Saturday, October 08, 2011

Incredible India!

India. Guaranteed to bamboozle your senses. This country is a true overload of colours, smells, sights and tastes. How it manages all this, and more, within ten minutes of your arrival on the subcontinent, really, is quite impressive.

Our first port of call was Delhi. We stepped out of the modern, air-conditioned airport, and into a wall of hot, sticky, smelly Delhi-ness. Then, on to Delhi's brand spankin' new, ultra-modern Airport Express metro line that wizzes passengers from the airport to downtown in a mere 16 minutes, all while telling you, in English, in that unique English/Hindi accent (Hinglish), where to 'alight'. A complete contrast to the outside world. Its like being on London's 'Gatwick Express,' only cleaner, sleeker, faster, and a tenth of the price. Weird, but wonderful. Then, of course, you arrive at the New Delhi station (too bad it only takes 16 minutes- because that is one luxurious quarter hour) and are thrown from the comfy-cool metro Delhi back into the hot, sticky above-ground Delhi. Couldn't we just stay on the train? I asked Jonathan, sweating withing seconds of 'alighting'. Apparently not.

India's capital is hot, loud, polluted, frantic, chaotically busy, and hot. Did I mention hot? But, really- its just fascinating. I had prepared myself, mentally, for India. Expecting to have to dodge the dodgy constantly and out trick tricksters on the side. But, there we were, standing outside the New Delhi Rail Station and we had yet to have anyone even talk to us, let alone be bothersome. Seriously, no one had talked to us, not even the Indian immigration officer, who just grunted while (rather) forcefully stamping our passports, and that doesn't really count as a conversation as far as I am concerned... It felt like an accomplishment. We had made it this far, without incident. Maybe some rickshaw wanted to take us somewhere, and maybe some guy on the side of the road wanted to sell us a drum or something equally as useless, and definitely everyone tried their darndest to run us over, but it was in no way, at all, the hassle I was expecting (and dreading). Maybe all this chaos is just normal to us now? Maybe taking your life in your hands crossing the road is a given? Maybe we looked like seasoned travellers, not to be bothered? Maybe it was just too hot for people to be annoying? Maybe they were intimidated by Werewolf Jonathan? Who knows? But whatever the reason, Delhi, to us, was a breeze. (Relatively speaking...but without an actual breeze). And, everyone speaks English! What an absolute treat!

India has poverty, the likes of which I have never seen before, and barely like to imagine. In China, they planted huge, emerald rice fields along the train tracks, long long ago, purposefully to paint a picture of China's abundance for train travellers. In India, there was no such scheming foresight. From our grubby, wide open, second-class, train window, the images we saw also leave poignant images in our memory- although of the significantly less pretty sort. People not only live beside the railroad tracks in India. They live on them. On them. Many Indians die because of this. The slums our train passed through on its way from Delhi to Amritsar, were simply shocking. There is no doubt that my jaw was literally hanging open in a mix disbelief, horror and fascination. People live there? Some areas looked as though there had once been a building there. Only it was blown up. Fragments that remained were painted odd, super bright colours. Plastic sheets, ropes and scraps of corrugated metal were somehow strung together haphazardly (or perhaps not) to close the wreckage in. Tiny little spaces held a large number of people.

When we stopped at train stations, small begger children approached our open windows, hoping for handouts. They aren't shy about it either. They stick their little hands through the window bars and poke at your arm until you pay attention to them. Then they look at you with their watery, brown, shiny eyes and put their hands to their mouth- showing that they want food. It was very hard to look at their ragged clothing, dirty skin and scrawny bodies: Many of us from the West have seen beggars before, but here, in India, the poverty is different; it is real in a way that might be hard to fathom. 'Give me your chocolate!' one child demanded. I would have laughed, seeing as the kid had chosen the person on the train who would be most likely to have chocolate, but it was too sad. Older beggars boarded the trains and played music, sang, banged their tin beggar bowls on our seats or just stuck their hands in our face for a long, awkward period of time. Second class train travel is a constant string of people trying to convince you to part with your rupees. Either in exchange for whatever they are selling, or just because they want it. It was exhausting for me, so I can't imagine what it would be like to be on the other end.

While in Delhi we spent a moving afternoon at the Gandhi Smirti. This is where Mahatma Gandhi spent the last months of his life, and where he was assassinated. In a loud, chaotic city, and for being a place where such a tragedy occurred, the Smirti was a quiet, even peaceful sanctuary. The house in which he lived has been converted into a very interesting, interactive museum dedicated to Gandhi's life and works. Gandhi's bedroom and living areas have been left just as they had been. The walls are all white. The only decoration is a small framed piece of paper that reads, fittingly: 'My life is my message,' one of Gandhi's famous quotes. The garden path that Gandhi took to his nightly prayer spot, the night he was shot, has been outlined by small concrete footprints to a small gazebo built in the exact spot he was killed by the Hindu extremist. Visitors can walk along side where the Mahatma took his last steps.

India reveres Gandhi, and for good reason. He was instrumental in their independence, he empowered his people and was passionate about his country, their happiness and prosperity. The Mahatma, a name which means 'Great Soul,' adorns every Indian Rupee note. Being at the Gandhi Smirti where one of the greatest Indians of all time lived out his last days was the number one highlight of Delhi.

J: From childhood I've played a "connections" type of game with myself not completely unlike the Seven Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon. I have always been interested in overlapping lives (aka Who do I personally know who was alive when this person was living or that situation happened?). Gandhi, more than any other person in this little game, is most special to me for a few reasons. One reason is that he was such an important historical figure. He had a lot to say about how costly real peace is but was also a living example of how a person can strive for peace despite this reality. Too, along the way he was both serious and funny...and had a penchant for simple dress: something I have an personal affinity for, especially back in Canada. To be more precise, though, I should say his death is particularly special to me (I know that sounds morbid, but I promise you its not). The other reason is how clearly I can picture the day he was assassinated. Its not Gandhi's day that I spend much time envisioning, though. Its the day of my "personal connection" with Gandhi that I have thought so much about: my dad. The date and time of the assassination make it very easy for me recreate my dad's day: he was exactly fifteen days old. Even without being a parent myself, I know there isn't much to the daily routine of a fifteen-day-old infant. Taking the time change into account, it was about midday for my dad. He was either sleeping or feeding at the time (or having his diaper changed, I suppose). He probably cried a little bit that day and was comforted and made to feel safe in Nanny's arms. On top of this, I can also picture Nanny attending to some sick despite having a newborn. And Pappy was probably beaming because of his young son and this could be seen clearly by all the villagers he was working with. Numbers help me think more clearly and having a specific time and date so close to my dad's birth lends itself quite nicely here. To stand right were Gandhi was gunned down and be able to paint that exact hour in my dad's day a continent away, was quite a powerful moment for me and not one I will soon forget.

ps. Yes, our India blogs are a bit out of order. Kinda like the country.

pps. Happy Anniversary (in two days) to Walter and Penelope!!

No comments: