Chaos

“How is India?” 

I’ve gotten that question many times from loved ones and friends. I don’t mind being asked it because every time it crops up I wonder how to answer it, and each time I wonder I come to a different conclusion. 

I generally tell people that it’s great. Tough, but great. It’s never the truth though. It is perhaps a close approximation of the truth, or, more likely, it is a catch-all answer that is just enough to satisfy the recipient. 

Feeling at loss, I spent some time asking other foreigners here what they make of India. “I love it,” said one.

“Why?” 

“The chaos,” she said. 

How can I lay claim to the title of writer when I can’t put this place into words? 

“The chaos,” she said. 

Here is India, then, in words.

Take a newspaper, a Bible, and any assortment of novels and books of poetry. Cut them all up into bits. Make them a pile of phrases on the floor and pick a few at random. The sentence made from these fragments will most likely be nonsense—chaos—but, undoubtedly, the truth of this place will be there. Dim, only seen in a glance, but there somewhere in the chaos. 

The Train

The imagined horrors of a two day train ride in India far out-weigh the actual discomfort of the journey. There are endless hours of footage of the desperation, grime, and poverty of the Indian railway sleeping somewhere in news stations the world over. These were the images I couldn’t shake when our tickets had finally been booked, but the reality was not so bad. We booked 3AC, which is the cheapest of the “luxury” travel options, 1AC being the highest. With our booking we were provided bunk beds, a sheet, and a blanket. 3AC is, however, the most crowded of the high-end options, so our journey was fairly noisy. 

The noise bothered me at first, especially the loud belching of the woman below me, whose burps I can only describe as “chewy.” 

How could I stay angry, though, when at lunch time she and her family offered us bread, butter, and sweets? 

So, outside of the burps, the journey was smooth. I mostly just read and slept. Had I been in the cars with no beds, however, I’m sure I would be whistling a different tune. There is undoubtedly a group of people who would claim I have no basis upon which to judge the train experience in India because I didn’t go with the roughest sleeping option. I’m not trying to generalize the Indian railway experience here; I’m just relaying what I got out of the endeavor. 

We were supposed to arrive in Varanasi at noon, and I had read online that the train is typically delayed ten minutes at the final terminus, not, as it turned out, two hours.

Billy handled this delay with his usual tact. I, on the other hand, was seething. The anger came from my fear that I was now delayed in letting my loved ones know I was safe. I absolutely hate the idea of them worrying about me, and I felt completely helpless with no way to get in touch with them, surrounded by people who spoke no English who couldn’t communicate the situation to me. That feeling of helplessness quickly transformed into anger. 

This, they say, is one of the benefits of practicing mediation: that in a time like that I would have been able to calm myself and sooth my racing mind. I don’t doubt the truth of that assertion, but I want to preserve all of my emotions, even if they’re occasionally good-for-nothing or damaging. If I’m a poor Christian than I’m an abysmal Buddhist. I want to keep my “monkey mind” that constantly clatters out ideas and reflections. I want to not just feel emotions but to act upon them too. I want to have opinions and principles that I am willing to uphold. I want I want I want. 

But I will be free from suffering if I dedicate my life to surrendering desire. At least that’s the claim, anyway. Nirvana. Total enlightenment. Supreme mental clarity. 

Sounds boring to me. I will endure suffering if it comes at the price of actually living a life, as opposed to withdrawing into some pallid cloister where one may never taste the disposition to love and hate, or indeed acknowledge any of those passions that make us human. 

“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” says Shelley in his famous “Ode to the West Wind.” Better to have fallen and bled, and to have taken that two-day train ride, than to have sat at home, trying to ignore my human impulses.

Reflections After Ravandur

“India is everything,” says our host. “Here you can find the best of humanity and the absolute worst, often times on the same street.” If Martians were to land on earth and ask for the best representation of human life, I would point to India, for what our host says is true. 

Good and bad exist everywhere, but of all the places I’ve been so far India exhibits the two virtues in closest proximity to each other. Our host tells us there is a word in Hindi that expresses the notion that foreigners should be treated like gods. “If they take the time to come to India, they deserve to be treated like deities” he said. This explains why the British were able to exploit and occupy India for so long. 

And this is what I mean when I talk about the proximity of the good and bad here. The genuine act of human kindness that welcomes and reveres foreigners can be so easily perverted into something wicked. The good here balances upon a sphere, and with only the slightest adjustment topples the good into misery. 

Our host tells us of his neighbor growing up, how his neighbor now works in IT and makes tons of money, and how his neighbor threw such an extravagant wedding, buying his bride a brand new luxury car, but he didn’t invite his own mother, blind and alone at home; he couldn’t be bothered to figure out a way to get her to the venue. Our host now takes care of his neighbor’s mother, the rest of the family being too caught up with sudden wealth and extravagance.

I would tell that Martian to examine India because of stories like these, but there’s more to it than just the close presence of good and evil. I would tell him to investigate here because here he might also see that, despite continually being toppled, the good, like our venerable host, always climbs back up on that sphere. 

