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How I Love and Hate India

“I love India…” the soft-spoken Englishman said over his breakfast of toast and tea. He hunched his shoulders and leaned forward, as if he was about to share a dark secret, and softened his voice even more. “…but sometimes, I hate it.” The intensity of his voice belied the pull of a smile on his lips. And then he excused himself, leaving his words behind him like boxers in a ring, waiting for the ding of the bell so they can get on with things and punch each other out.

This was my first conversation, on my first day, in Kolkata. The memory lives in my mind like a picture in a scrapbook, the kind of photo that’s tattered and worn and covered with fingerprints from repeated visits… quests to discover the essence of something that evades understanding.

On this morning, the air was hot and still and wet, like steaming vapor that hovers above water just before it boils. I arrived the night before, bleary-eyed from 30 hours of travel to India from San Francisco and as I stepped out from the airport, I found the night was alive, pulsing, frenetic – a perverse carnival scene from the window of the cab. The buzz of mosquitoes, a cacophony of honking horns, an endless sea of moving vehicles, a shifting mass of people, shadows lurking in the dark, jagged rooflines of decrepit buildings, air thick with the smell of diesel and plumes of smoke, rat-sized cockroaches emerging from open sewers, children in rags with their faces pressed against the car’s window.

In the darkness, the city had the appearance of a recovering war zone, a stark contrast to the quiet of the bright morning and the sanctuary of the hotel where I met the Englishman, with the chirrup of birds nesting in the hotel’s eaves and the soft whisper of the waiter’s hands, clad in white gloves, as he removed plates and cutlery from the table.

His words didn’t surprise me; I read about the emotional puzzle of India before I arrived. I knew it would be a challenging country. It’s the kind of place that can put a pause in a conversation and elicit a look of awe and dread at the mere mention of its name.  It’s the kind of place that can make the most seasoned travelers timid; they save it for ‘last’ or ‘next time’.  They wonder if they are ready.  Those who have been there are considered experienced. And all of them claim the Englishman’s sentiment as their own. Some say, “I loved India – leaving it, that is… the rest of the time, I hated it.” Others can’t wait to go back. “India is a special place,” they declare with the kind of smile reserved for members of a secret club.

I’ve fiddled with the memory of that first morning, trying to understand the love-hate conflict known as India. When I was there, I couldn’t wait to escape. Now that I’m gone, I long to go back. But memories are magical; the good ones temper the bad… distance becomes a filter. Experiences become fragmented. This is how India lives in my mind, a kaleidoscope of shifting scenes and emotions: beauty and blight, happiness and despair, loathing and love, admiration and pity… all of the things that make you feel alive; and all of these struggle to live together, a schizophrenic monster held captive in my heart and in my head. But it’s fitting that I should struggle with such incongruities. India is a place that defines the word struggle. And here, struggle goes beyond the edge: the struggle becomes internal – a battle between the best and the worst within yourself.

I became a person I did not recognize: callous, coldhearted, suspicious. I built a shield against the louts, the touts, the beggars, and the chaos. I’d once been a person of immense trust, but in India I became skeptical. I’d once been a person of compassion, but in India I became heartless, ignoring the outstretched hands of lepers and the pleas of desperate mothers and the tears of wretched street urchins. I turned a deaf ear to children begging, “Auntie, please, no mama – no papa – no food,” and turned a blind eye to old men sitting on the curb, palms outstretched, begging for a banknote which they had no fingers to grasp. I paid no heed to calls of greeting from the roadside; I sneered, I jeered, I scowled.

But it was essential to survive… to make my way down a street without being mobbed upon the glint of a coin; to maintain the sanity that comes with a restful mind; to avoid unmerciful swindlers and scheming merchants and aggressive touts and fraudulent friendliness and the perverse catcalls of macho men. I hated myself for it and I hated India for making me that way. At night, in the safety of my hotel room, I beat my fists into my pillow and cursed India and all her people and I asked my reflection in the mirror, “What is there to love about this fucking place?”

But now that I’m gone from there, now that I’ve had my time out and counted to 10, I can see the beauty of India. For all of its challenges and tragedy, there is magic in the chaos and clamor. And it is foreign ­– outlandish, exotic, and thrilling… It’s the reason I travel in the first place – to find myself straddling unease and excitement – walking, wide-eyed, through the unknown. Traveling to India, you feel like you’ve gone someplace. Finally I can see clearly the things, the reasons, to love this riotous and idiosyncratic and mystical place.

It’s the amber-eyed men with coiled snakes in wicker baskets; opulent palaces with turrets and flags and glittering rooms; mustachioed men in giant turbans and pointy-toed shoes; mysterious women who jingle when they walk, with gold ornaments against dark skin and hennaed designs on fingertips and toes, vivid silk saris and bare, brown midriffs. It’s the crush of a crowd boarding busses and trains. It’s the bustling markets and burlap bags overflowing with colorful spice; lush coconut palms and dry desert sands; scalloped archways and carved screens; fortresses and sandstone and antique cannons; men with urns of chai in carts; monkeys that scamper along telephone wires; women stringing colorful flowers on thread.

And the sounds! The Baliwood soundtracks and Bhangra beat; raucous brass bands escorting newlyweds and revelers through city streets; a concert of merchants calling out their wares, horns beeping, cows mooing, and throughout the day: the wailing muezzin’s call to prayer, the thump-de-thump of drums, the ever present sound of singing lips, the daily tap-tap-tap on the microphone’s head with the tentative start of a guru’s speech, “Hello? Hello?” And the smells! Sweet incense wafting in stale air; spicy scents of curried mutton and chicken; hot oil and lilacs and spiced tea. And a million far-out gods and mystic fables; sadhus in orange robes with smoldering pipes of marijuana in hand; pilgrims that bathe on the banks of sacred rivers; Brahmins in white standing in the shadows of multi-colored temples.

The reels whir on and on with all the swirling and spinning and pell-mell memories – snippets of everyday India – so action-packed and loud and bizarre… so different and unique and so unlike other any other place I have ever been. And this, this is why I love India. It is never dull – never monotonous or bland, lifeless or humdrum. And the excitement of it all, the pure manic thrill of simply standing on a street amidst all of the commotion, drowns out the morose feelings of helplessness, futility, and despair that come, hand in hand, with a journey through India. Indeed, it is a special place – a puzzle, a challenge, a mental rollercoaster ride. And I have finally come to understand the Englishman’s words, though I might say, “I hate India… but sometimes, I love it.”




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© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan