My grandmother on my moms side is actually 100% descended from Indian blood. This is a short story I wrote after my first visit to India, in 2006. Things haven’t changed much.
Here I am in the motherland. I am here for only one-hundred-and-nine hours, and that isn’t near enough time to absorb any of this country. I have been forewarned that India is so ugly, I’ll love it. I am surrounded by poverty and disgusted by filth, but there really is something so charming about the discomforts I feel. My experiences are only skin deep, my five senses bombarded, and I have yet to recover from the initial shock. After a while my mind overloads and sensations stop registering at all. This is when I close my eyes, inhale, exhale, and start over, just to feel again.
* * *
I am here in India surrounded by chocolate-colored faces that look wise and worn with crusted Hindi dots between their eyes. Heads like coffee-beans float comedically in their bobble-head shakes, but I have yet to figure out what the nod really means. All the women wear saris, each a different shade of the rainbow adorned with some form of sparkly trim. In Jaipur, the row of markets are equally dazzling in their broad array of bright colors, but when I get closer, I notice the thin film of dirt and dust covering all the items, even the shop owners.
Maneuvering through the streets is a constant struggle. I am easily side tracked by the large array of vehicles encircling me, perplexed at how camels, donkey-carts, 3-wheeled yellow rickshaws, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians can share the road in an organized way. When I think it may be safer to take a rickshaw, I’m nauseated at the abrupt stop/go braking and the last minute diversions from holy cows interrupting our path.
I try doubly hard to enjoy the tourist attractions while tourist-hungry locals intrude on my peace. At the Taj Mahal in Agra, I give the same cold reaction to middle-aged men elbowing me in the breast trying to sell jingling anklets as I do little children tugging on my sides with the fingertips of one hand moving frantically from their lips to their stomach and back.
My senses again go into overdrive. Not even my imagination is flexible enough to understand the bewildering chaos around me. Blink, inhale, exhale, restart.
* * *
India is hot and sunny, with a beautiful coast line framing the south east city of Chennai. I dare not get too close and ruin the beauty and magic I believe to still exist there, but make sure to visit the beach late one night when everything is safely hidden in a blanket of blackness. I run barefoot across the sand that feels like cold diamonds under my soles and frolic in the shallow wake of the Indian Ocean that I am equally hesitant to see in the light of day. The wave sends a cold chill up my legs that is convincingly refreshing, so I chose not to think about how dirty I know the water really is.
The air in India is a sticky humid like sitting in the backseat of a car with no air-conditioning all day. It tastes like a lung full of carbon monoxide laden with piss and curry. My ears constantly ring with the sound of traffic and the occasional attacks in Hindi and Tamil for food, taxis, or just plain old hand-outs. Cow shit and garbage blanket the curbs and walkways in a grandeur way, acting as a red carpet walkway for the locals to strut. The streets transform overnight into a large, never ending mattress as the homeless make beds of the concrete. Once the sun breaks, individuals claim parts of the sidewalk as private kitchens or public bathrooms, depending on which corner they wake up on.
Back at my hotel in New Delhi, my cold shower in a bathtub stolen from a spider is the only escape from the suffocating uncleanliness surrounding me. I feel like now I can finally breathe as more and more water streams over my face, down my body, eyes clenched shut.
* * *
The chaos and discomforts are so intense that they invigorate an awakened consciousness within me. I am enamored by all the overwhelming sensations because I have never felt more alive. By the time that I return to my temporary home on the MV Explorer, I’m exhausted. I have forfeited any attempts to separate my memories, and given up trying to make sense of them. India has become one large sensual blur and I’ve left mentally dysfunctional.
* * *
The chaotic scramble across the country had plummeted my mind and body into thirty-six hours of unconscious recovery. I did not even leave my room to eat; I only woke to use the bathroom. I left India with an upset stomach, a high fever, orange stained henna across my hands and a complicated confusion mildly augmented by the few drinks I had had that last night. I truly had no understanding of what it meant to be part Indian until visiting India and experiencing the culture firsthand. Although I was not fully prepared for the intensity of India, I learned to find the beauty hidden within the layers of dirt and poverty. Even after being hurled into extreme culture shock, I could learn to love this place. As much as I wanted to leave and never return, there is an unconditional love that I have for my heritage that has maintained my affection for India. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am, staring me straight in the eyes, slapping me upside the head in a painful reality. Blink, inhale, exhale…
This is my heritage, this is my identity. I loved it as much as I hated it.