India: Dispatches from the In Between Place

Today marks one full week here in India.

It has been seven days packed full of revelations, to be sure. The biggest and most mind-altering revelation so far has perhaps been how quickly you can accept an altered state of reality when you land in a place that is so utterly, bafflingly, bewitchingly foreign. How the instinct is always to start plotting out coordinates, even after the map has been wiped entirely clean.

There have been a few close shaves, a few figurative haircuts and a few rather unceremonious dressings down, but mostly we plod along in a state of ease and wonderment. Mostly, we enjoy the view and laugh at the strangeness of all things. Mostly, we struggle to remember that a place called “home” even exists at all.

“We’re in Middle Earth,” Emily tells me, at least once a day. Like as in, not really here in India. Not completely. But not at home in the United States, either.

Not by the longest of shots.

India feels in frequent moments like the shadings of a bizarre and elaborate dream. All the palm trees and garbage piles and cocohuts and garish mansions and grinning beggars and distracted street sweepers and crabby, sunbathing cows merely a fantastical, sub-subconsciously wrought amalgam of places I’ve already been – Thailand, or El Salvador, or Greece, or Korea. A land I willed into existence.

And maybe it is. I’ve dreamt of India since I was a kid, for no particular reason. During my 20s, I had the same dream perhaps 10 times over: me, wandering a dusty, rambling, Indian bazaar at the edge of the earth, draped in a red sari and barefoot. And the horizon dotted by these enormous, shabby, crumbling colonial houses whose unlit rooms I would wander through slowly and silently. The landscape, the bazaar, the houses, were always the same, dream after dream. Almost as if it was a place that existed independently of me, and went on and on existing and existing in between the moments my dream self dropped in for a visit.

Now, by some great, cosmic trick, I’ve brought my waking body to the self-same Dream World. This impression lends the whole experience of India a certain sort of halfway déjà vu.

All of this, entirely novel, and already seen.

Of course, these twilight moments of deep introspection are punctuated regularly with the Hot, Sticky Reality of life in such a huge and beautiful and shambling and faraway and shockingly poor country. The lost rickshaw driver going in circles and circles while your stomach gurgles, waving off your pleas and your maps and your suggestions. The outrageous extravagance of the richest, most delicate vegetable masala you’ve ever tasted, buttery-soft on your tongue and served up at the edge of the glittering Arabian Sea by a smiling seasonal worker from Calcutta for a few shiny quarters. Long, angry rows of red ants marching over your bare feet, making your toes sting. Waking in the middle of the night with an overpowering sense of total disorientation and staring at the whir of the ceiling fan for a full minute before you manage to sort out your body’s location in the vast expanse of untried space.

Middle Earth, indeed. We struggle regularly to find just the right metaphor to describe our days and our nights here.

We say to each other: It’s like falling not so much off the map as to its underside, where everything is reversed and reversed again and upside down, too.

To make me laugh, Emily says: “India is like a tangy Pop Tart on my tongue.”

And we do laugh, because it makes no more or less sense than anything else.

Awhile back, a friend described the experience of negotiating reality in India as being squeezed through the cogs of some gigantic, rusty clock whose parts are lubricated with ghee.

“India always wins,” he warned me, when the plans for this trip were still loose and undecided.

Much of the time, traveling in India feels less like a battle, though, and more like a fumbling kind of waltz. One step to the front, then twelve steps back. And then maybe a couple more steps off to one side while you’re at it, until you’re less moving forward or backward than dancing in pretty, messy circles.

How does a person dance his or her way into the true heart of such an experience instead of merely fumbling gracelessly around its colorful perimeter? I’m not sure if it’s possible. At least not in four-and-a-half weeks, which is the amount of time we’ve got to spend here. It can’t be easy, at least. Maybe not even if you’ve got years and years at your disposal, as some of the leathery, sarong-draped hippies wandering these beaches appear to have allotted themselves.

Indians often talk about their dreams and wishes in terms of multiple lifetimes – a woman approaches us in a city market and laments that she’d love to visit our country someday.

“Maybe in my next life,” she says.

Perhaps we’d do well to take a similar cue. A week or four weeks or four years or four lifetimes might not be long enough to erase the pleasant but undeniable sense of surface floating that I’ve had since we landed at 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve a week ago. A year ago. A million lifetimes ago.

I’m buoyed by the persistence of those long-ago dreams and my niggling best intentions and hopes, my expectations and my wishes and my assumptions and my bafflement. It’s hard to dive deep with so much conspiring to keep you afloat. You just keep popping back up. A human-shaped cork, bobbing indecorously.

Recognizing this was hugely important for me, I think, because it’s stopped me from fumbling ridiculously at any kjnd of deep insight or Authentic Experience. We have no itinerary, no cherished outcomes, save our sloppily scratched out lists of “Goals.” On mine: ride on top of a train, see a tea plantation, ride an elephant. Etc.

Mostly, we’re just kind of letting the wave overtake us and carry us to whichever strange and untried shore it pleases. Yesterday, we washed up in Palolem, Goa, an improbably idyllic and beautiful little beach town on the Arabian Sea. Today, we’ll book a 14-hour train to Varakkalla and get an Ayurvedic massage. Tonight, we’ll take a boat out to a place called Butterfly Island to swim and look for dolphins. Tomorrow, we’ll learn to cook paneer dishes.

Several Indians I’ve met have expressed to me some version of the following sentiment: dirty, poor, tiny little brown naked kids grabbing at your ankles as you slog through the alleys of a bazaar that has stood in the same location for a thousand years is not the real India. Rich, aristocratic types strolling through Mumbai, arms laden with pure silver “jingly-janglies” is not the real India, either. Flashy Bollywood movie stars with barrel chests and teeth as big and white as Chiclets? Also not the real India. The real thing is something less visible, something tucked away and inaccessible to the casual and not-so-casual visitor.

So maybe the metaphor we’ve been grasping at the past week is right in front of our slightly sunbaked nose tips: You will not find a metaphor. And that’s the metaphor. Instead, you consent to setting out along the dusty road you dreamed into being so many years ago, come what may, to the bare and banged up feet you will use to wander it, to the lessons given in the moments in which you feel either completely and terrifyingly out to sea or as if you have finally picked up the scent of the Real Path again after years of wandering through wreckage and mean wilderness. And you open your hands every so often to gawk at the growing tangle of passing, offhand impressions you’ve collected that in their totality define this place, this moment: cows that cause traffic jams. Cigarettes that don’t stay lit. Frogs swimming in your toilet bowl. Million-watt sunsets. Power outages. Filthy money with pictures of Gandhi on it. A hand on your arm, pulling you into a darkened storefront you’d prefer not to be caught dead in. A man shitting leisurely on the side of the road at sunrise. The smell of Nag Champa and the reek of open sewer muscling for primacy in your wrinkled, protesting noseholes. Instant coffee packets and crumbling candy wrappers floating around the bottom of your daypack. All of it.

A week of revelations, for sure.

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