Yoga

Like massage, yoga joins the ranks of things I was told are relaxing but are really masochistic. 

Our host is a yoga pro. He has been practicing his entire life and has taught in numerous places around the world. I have no doubts of his skill and compassion in teaching the art of yoga. However, there is only so much gymnastics one can teach a dog. 

I have the same affinity for yoga as the dog has for gymnastics. Sure, I’ve learned the basic poses and breathing exercises, but the positions are only half of yoga. The other arguably more important half is the mind. Our host laments the fact that yoga is seen as merely exercise in the west, for the spiritual half is what the humdrum minds of westerners really need. 

The poses, I’m told, continue to be painful so long as the practitioner does not clear his or her mind and focus on breathing, and, go figure, it’s hard to breath normally while posed like someone who was just told to stand in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. 

Like Buddhism, yoga has attain a substantial following of annoying white people. That’s the only thing I can say about them, though, is that they annoy me. I lack the patience and spirituality to grasp the finer points of yoga and eastern philosophy in general, but if it works for people, all the power to them. 

What annoys me about westerners who praise eastern philosophy as some kind of silver bullet is their insistence that spirituality doesn’t exist in the west. This is of course not true. Having been in eastern countries for a few months now I feel comfortable admitting that here, spirituality is far more public. In the west, our spirituality is hidden in churches and the writings of great thinkers, but mostly it is hidden within our selves.

In the west, spirituality has no business with the public, even though it often times makes ugly appearances in the public sphere. In India, however, spirituality is expected to be present in the everyday. When we begin practice yoga in the morning we must first perform a few sun salutations, which are successive positions that somehow give praise and thanks to the sun. These positions are not just meaningless flailings. They are meant to be practiced with the same sincerity with which one practices evening prayer. 

Part of the work here has been helping to construct a pond, and before even the first stone was laid, we all stood solemnly by as a puja was performed. A puja can be many things I’m told, but most of the time it is a sacrifice in order to ensure good fortune and prosperity. In this case a few bananas and a pomegranate were the unfortunate victims. 

The spirituality is out in the open here, just as it can be out in the open in the west, but these outward displays of faith are typically Christian, and are usually met with skepticism.

Some of this skepticism no doubt stems from the elements of fantasy in the Bible, the promise of salvation through faith being perhaps the hardest pill to swallow. But eastern religions and philosophies have their own versions of salvation, and why these variations should be treated with less skepticism is to me unfathomable.

I originally intended to write about how comical my struggle with yoga is but here we are. This ended up being about a different kind of struggle I suppose.

Diwali

The only familiarity I can claim with the Indian holiday of Diwali is what I learned from that episode of The Office, wherein Michael Scott mistakes it to be the Hindu equivalent of Halloween. 

Now that I have been in India for Diwali I can tell you that it is nothing like Halloween. In fact, I know no western holiday by which to compare it. Diwali has many facets, but I’m told that the most important part is celebrating light overcoming darkness. This victory is not just symbolic, because according to Hindu tradition, Diwali celebrates Krishna’s victory over Narakasura, who was some kind of evil god or demon. 

We have been trying to get to bed early here, but we were unable to ignore the fireworks and parades passing just outside, so we sauntered out to see what all the fuss was about. 

Outside all the households were candles, and with the aid of fireworks and sparklers, the night felt as bright as mid-day. Making its slow way down the street was some kind of beautiful flower arrangement being carried on a stretcher by four men. Leading the whole procession was a troop of at least ten drummers, accompanied by some guys who were playing horns that looked like something out of a fantasy novel. The horns wrapped around the bodies of the players like thin snakes; the bell of the instrument was small and gaped high above the parade.

I asked a guy next to me what the flower arrangement was, but I couldn’t hear his reply over the drums, horns, and fireworks. Whatever it was it moved at a glacial pace. Some poor truck driver got stuck behind it, and judging by his expression when he passed me, his enthusiasm for Diwali was damn near gone. 

It stopped every ten feet or so, and every time it stopped someone would adjust the flowers and pray. It seemed like it would never pass us by, but then there it was, lurching away, leaving me in the kind of stupor I feel after waking from a dream.

Sisyphus

Our host is constructing a pond in his organic garden. I have no experience in pond construction, but when your host asks for help, you oblige him or her. All Billy and I had to do was help the other workers move stones into the ditch. I’ve moved stones before, how much harder could this be?

I have never moved stones under the relentless Indian sun, however. It has been cloudy for the last few days, but of course the clouds part for the day that we have to do physical labor. All the workers watched us as we approached. These were not Workawayers but actual local workers. They all seemed genuinely amused at our presence. I could not share their amusement after laying eyes upon the imposing pile of rocks. Calling them rocks is kind—these were boulders. 

