In India, for everything that I found, there was always something else to discover below. Every scene that you find is just one of many layers. While exploring and traveling, my friends and I would often exclaim, throwing our gaze around a red-stoned fort or a chic rooftop restaurant or an expanse of white-topped mountains: “This is India.” Each time, we were correct, in a way. Yet, I also found that the phrase – and the impulse to be able to put a cap on the country, to know it all, to define it – was deceptively dangerous.
There are many faces of India. There are those that I wanted to change. I wished that the Ladies’ Car in the metro was not needed, that woman did not need to ride separately from men in order to feel safe. I hated that no matter how I tried to blend in with my clothes and my mannerisms, I would never be mistaken for anything other than a tourist. I hated the traffic, especially because most streets lacked sidewalks. I reeled every day at the poverty that I saw, made more startling because it was so directly contrasted with the wealth in this quickly developing and diverse country. The rooftop bar at a hotel had bottles of champagne on its menu which sold for over one hundred U.S. dollars, and when I looked up from this extravagant list, I could see the blue patchwork of tarps in slums spreading over the surface of the city below. Outside of a modern, exclusive restaurant, I saw young girls coming out from a sweet sixteen party, walking uncertainly on towering heels and clutching designer purses, being approached by beggars.
There were other faces that I loved. I loved the hot sweet cups of tea served for breakfast and twice a day in the office, the omnipresent and ambiguous head bobble, the stylish billowing pants and patterned tunics that my female coworkers wore, the Bollywood music pulsing from the radios in auto-rickshaws and cabs, the bright pink flowery sign that marked the Ladies’ Car in the metro, the summer mangoes, and the vibrant rolling local languages. Smiling strangers stopped to talk with me when I was crossing the street or buying fruit, asking where I was from, why I was there. I wished so badly that I could speak Hindi that I could have longer conversations with them. I loved the reverence and the gratitude that people had their possessions and their successes – the charms hanging from rearview mirrors, the paintings on large trucks, the way that my coworkers brought sweets to the office to celebrate buying a new house or motorcycle.
On the weekends, I had the chance to leave Delhi, and found that every place brought a new round of revelations and contradictions. In Agra, the Taj Mahal caused me to step back and take a breath of surprise. It was the most magnificent building that I have seen, and it was untarnished by all of the hype that I had heard about it before actually visiting. Outside the gates, the peace and majesty gave way to commercialism, as vendors tried to coax us into buying snow globes and post cards (a few of which, I must confess, we did purchase). Jaipur, known as the Pink City, had the same hot, dry air as Delhi, but felt much smaller – a charming, quieter neighbor. There, we watched a Bollywood film in a movie theater, where the audience (as interactive as those in the Garden Theater) whooped every time that the principal male and female characters looked at each other. The majority of the movie-goers wore outfits which covered them from wrists to ankles, yet cheered when these characters tumbled into bed together.
What I encountered in India was in turns tragic, funny, nauseating, and inspiring. I was often left spinning, and I will use my confusion as an excuse for why I tried so hard to be able to point at something – or at least, a few things – and say that this was India. All of it undeniably “was India,” but claiming that any of it defined the country is wrong. India is 1.2 billion different faces and experiences. It is the echo of the other cultures that have passed through it – Mughal, British, Portuguese – and just like every other modern country today, it has a mish-mash of ideas and pop-culture from around the world, brought by not only by airplanes but also by the world wide web and radio waves. Try as I might, I could not simplify my experience in India, and in fact, it is more exciting not to – instead to try the challenging but more rewarding task of expanding my view. After twelve weeks, I do not understand Delhi, much less India. I cannot begin to explain them to you. But I can say – I want to come back.
~ Shannon McGue '15
© 2014 Princeton Traveler