety of spiritual-seekers, lost western souls criss-crossing its geography in search of meaning or of themselves. India is the cradle to two of the oldest major religions in the world: Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which, unlike their western counterparts, focus predominantly on a first-person perspective of spiritual development. Having been interested in Buddhism for over a decade and having spent much of my college years meditating and attending retreats, my interest was piqued by the plethora of ashrams, gurus, and Dharma groups available.
The reality was a let down. There’s no other way to describe the phenomenon other than what it is: spiritual tourism. Which is somewhat of an oxymoron, especially in Buddhism. And also disheartening as it falls victim to the same scam-inducing practices as India’s other tourist markets. Scattered around places like Bodhgaya and Goa, flyers are shoved in your face, street peddlers try to convince you that they can take you to the best ashram in town (as if there’s a “best” way to do yoga). Some even promise enlightenment… for 10,000 Rupees a week. Now, I’m sure there are legitimate and profound retreats and ashrams in India. But the whole process felt cheap and inauthentic.
Children tried to sell marijuana around yoga retreat centers. And it was apparent why: the dreadlocked, tie-dyed, mid-life-crisis’ed Western clientele who streamed through enthusiastically buying from them told you all you needed to know about the scene. Two westerners I spoke to in Bodhgaya, where I considered sitting in on a retreat for a couple days, told me that they had never meditated before and were excited to learn it in India. When I mentioned that one could learn to meditate in 10 minutes at home to see if they actually liked it, they replied, “Yeah, but it’s so much cooler to do it in India.” My mind’s eye could just see The Buddha face-palming at that statement.
One girl tried to brag to me that she had visions of Krishna in the northern mountains and that she thinks she may convert to Hinduism. When it came out that she had been smoking local hashish every day for weeks on end, I pointed out that these two things may not be a coincidence. She didn’t like hearing that.
Perhaps it was my own arrogance, but it saddened me. My belief has always been that spirituality is something that is experienced personally, not measured, compared, or quantified. Meditating on a loud bus in Chicago can be just as profound as meditating under the Bodhi Tree itself. In a religion whose whole belief system revolves around impermanence, unattachment to the material world, and equanimity, making a 4,000 mile pilgrimage to a tree in the middle of Nowhere, India, for bragging rights seems, well… counterproductive. I can see the interest historically, and perhaps emotionally, but spiritually, there’s not a whole lot of difference. And so as I passed the flyers, and the hippies with their braids and skullcaps, it became harder and harder not to be a little bitter. I understand that pilgrimages and capitalizing on your most holy site are pretty standard for all of the world’s religions. But I guess in my mind I held out hope that Buddhism was different. And actually, Buddhism is different. It’s the followers who aren’t.
(Or maybe I just don’t like hippies.)
But I can’t help but feel that the volume of poverty in India is related to the solipsistic tendencies of the religions based there. I also can’t help but feel that foreigners regularly mistake being pushed so far out of their cultural comfort-zone as some sort of spiritual experience. When the human mind is presented with paradoxical conditions, it usually reacts with inexplicable feelings and often invents a supernatural explanation for them. And India is rife with paradoxical conditions.
The most beneficial effect of traveling that I’ve found is that it forces you to become more confident and independent in a million, tiny, unnoticeable ways that add up to a great, noticeable whole. The more difficult and exotic the culture, the more it challenges you, the more it engages you on an emotional level, and the more you grow in intangible and personal ways.
Perhaps there’s nothing inherently “spiritual” about the sub-continent, it’s just the most extreme cultural experience a westerner can subject themselves to and, as a result, grow from.
Every country we go to, our natural inclination is to search for some kind of greater meaning. “China’s finally making the leap,” or “Latin culture is exceedingly passionate,” or “Corruption dominates Russia,” — all of these trite little platitudes that we bring home with us and spill amongst our friends and loved ones to show that we did something significant, that we learned something interesting. This is where I went. This is the meaning. All in one or two sentences.
There’s no single sentence for India. The place is a fucking mess. And it’s the only country that I’ve ever been to where I left more confused than when I arrived. My search for meaning came up empty time and time again.
One day in Bodhgaya, a small town of maybe a few thousand people, I ate at an outdoor restaurant in the town square. Beggars, shirtless children and cows littered the square, along with a few assorted street vendors. I had just returned from touring the temple built for the place The Buddha had become enlightened. Looking out over the town square from my large plate of curry, I watched the beggars stew about, completely ignored by the townspeople. By this time my search for meaning in this land had become frantic, and my emotions fried. I looked at the mound of food before me. It had cost $2.50 US dollars and could feed multiple people. I called the waiter over and ordered another one.
The two nearest beggars were an old man and woman together, huddled on the ground, clothes tattered, white hair and beard matted and dirty. They looked up at me with their emaciated arms outstretched in cups, the same cupped hands one would use to drink from a river. Their eyes sank into their sockets. They seemed to look beyond me. I put the second plate of food down in front of them like a pair of dogs. They looked at it wide-eyed for a moment, and began shoveling the food into their faces as fast as they could.
Curry dripped from the man’s beard. Rice mashed into his black fingernails. Bits of chicken spattered on the ground below them. I stood there watching for a few seconds, expecting something. What? I don’t know. But I wanted to feel something. I wanted to feel like there was some purpose to all of this. That I could walk away with something important from my whole experience.
But instead I felt helpless. It was like I had just put a band-aid on the Titanic. He’s going to go digging through garbage again in a couple hours. He didn’t even look at me. What’s the point?
Obviously, I’m no Mother Teresa. And it’s just as well; Mother Teresa couldn’t save this society from itself. Sometimes human systems become so large that they hurt people, not by design, but by inertia. And it’s beyond any of our ability to grasp, let alone control.
The townspeople had seen what I had just done. And within seconds, a boy approaches me and asks me to buy him a soccer ball. I tell him no and begin to walk away. He follows. Then another man comes up wanting to sell me pirated Bollywood DVD’s. I also tell him no. He gets upset, “You give food to a beggar, but you won’t even buy a DVD from me? Why not?” He felt like I committed some terrible injustice against him.
A crowd was beginning to form around me, looking for handouts. I quietly put on my headphones and sunglasses, turned my iPod up to full blast, and walked through the dust.
Update: I want to thank all of the Indian readers who commented (yes, even the criticisms). I have promised to return to India one day and give it another chance, this time doing more research about the country and spending more time in the non-urban areas.