None of the workers spoke English. The only phrase they seemed to know was “little rocks,” which they kept repeating anytime Billy and I attempted to move a stone larger than a fist. Apparently our host had told the workers to only let us move small rocks, which was humiliating at first, carrying stones barely larger than my head while the other workers hoisted boulders the size torsos over their shoulders. After about half an hour, though, the humiliation turned into gratitude. Walking back and forth into and out of a ditch carrying stones under the vicious mid-day sun in ninety degree weather takes its toll quickly, and had we been moving some of those boulders I think we would have passed out. 

This is why people tell you to stay in school, I realized. You see people working crappy jobs and that advice comes to mind, but to actually experience that crappy job, just for a day, is enough to make you appreciate the truth of that sentiment. A high school or college education is no guarantee against moving boulders for a living, but an education makes such an occupation a far less likely outcome in life.

Once I got over the heat, I didn’t mind the work. Repetitive physical work allows my mind to wander, and no one is trying to talk to you while you’re working, so you’re free to be lost in your own thoughts. But if this were my life, day in and day out with no end in sight, things would be different. 

The man who I assume is the foreman points and speaks to the workers in rapid Hindi. He has the largest belly of the assembly, and hasn’t touched a single stone, I assume because he doesn’t want to get dirt and dust on his white pants and shirt. He chatters orders and we move back and forth, picking up rocks and dropping them along the inside edges of the ditch. 

Our host eventually emerges. I have no idea how long it has been. He tells us to take a break, that there will be chai served for everyone in a minute. I hoped I had misheard him, but sure enough within moments I had a paper cup of hot tea in my hand. This was the height of absurdity: drinking a hot beverage after working in ninety degree weather. 

Billy and I retreated to a shaded spot to drink our tea. 

Billy. Now I really feel like I’m in India. 

Elliott. How’s that? 

Billy. I’m covered in dirt and I’m drinking hot tea after doing physical work under the blistering sun. Plus there are cows everywhere. 

Elliott. What we really need is water. 

Billy. Yeah. I won’t feel embarrassed asking for it at this point. Plus I’ll need to shower. 

He looks down at his clothes, which are covered in dust and grime.

Billy. Well, I guess these are my work clothes now. 

Elliott. Isn’t today Diwali? 

Billy. Oh yeah. 

We look out at the barren stretch of dirt where the rocks are piled. Dust mingles with rapid Hindi in the oven-like air. 

Billy. Happy Diwali dude.

The Tuesday Market

Our host took us to a local open-air market that occurs every Tuesday. I thought I might have a sense of what this market would be like, having spent some time in the open air market in Chiang Mai. The market here was much smaller than the one in Chiang Mai, however, and less built up by far. Perhaps twenty to thirty vendors sat on the ground surrounded by their wares, which were typically produce, spices, and dyes. 

Our host is usually hosting at least one foreigner every month, so locals have become used to seeing him with foreigners, but I don’t think they’re fully used to seeing foreigners in general. 

Traveling through Asian countries, we’ve become accustomed to the stares, but here the stare is much more intense, mostly because we are the only foreigners in this village and perhaps the only foreigners for miles. 

The intensity of the stare is also due in part to the feeling of opportunity that comes along with it. Foreigners have money and a sometimes naïve desire to feel like they’re helping, which makes them a great way to earn a few extra rupee. 

This is in no way devious on the part of the locals. Poverty here isn’t just something you see on TV, it directly impacts you and everything you see. Walking into the market, I was acutely aware of the fact that my glasses cost more money than some here see in a year. It’s an uncomfortable situation because never have I seen such actual poverty, but I also see no immediate ways for locals to escape this vicious poverty.

Of course, none of this is really news. You don’t have to visit India to see pictures and videos of what it’s like here in a small village, but it’s one thing to watch and another to actually see first hand. 

My American ingenuity sees this poverty and wonders how to fix it. I know, though, that I can’t fix this. Scores of people have already tried. You have seen them, or at least you have seen their campaigns being run at your local church or YMCA: “Donating just five dollars can feed a family for a week! Donate now and make a difference!” 

A handful will donate, but the rest will remain indifferent. I can’t say what camp I will fall into when I return home after seeing the poverty first hand. I would have more justification for donating than most, but I also would have ample reason for refusing. “I’ve been there,” I would say, “and it’s going to take a lot more than donated dollars to fix the systemic problems.” 

Dollars are a good place to start, people will say. Dollars for what though? Food and water are of course necessary but if the problem really is to be addressed money would have to be spent on education. Good education, for everyone. 

Again, none of this is news. Spending on education is much harder than spending on food and water. I’m not trying to slag off people who donate to these kinds of campaigns, by the way. I’m just pointing out in my own terms the obvious truth, that things are complicated and aren’t resolved by clicking “Donate.” 

The only thing I can say with certainty is this: if you are currently raising a child who is acting like a spoiled little shit bring him or her to the Tuesday market in Ravandur, India. Let your child see how people here get along with so little. Maybe you need to see it too.