The hustle & bustle in India

LAST STOP

The first instinct of many a foreign visitor to any large Indian city is to about turn and head straight back into the railway station and take the first train out. The typical sub-continental chaos can knock some for six and simply overwhelm. But if people are prepared to give things a chance, they just may end up staying for a while. I got off the train many years ago and never really got back on.

Dusk is probably the best time for visitors to get acquainted with urban India, when each minute experience becomes more pronounced. A cloak of darkness gathers and anticipation prevails. The aroma of freshly cooked food hangs in the air. Women shop and cows munch. Dhabas bustle and chai shops steam. Firecrackers explode, and a thousand vehicle horns almost drown out the call to prayers from a nearby mosque. And through the choking traffic fumes, women in colourful saris sell bright yellow marigolds and sweet smelling jasmine.

Boys play cricket in the back streets, and children fly kites from rooftops. Intricately drawn kolams at the entrances to homes fade in the dark, and both young and old stop to offer a prayer at a street side shrine. Someone asks, “Which country?” as they pass. In response to the answer, the person smiles, gives a head wobble, and continues on his way, content in the knowledge he has ‘met’ a foreign visitor. And the visitor may go on their way, inspired by the cramped disorder of city life and more than happy to be there.

Those temples to consumerism, the ubiquitous shopping malls, jostle for space among the million concrete box type buildings that spill across the landscape, and trendy high rise blocks tower over urban shantytowns, where people live next to stinking rivers in flimsy, makeshift huts. Pass by an up-market restaurant. Seconds later, see a street dweller eating rice and sambar from a banana leaf on the pavement. A young man wearing the latest fashion in jeans and T-shirt says ‘Hello’. The next day you notice he has had his head shaved after visiting an auspicious temple. Nothing is ever what it seems. Incongruity is the essence of modern India.

For many foreign visitors, the extremities are part of India’s charm. Visit a temple and soak up thousands of years of tradition, then catch MTV India with a seductive presenter who looks like she’s walked straight out of a beach in California. Rub shoulders with impeccably dressed computer-savvy young men with college degrees, and then glance across the road to see generations of the same family living on the street. Notice the subtle shades of the night, then gaze upwards and become dazzled by garish billboards advertising the latest movie blockbuster.

These vivid expressions of India can be challenging to those more used to the somewhat genteel subtleties of the West. When travelling, we sometimes begin by laughing at what we regard as the follies of a culture that is shockingly different to our own, before gradually embracing that culture. And as we embrace it, in a psychological sense, we begin to move towards somewhere completely different from where we started out. Usually, that new state of mind is a better place compared to where we began and much closer to the mindset of the people whose country we happen to be visiting.

There is a well-worn saying: “You can’t change India, India changes you.” It is well-worn for a reason because too many first-time visitors mock what they see before them and want everything to be the same as it is back home. Call it a symptom of culture shock or the unwillingness to accept difference, but for those people, their trip will be a dead-end journey, and they will take the first train out.

For others, however, things will be different. India will draw them back time and time again. And when it begins to do so, from that moment on, things can never be the same. At that point, those people will at last be in that better place compared to where they originally were. Their journey will be complete. They will have finally left the train, and they may perhaps never get back on.

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